Behind Worcester's candidates: Supporters saw inclusive leaders in political newcomers – Worcester Telegram

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WORCESTER — Richard Boateng said that he first heard of Etel Haxhiaj when he brought his West African restaurant Anokye Krom to Coes Square and heard of the work Haxhiaj had been doing in the neighborhood.
He said that City Council candidate Haxhiaj’s commitment to District 5 and in bringing federal money to projects in the district was a key selling point for him.  
“She wants to make sure that her district has part of the federal cake,” Boateng said.
Boateng informed patrons of his restaurant about Haxhiaj and her investment in developing the community in her district. When she won, Boateng said he expected her to come out victorious and her victory party was held at Anokye Krom.   
“Everyone was happy, it was a night to remember,” Boateng said.
This month’s municipal elections brought several new faces to Worcester’s City Council and school boards, and behind those candidates were supporters and organizers who believed in their candidates and in a more inclusive city.
In the Nov. 2 municipal election, five new candidates were elected to public office, two to the City Council and three to the School Committee. On the City Council, Thu Nguyen was elected to an at-large council seat and Haxhiaj was elected to the District 5 seat. The School Committee will feature new members Jermaine Johnson, Sue Coghlin Mailman and Jermoh Kamara.   
Some supporters and those who gave their time to candidates have long known the soon-to-be elected officials while others became aware of them through the campaign.
Ann Lisi, former president and CEO of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, has known Haxhiaj for many years through Haxhiaj’s work at the YWCA and other initiatives.
After retiring from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, Lisi said she has tried to remain active in the city and saw potential in the 2021 election, where multiple seats were open and she got involved with Haxhiaj’s campaign.
“I saw her as adding value because she cares about equality and asks, ‘Is this going to work for the most disadvantaged,’ ‘is this going to work for homebound poor seniors or young kids coming from other countries that are experiencing trauma,’ ” Lisi said. “She thinks about the vulnerable first and when you do that as a leader you’re probably going to make things better for everyone all up and down.”
Lisi helped manage fundraising for Haxhiaj’s campaign to support mailings and aided in debate and public speaking preparations.      
Meghan Rhondeau works with Johnson at the state Department of Children and Families and said she knew Johnson would be a good School Committee member who would dedicate his all to the position. 
“Jermaine is somebody that is a natural leader, so when he asked me to join his campaign and assist him with it I was actually really honored that he had come to me because I do look up to him greatly,” Rhondeau said. “To have that kind of mutual respect, I was honored. He is a natural leader here, he is a union steward in the office, he is very supportive of his coworkers and that really draws people to him.”
Rhondeau had been a team member on Johnson’s campaign since he started running. She said her role included gathering volunteers, door-knocking and social media.  
Johnson’s campaign planks on youth programming and social-emotional support for students were pillars that Rhondeau believes will be beneficial to Worcester Public Schools.  
“He has that firsthand knowledge and sees the direct impact that youth programming has on these kids, especially at-risk youth,” Rhondeau said.
After months of campaigning, Johnson’s team was confident that they were going to place in the top six candidates, Rhondeau said. Johnson was the top vote-getter after votes were tallied.   
Sarah Callinan said she typically did not pay much attention to local elections and usually just voted for candidates that she knew, but decided to this year amid the growing controversies that school boards across the country are facing on COVID-19 protocols.
“I realized how important local elections are and how much more of an immediate effect they have on our lives then whatever Congress is or isn’t doing,” Callinan said. 
Shortly before the election, Callinan downloaded her ballot and began to look up the candidates, and she was impressed with Johnson’s website and stated priorities, including addressing student mental health and safety. Furthermore, Johnson’s focus on supporting arts resonated with Callinan, a music teacher at Worcester’s Joy of Music Program.   
James Leo Bedard, a one-time City Council candidate and member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, said he was immediately onboard with Mailman’s campaign because he said Mailman has a good track record and is attuned to the needs of students. 
“Sue deeply understands students’ need for support from last year’s impact on their learning and social development,” Bedard said. “Sue has an excellent track record of service to city residents through her work on many boards and a clear vision for how Worcester public schools must focus on the future success of our kids in a rapidly changing job environment.”   
The candidates also bring new diversity to city government. Haxhiaj will be the first Albanian refugee and the first Muslim to serve on the City Council. Nguyen will be the first Southeast Asian American and also the first nonbinary member of the council. Nguyen uses the pronouns them, their and they. Johnson will be the first Black man to serve on the School Committee and Kamara will be the first African-born member. City politics observers also believe the election results will strengthen the progressive faction of city government.
Some supporters of the newcomers’ campaign said they felt their candidate would work for a more inclusive city.
Seventeen-year-old Ora Ming Lin had never been involved in city politics before reading a mailer about Nguyen’s campaign and being impressed by the “intersectionality” of Nguyen’s identity as a Vietnamese immigrant and a nonbinary person. Lin is part-Taiwanese and is also nonbinary, using the pronouns them, their and they. Nguyen also seemed like an accessible person who would center listening to their constituents over furthering a specific agenda, Lin said.  
“I was not expecting to see that kind of representation in local government at all,” Lin said. “So seeing that, I thought was really exciting and I reached out to them and asked if they wanted to work with me to make an ad.”
Lin helped Nguyen with their campaign video, which Lin said was a change of pace for them as a video producer, being more used to producing personal YouTube videos. The amount of views that Nguyen’s video received over the course of the campaign gave Lin confidence that Nguyen would emerge victorious. 
Being a part of a winning campaign felt “empowering” to Lin and helped give them a taste for local politics. They plan to stay more involved in city government and learn more about the School Committee. 
“I’ve been interested in politics for a little while now, but it’s always been far away in D.C.,” Lin said. “To actually talk to people who are going to potentially have power in your local government, that was really cool to see and really brought it into real life for me.”
Marianna Islam first got in touch with Nguyen last summer over bringing attention to issues that mattered to both of them and through Nguyen’s work with Mutual Aid Worcester. Nguyen later got in touch with Islam, who managed Linda Parham’s 2015 campaign for at-large city councilor, for advice about running for office. 
“I’m just someone who asks a Facebook group how to get my road repaired because I didn’t want to use connections to get it fixed. I’m someone who wants my government to work for us, and I feel like that’s what Thu offered in their campaign.”   
Islam served on the “kitchen cabinet” of Nguyen’s campaign. Her role included managing relationships for the campaign, fundraising and organized care for those working on behalf of Nguyen. Islam said Nguyen’s team tried to have political success while maintaining the integrity of its participants. 
“What we asked ourselves is how do we do this and maintain our integrity and how do we do this while really showing up with love and care and developing trust,” Islam said.
The campaign worked to get voters to understand Nguyen’s nonbinary identity and their connections to Worcester residents, especially with youth development, Islam said.  
After Nguyen’s victory, Islam said that the future city councilor will spend the days before their swearing in talking to communities to hear their concerns and wants from city government.  
As the newcomers prepare to be sworn into office for two-year terms, their supporters say that they are optimistic that they will work to better the city and respond to the needs of a changing Worcester. 
Along with being satisfied with the School Committee results, Callinan said she was happy to see Nguyen’s victory and believes the handily re-elected Mayor Joseph M. Petty has been doing great work for the city. 
“I think that Worcester is on a really good trajectory, I’m optimistic that the city is making a real turnaround in a more permanent way,” Callinan said.
Rhondeau said she felt a sense of relief when she saw the election results and the new diversity in city government. 
“The city of Worcester obviously wanted a change for how things are going currently, and there are going to get that change with who is getting elected,” Rhondeau said.
Bedard is hopeful that city policies can better benefit families and students in need of help with the new elected officials.
“I think we have a brilliant opportunity for positive change during this next term because our newly elected candidates truly represent the tapestry of our entire community,” Bedard said. “Specifically, I’m hoping to see policy shifted towards the benefit of working families and students who need extra supports.”
Boateng said the city will continue to improve as it moves from the COVID-19 pandemic. 
“When you look at how things have been rough with the pandemic, saying things have been really bad with some of the small businesses and you look at Etel and some of this new crop that is onboard, we believe things are going to go from good to better,” Boateng said. 
Islam said that there is still work to be done with city government and that community listening events should be a priority for the elected officials.

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