SO DO progressive activists. "Jarrett has given this campaign seeds of support," says Rick Colbath-Hess of Mass SERVE, of the effort to raise the wages of human-services workers. "He’s one of a handful of legislators who advocate strongly for human services." Mark Merante, a long-time Boston gay activist who serves on the Democratic State Committee, says Barrios is responsible for blocking John Rogers’s bill to bar gay couples from marrying. "The measure is stalled and Jarrett can claim credit," he notes. And Jose Duran, a veteran Latino advocate in Boston, counts Barrios’s efforts to push through legislation for interpreter services in hospital emergency rooms and to form the Latino political group ¿Oiste? (Spanish for "Have you heard?") among his greatest accomplishments. Says Duran, "Jarrett is widely seen as an emerging Latino leader and a mobilizer of others beyond his own district."
Yet there are three instances where Barrios has seemingly compromised his generally sterling progressive credentials to, if not stay on Speaker Finneran’s good side, at least not alienate him. Last December, for instance, Barrios ruffled the feathers of a handful of hard-core Democratic progressives when he voted to repeal the term limit that would have ended Finneran’s reign as House Speaker in 2004. Advocates had urged Barrios and other Democratic legislators to keep the eight-year term limit on the House Speakership to ensure a more open and democratic institution than exists today. Ken White of Common Cause, a Boston-based advocacy group, admits that he and his colleagues were disheartened by Barrios’s vote. "We felt a vote for repealing the term limit was a vote against representative democracy and the interests of constituents," he says. "We were disappointed with all the legislators who voted that way."
Barrios, for his part, has described his decision as anything but anti-democratic. In a December 11, 2000, interview with the Phoenix, he said: "Term limits are not the proper response to our frustrations with an undemocratic institution if our goal is to promote lasting democratic change. Defending vigorously our Clean Elections Law is. So is using the elected office as a bully pulpit to inspire voters to participate both in electoral and legislative efforts. There are countless other means of bringing more change agents to the table. But not term limits." One Democratic legislator and House colleague, however, offers another explanation: "Only 15 Democrats were willing to stand up and say we will not tolerate the Speaker’s control. Jarrett doesn’t join us on the reform issues because he knows it makes the Speaker mad."
Another example: his work on the Clean Elections Law, which, as he himself notes, must be defended "vigorously." Earlier this year, Barrios and nine other legislators spent months hashing out various proposals to make the Clean Elections Law more palatable to the House leadership, which has refused to fund the 1998 law despite its overwhelming passage by voters. Barrios — who has espoused the law from podiums and urged his fellow House members to sign pledge cards to maintain its integrity — had pushed for an amendment that, according to one legislator involved in the group, "would have caused our work to go down the tubes." Barrios argued the law should allow candidates to collect what’s known as "qualifying contributions" not just from registered voters, but from any district resident — including those who cannot legally vote.
The move makes sense in light of Barrios’s immigrant constituency — many of whom cannot cast a ballot. But campaign-finance reform is one of those embattled issues for which only the simplest set of provisions will get through. Letting people who are legally barred from voting participate in such a significant way in the democratic process, however, is not one of them. Some of his fellow legislators, frustrated with Barrios’s action, describe his provision as a poison pill. "It ran completely counter to what the true supporters of Clean Elections are trying to do — which is to make the system more open and accountable," one House member explains. "It was clear to me that Jarrett had no intention of supporting the law. He was just using Clean Elections for whatever political mileage he can get from it for his future ambitions."
Barrios disagrees that his proposal would have compromised the Clean Elections legislation. In his estimation, it fits perfectly with the premise of the law. "The purpose of Clean Elections is to open the process to as many people as possible by inviting folks to participate," he says. His provision, he adds, "is about making Clean Elections work for all of us, including immigrant communities."
Perhaps Barrios has a case to make with his amendment — at least in theory. David Donnelly, who heads the Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections and participated in last spring’s discussions with legislators, says that such a provision might make "good enough policy sense" because it aims to open up the campaign-finance system to those who’ve long been disenfranchised. But he agrees with those House members who see the amendment as a political risk: "If we ever got to a point where this law would be funded, opponents would certainly seize on it."
A similar complaint can be heard among gay activists who have worked with Barrios and four other representatives — Alice Wolf of Cambridge, Liz Malia of Jamaica Plain, Paul Demakis of Back Bay, and Byron Rushing of the South End — to advance a measure that would provide domestic-partnership benefits to state employees. (It should be noted that Wolf, like Barrios, voted to repeal the term-limits provision that would have removed Finneran. Malia failed to cast a vote.)
One advocate involved in the group cannot forget the time that Barrios had urged the group to consider a compromise meant to win over Finneran, who has long opposed the bill. Finneran had suggested that he’d back broadening the definition of domestic partners to include any blood relatives who live in the same household, such as two brothers. "We could see this as the snake oil that it was," the advocate recalls. Yet despite the consensus, the advocate adds, "Jarrett" — the only gay man among the legislators — "broke ranks and started talking with the Speaker about it."
Barrios contends that he has not lobbied "explicitly" for the broader definition. But he acknowledges that he’s debated the notion. And he says he would advance such a proposal if he had a commitment from Finneran. Explains Barrios, "Where we have assurances from the House leadership to pass a bill that’s veto-proof and that includes what we’re there to get," — i.e., shared health benefits for gay and lesbian couples — "then I’m not concerned if we also lift up other uninsured people." To him, the result would not be a compromise, but rather a coup. He adds, "I’m not concerned about just me and mine, but all those who are left out of government’s munificence."
As with the Clean Elections Law, the domestic-partnership bill is another hot-button issue whose best chance of success is to remain simple. In 1999, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reluctantly struck down Boston’s domestic-partnership ordinance. Yet in doing so, the state’s highest court laid out a road map for legislators to amend the state’s insurance regulations to make such laws possible. Those who favor this approach agree that proposals like the one floated by Barrios amount to a disingenuous attempt to sink it. Vincent McCarthy, an influential corporate lawyer and gay activist, points out that cost has long been a bone of contention among bill opponents. Broadening the definition would make it more expensive — and politically untenable. It would also diminish what’s at stake with these benefits — the recognition that homosexual partnerships are equal to heterosexual marriages. Says McCarthy, "It’s just a subterfuge for further delaying the passage of this bill." And it’s a tactic that Barrios should have known better than to support. In the words of Jeremy Pittman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, "Jarrett is a smart man. He is fully aware of arguments for and against the domestic-partnership bill. In the end, though, he is also a politician."
THESE SORTS of behind-the-scenes machinations puzzle those who would otherwise be Barrios’s natural allies. When asked to respond to criticisms about his seeming willingness to compromise his principles, Barrios gets defensive even as he explains his positions. Leaning forward, and visibly angry, he says: "I’m going to let lie unattributed attacks and say I learned long ago I am far from perfect. But even we imperfects can make a difference." He adds, "I try to adhere to my principles and be effective. I am most proud that I’ve managed to survive the House with my principles intact."
A political hired gun who works with liberals, and who has supported Barrios with cash in the past and plans on contributing to him in the future, nevertheless says that Barrios is "too thin-skinned for someone so ambitious." The observer adds that, surprisingly, "for someone who can be so sensitive, he can be curiously unaware of the effects he’s having on others when it’s negative."
This dynamic came into play last year when Barrios ran for election as an Eighth Congressional District delegate to the 2000 National Democratic Convention. He negotiated for weeks with Boston mayor Tom Menino — actually sitting down with the mayor once — to join three other politicos on an all-minority ticket, according to Menino aide Howard Liebowitz. At the same time, Barbara Hoffman, a lesbian activist who’s been involved in local political battles for decades and was a sentimental favorite as a delegate choice for many gay activists, was also waging her campaign. Then again, "campaign" is not an entirely accurate description of the delegate-selection process, which is more of a popularity contest — indeed, the more backers a candidate brings out, the better his or her chance to win. On the day of the caucus, Hoffman asked Barrios — and thus the 300 people he’d mobilized — to support her. Rather than back Hoffman, who’d only brought out a dozen backers, he and his posse threw their support behind the female candidates on Menino’s slate.
Other gay activists who witnessed the move were stunned. Hoffman, after all, helped introduce Barrios to gay politics in the late 1980s and later donated to his House races. Joe Beckman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, on whose board Hoffman serves, sums up the sentiment when he says people "expected Jarrett to vote for Barbara as one of the founders of gay rights. We were astonished that he’d support her opponents in attempt to curry favor with Menino." Another gay advocate, who has worked with Barrios on gay issues since the late 1980s, confides that the move made him "lose all respect for Jarrett." Adds the activist, who asked to remain anonymous because of his affiliation with the Democratic State Committee, on which Barrios sits, "Everybody has his Achilles heel. Jarrett’s imperfection is that his ambition gets in the way of his principles."
In the grand scheme, Barrios’s politicking at the caucus — even at the expense of an old-time advocate like Hoffman, who, in all fairness, may have paid her dues but whose most influential days are behind her — is no big deal. His actions do show a certain tone-deafness that’s unexpected in a pol as savvy as Barrios; but given his past success, no one should have been terribly surprised when he dominated the event with his supporters and arranged a ticket to the convention for himself.
What is surprising is how defensive Barrios gets when asked about the incident. When the Phoenix first queried him about his decision not to support Hoffman, he dismissed its significance, explaining, "I was never asked, nor did I ever agree to support Barbara Hoffman as a delegate." But just one day later, after calling Hoffman, Barrios offered the Phoenix additional comment. He had contacted Hoffman several weeks before the caucus to solicit support for his candidacy, he said, and, at the time, "she indicated that she had put in her name to be a delegate but wasn’t planning to campaign." Yet at the caucus, he was approached by Hoffman. By then, however, he had already committed his support to the three others on the mayor’s slate. "Had I known that she was campaigning," he added, "it would have affected my decision." In retrospect, he said, he’s learned that his intense run to be a delegate wasn’t worth it: "The convention was a big party. To run, I had to say no to good people, and I didn’t like being in that position." Avi Green, who managed Barrios’s 1998 campaign and who made "hundreds of calls" to bring out supporters to the caucus, agrees: "If Barbara had run a real campaign, we would have thought more seriously about what to do about it."
When the Phoenix contacted Hoffman, she refused to discuss the incident. All she would say about Barrios is that "he was a brash brat when I met him and he still is."
Though Barrios tries to wax philosophic about the caucus flare-up ("All is fair game in politics"), it’s clear that the young pol is unaccustomed to being challenged. The political hired gun quoted above points out that Barrios "has a tendency to overreact to everything negative." Which is never a good thing in politics; as any smart politician knows, sometimes the best offense is simply not to get defensive.
Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001