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The education of Jarrett Barrios
The second Latino and first openly gay man elected to the State House has won applause from a wide range of pundits, but a series of behind-the-scenes flaps have put him at odds with some of his political allies


AUTOCRATIC HOUSE SPEAKER Tom Finneran rules his chamber with an iron fist, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the 15 years that have passed since Tommy McGee was forced from leadership. During Finneran’s five-year reign as Speaker, only a handful of legislators have managed to distinguish themselves from the pack: John Rogers of Norwood, who was recently named "Legislator of the Year" by the Massachusetts Bar Association; Salvatore DiMasi of the North End, who serves as the House majority leader; and, oddly enough, Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge. Rogers and DiMasi have a few things in common: they’re both close lieutenants of Finneran’s, and they’re no friends of progressives — Rogers, in fact, has sponsored a bill that would bar gay and lesbian couples from marrying. Barrios, by contrast, is an openly gay Latino who counts among his pet causes a living wage for human-services workers, Clean Elections, funding for bilingual education, and domestic-partnership benefits for gay municipal workers.

Despite his liberal convictions and his lack of seniority (Barrios was first elected to the 28th Middlesex District seat in 1998), he has enjoyed more visibility and influence than many of his veteran colleagues. Take, for instance, Jay Kaufman of Lexington, a member of the tried-and-true Beacon Hill progressives, who routinely scores 100 percent ratings from the Citizens for Participation in Public Action (CPPAX). Barrios, by contrast, has managed that feat just once in three years. Although the scores for 2001 are still incomplete, Barrios has thus far bested three out of a possible five progressive test votes; in 2000, he won a 100 percent rating, and in 1999 he earned 78 percent. Yet Barrios is the progressive who can stir advocates and excite voters.

Former Jamaica Plain representative John McDonough served on Beacon Hill from 1985 to 1997, when he and politicians like Marjorie Clapprood, Nick Paleologos, and Michael Barrett were viewed as bright up-and-comers. He counts Barrios among the few rising stars these days — despite what he calls "the tightly controlled culture" in the House. Says McDonough, "It’s more challenging for rank and filers to create personas. Jarrett is one of the few who has been able to stand out."

Clearly, Barrios is a talent to watch. Next year, he’s expected to run for state senate in the Middlesex, Suffolk, and Essex District — the seat currently occupied by Senate president Tom Birmingham. Although Barrios won’t make it official until Birmingham declares he’s giving up his seat to run for governor, he’s lined up his first fundraiser this month. Says Barrios, "I no longer feel I can be principled and effective in the House." The prospective open seat has attracted a handful of candidates: Eugene O’Flaherty, the state representative from Charlestown, and Carlo DeMaria, a 28-year-old alderman from Everett who owns a Honey Dew Donuts franchise in Revere. In that race, there’s no doubt that Barrios would be the choice of most progressives. But a series of behind-the-scenes flaps suggests that the 33-year-old backbencher may find the ascent to the next rung on the legislative ladder rougher in political back rooms than out among the electorate.

THE ROAD Barrios traveled to the State House is an unusual one. He grew up in Tampa, Florida, where his Cuban-immigrant grandparents rolled cigars in a factory. His father was a carpenter; his mother, a social worker. As a boy, he dreamed of life beyond his working-class neighborhood. He found solace in the library, where he devoured books. In 1986, at age 17, his academic record won him a scholarship from Harvard University. The Ivy League school opened up a new world for Barrios, who admits he "had a tough couple years" getting used to Cambridge. Eventually, he warmed up to the city — which, while some 1400 miles from Tampa, might have been a million miles away, considering the difference between his two worlds.

He finally found his footing when he threw himself into campus activism. He volunteered at local teen and homeless shelters. He served as a political intern to former Boston city councilor David Scondras. He worked on the campaigns of progressive politicians such as Scondras and former Boston city councilor Rosario Salerno. He went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown Law School, after which he returned to the Boston political scene in 1995. Three years later, he set his sights on the 28th Middlesex District. The rest, of course, is history. In the words of Gary Dotterman, a former Scondras aide who acted as mentor to Barrios in the late 1980s, "Jarrett is a person from modest means who has accomplished something."

It’s not hard to see how Barrios has accomplished so much so quickly. In 1998, when the then-29-year-old took on five-term House incumbent Alvin Thompson and three other challengers in a fight for the House seat representing the area from Harvard Square to Cambridgeport to the neighborhoods along Columbia and Prospect Streets, few gave him a chance to succeed. But he soon became the talk of city pundits, who marveled that the political novice could pull off such a brilliant campaign. "Jarrett was everywhere," recalls Geneva Malenfant, a long-time observer who backed rival Dennis Benzan before becoming a Barrios fan. "He sealed his reputation as hard-working and aggressive." Some even quipped that he’d rung more doorbells than an Amway salesman.

Barrios had come to the race with an impressive pedigree: Harvard, Georgetown, and a choice job at the Boston law firm of Hill & Barlow. He had another important asset, both personal and professional — his life partner, Doug Hattaway. Hattaway, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and, before that, a press secretary for former vice-president Al Gore’s presidential campaign, is a powerful figure in the Democratic Party. These connections paid dividends for Barrios, who raised $75,000 in campaign contributions for his race, far exceeding the $21,000 in donations received by the average first-time candidate who's challenging an incumbent, according to the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project. Most important were the district residents, who awarded him 49 percent of the vote in the September 1998 primary, all but assuring his victory.

His street skills are formidable, too — as displayed recently at the Faith Lutheran Church on Broadway Street in Cambridge. Barrios, sharply dressed in a crisp shirt and checked blazer buttoned at the waist, had arrived to give a speech to a local senior-citizens group. After a glowing introduction from the group president, he took center stage. Tall, trim, and brimming with energy, he spoke in a calm tone. He joked that he’d come to talk about "something you’re not supposed to talk about in public" — by which he meant politics, specifically the political skirmish over the 2002 budget. Barrios told the crowd that he hails from a family of "Roosevelt Democrats" who believe government exists to help the needy. To him, the current fiscal crisis is painful. As he continued — ticking off the programs that "bring decency to the lives of our most vulnerable" yet face the loss of millions of dollars in cuts — his voice rose. He leaned over the microphone and punctuated his words with jabs to the podium. Spectators were sitting up in their chairs. Some lurched forward, as if hanging on his every word.

When he finished, Barrios was surrounded by one audience member after another, most of whom congratulated him on a job well done. One woman with coifed hair and big glasses told him how much she’d enjoyed listening to him: "You’re very charismatic," she said with a smile. Another woman held out her frail hand and said she’d been a supporter from the moment he had knocked on her door. "You’re the only politician who came to my house," she said. "I’m impressed."

Several hours before the cozy event at the Faith Lutheran Church, Barrios had pulled together a press conference to highlight state-budget cuts — particularly, the cuts in programs that Governor Jane Swift recommended despite the no-cuts-in-services promise she had trumpeted when pushing for the income-tax rollback last year. The event was staged as part of the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s "shadow government initiative," which is designed to draw attention to the differences between the Republican administration and the Democratic legislature. Under the effort, Barrios, the initiative’s policy chair, has been spotted across the state, criticizing Swift’s poor decisions. On this day, he did not appear before the cameras. But he worked the crowd — approaching reporters, whispering in their ears, offering his two cents, and standing amid the throng long after the lights had dimmed.

Though much of Barrios’s skill before a crowd or camera can be attributed to raw political talent, he has had a superior tutor in Hattaway. Last year’s WGBH-TV La Plaza special "Freshman Year on Beacon Hill," a 30-minute documentary on Barrios’s legislative baptism, offers a rare glimpse of Barrios’s long-time partner as image-maker. Barrios is seen fine-tuning the language of a bill over breakfast with Hattaway, who offers advice on how to "put the issue in context" and "get in the newspapers." Observes McDonough, who now teaches health-care policy at Brandeis University, "Jarrett is very media savvy. He knows how to act in ways that draw attention — and the cameras love him."

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Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001

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