By Natasha Ishak
Everyone loves a good underdog story. But as Judith Garcia, the daughter of Honduran immigrants and the youngest elected member on Chelsea’s City Council knows, being the underdog is less about a fairytale ending and more about the struggle to persevere.
Growing up in a financially broke Chelsea, Garcia, 26, longed to do something good for her city. By the time Garcia graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in urban planning, the city had transformed into a booming melting pot. It was no longer the dirty, gang-infested ghost of a community it once was, but Garcia believed there was still more to be done.
She eventually worked in the health care sector and public policy, where she encountered residents who would relay their concerns of increasing rental fees and inaccessible health insurance, among other growing problems.
She also started to become increasingly aware of the lack of age, gender or racial diversity in Chelsea’s top city boards and commissions. This was especially hard to comprehend, considering Chelsea’s population was 60 percent Latin American. Garcia knew something had to change.
It did change in 2015 when six Latin American candidates, Garcia included, ran for city council – all of whom eventually won challenged seats from an incumbent. Currently, six of the 11 council members are Latin American.
As “the new girl,” Garcia’s victory was the most shocking. Her bid for city council pushed forward a preliminary election – a first in 12 years – against sitting member Joseph Perlatonda and challenger, Henry D. Wilson, who had run several times before.
The young Latina won 48 percent of the vote, placing her in September primary elections against Wilson and knocking long-time incumbent Perlatonda out of the race. She went on to win the primary and was elected new council representative for District 5.
The district is important to the city because it has an abundance of local businesses, a local police precinct, several housing areas and one of the city’s public schools.
Not only young but also a female candidate of color, Garcia’s victory was not merely luck. She held on to one mantra when self-doubt crept in: “Voters and only voters determine the outcome of elections.” Garcia, an alumna of Emerge Massachusetts, said the lesson she learned in an intensive three-day boot camp directed by the organization helped remind her that the only thing that mattered was being a voice for the community.
Racial underrepresentation is not uncommon but it is alarmingly worse when examining the statistics on women of color elected officials. Data compiled by the Rutger’s Center for American Women and Politics shows that women of color only make up 22 percent of state legislators nationwide. When not accounting for race and gender, the percentage of women of color state legislators plummets down to 5.4 percent.
Studies show that things get complicated when gender and politics are mixed together.
“Women of color feel they do need to be more prepared to overcome the challenges for them to win,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, a researcher who has studied the intersection of gender, race and politics for nearly two decades.
For Garcia, she was fortunate to run as a candidate in an area where the demographic was mostly Latin American like she is. However, the culture of Latina America, Garcia noted, still maintains a lot of machismo – a strong masculine attitude that relegates women to more traditional gender roles. So, Garcia beefed up her game plan.
The young candidate went door-knocking to talk directly to residents about their concerns. After talking to 150 constituents, Garcia found the top issues for Chelsea residents were not what she expected.
“Sometimes we have the bad habit of assuming we know what people want, but we don’t listen,” Garcia said. “And I made my campaign about that, about listening.” She discovered residents’ three top concerns were housing, gentrification and littering.
“Much to my surprise, I thought education would be at the top of the list, but it wasn’t. Education was an issue that was important to one voter. I still know where he lives, he’s actually down at Bellingham Ave.”
Her grassroots campaign, tailor-made for her constituents, and her thoughtful strategics are what won Garcia the election.
Fanta said research for her latest book titled ‘Contested Transformation: Race, Gender and Political Leadership in 21st Century America’, revealed that most women of color elected to office come from higher-level backgrounds. Most of the women Fanta’s team surveyed were college-educated, had prestigious professional careers and were most likely unmarried – the opposite of their male counterparts, or men of color who are elected officials. This could mean that women of color must have a better starting line in order to succeed as candidates. The only denominator that these women fared less in was income which might be related to the gender wage gap (though Fanta could not confirm this).
Watch: Councilwoman Judith Garcia shares how she overcame the ‘double bind’ of her gender and race to win the elections, the Latina Circle that helped make her campaign a reality and her advice for women planning to run for public office.
Fanta’s study revealed men of color feel they are at far more of a disadvantage than women of color to win an election, possibly because candidates who are women of color are less threatening than the men. And the differences in challenges faced between elected officials with variations of gender and race are incomparable. For example, the challenges faced by Latin American men elected officials were different than Asian women elected officials.
Though more research needs to be done in this field, Fanta’s new book presented a lot of new important data – the first of its kind in the country – on the intersection of gender, race and politics. But one fact was clear: women of color are fighting for women’s seat at the table.
Take today’s Congress. With 38 women of color elected to the U.S. Congress this year, it is perhaps the most diverse the federal legislative branch has been in decades.
This year was notable for a number of firsts, too. Cortez Masto, who won an open Nevada Senate seat, became the nation’s first Latina senator. Kamala Harris is the first Indian American to serve in the U.S. Senate. Lisa Blunt Rochester is serving as the first African-American woman in Congress from Delaware. And finally, Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese-American Democrat knocked out incumbent Rep. John L. Mica in Florida for her Congressional first. The numbers are still low, but the future for women of color in politics in some ways seems hopeful.
“If it weren’t for women of color elected officials, our government would be more male and more white,” Fanta said.