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The education of Jarrett Barrios


THAT LESSON is one that Barrios could have used to see him through the recent House redistricting, during which his 28th Middlesex District was eviscerated. It’s well-known among House insiders that Finneran, in redrawing the legislative map, did not want to lose any seats in Boston. Moreover, one of his goals was to maximize minority representation. From the start, Barrios’s district was vulnerable despite the fact that it’s sent a minority representative to Beacon Hill in every election over the past 25 years. That’s because the 28th Middlesex, according to the 2000 Census figures used for redistricting, is overwhelmingly white: 81 percent, and only 19 percent black and Latino.

Nevertheless, some observers say that Barrios’s role in the redistricting mess, which has enraged some Cambridge politicians and activists, including City Councilor Ken Reeves and former state representative Saundra Graham, demonstrates his tendency to do one thing outside the public eye and say quite another when in the spotlight. It’s a common complaint about politicians, but for colleagues to express surprise at Barrios’s alleged duplicity is unusual, to say the least.

But first, some background: on October 18, when Finneran unveiled his original proposal to redraw district lines based on the 2000 Census, he set off an uprising. The plan had joined the districts of two liberal Democrats from Newton, Ruth Balser and Kay Khan, which would have forced them to vie for the same seat. They, in turn, launched a vigorous campaign to keep their districts.

The effort prompted the House leadership to allow a provision known as the Khan-Balser amendment, which restored the Newton districts by splintering the all-Cambridge seat held by Barrios. Under this redistricting proposal, the number of House seats that include Cambridge rises from four to six, with only one — that of Representative Wolf — entirely in the city. After a heated October 22 debate on the House floor — during which Barrios unsuccessfully put forth a last-minute proposal to salvage parts of his district — the House approved the revised map. The only unexpected result of the entire imbroglio was how much support the Khan-Balser amendment garnered. The House leadership, in particular, was taken off guard. The loss of Barrios’s district, however, was almost a foregone conclusion.

To hear Barrios tell it, though, the loss of his district was a sudden blow that he couldn’t have anticipated — no matter how much he’d hinted at running for the Senate. He says he met three times last summer with Representative Tom Petrolati, who headed the House redistricting committee, and was assured that his seat would remain intact. As soon as he found out about the Khan-Balser amendment, he toiled to defend his district. Just days before the October 22 vote, he got a call from Finneran’s office warning that his seat might be carved up to retain the Newton districts. He says he called Khan and Balser, who later confirmed that it was an option. So on October 22, he mounted his 11th-hour campaign to save the minority influence in his old seat by uniting portions of it with the adjacent seat held by Representative Demakis. The effort ultimately failed.

Barrios has since railed against his colleagues. In an October 2001 letter to constituents, he called the final plan "a fiasco" that had left him "saddened and dismayed by the way our city has been treated by the Legislature." He accused fellow members of looking out for their own interests at the expense of Cambridge — and minorities. "Somewhat inexplicably," he wrote, "Balser, Khan, and Demakis, along with Finneran, opposed my amendment — even though it solved every problem they were seeking to resolve."

Barrios’s amendment may have solved Balser and Khan’s problems, but it would have done nothing but create headaches for Demakis. If it had passed, it would have merged a chunk of Cambridge — the chunk that just so happens to include Cambridge city councilor Marjorie Decker’s residence — with Demakis’s predominantly Back Bay and Beacon Hill district. The move could have set up the first real challenge that Demakis has faced in years.

Even if Barrios believes his own bluster, no one else apparently does. One person close to the redistricting process (and who, interestingly, is favorably disposed to Barrios) says that Barrios is playing the "good martyr role." Indeed, his House colleagues say that several weeks before the original redistricting plan went public, Barrios had engaged in a behind-the-scenes conversation with Balser about the possibility of using his district to help solve her redistricting problems, which she had anticipated. In an October 29 article, Balser revealed to the Harvard Crimson that Barrios had, in fact, given her the nod. "He told me that he was not seeking re-election to the House," she is quoted as saying. "It was my understanding from our conversation that I could go back to the redistricting committee and refer to his district."

When the Phoenix contacted Balser, she declined to elaborate, except to say that she stands "by my comments to the Crimson." And according to State House insiders — most of whom would only agree to be quoted anonymously — her word resonates. Balser, they contend, had been advocating to save her district for weeks. She had approached not just Barrios, but other legislators who were expected to leave office, including Jack Hart of South Boston and Brian Golden of Allston-Brighton. "Jarrett’s seat was rumored to be a possible target for some time," Demakis attests. Another House member finds it "interesting" that Barrios had not made much noise about the original plan, which would have preserved portions of his district — yet removed his Prospect Street home from it. (The original plan had also pushed Representatives Wolf and Tim Toomey out of Cambridge and into Arlington and Somerville, respectively.)

So whose version of how Cambridge lost the 28th Middlesex should be believed? Barrios maintains he worked desperately to keep it. Balser told the Crimson that Barrios offered up his district to solve the Newton mess.

Some Cambridge observers think they know which story rings true. The news that Barrios may have engaged in what’s been described as "a hidden deal" with Balser has left Graham, for one, outraged. She blasted Barrios for giving away a "seat that was not his to give away" at an October 25 city council meeting. But what burns her most, she explains, is the fact that Barrios didn’t tell the community that the district was in jeopardy until it was too late. "Why not?" she asks. "Because he had told Ruth Balser, ‘Go ahead, use my district.’ " Concludes Graham: "Jarrett was ruthless. His ambition was to run for the Senate and to hell with you people in Cambridge."

Even loyal backers have questioned his actions. City Councilor Ken Reeves, who has voted for Barrios and contributed to his campaigns, explains he’s "terribly annoyed" that his representative might not have done enough to preserve the district. Reeves had hoped to run for the seat, and had so informed Barrios last June. When Reeves found out about the revised map, he went straight to Barrios. "Jarrett gave me this sob story about how he worked for days to save his district," recalls Reeves, who then queried other House members. He cannot help but notice the differences: "Jarrett’s story protects Jarrett, and it’s not necessarily the truth."

Barrios, for his part, bristles at the notion that people would doubt him. "I did what I’ve said," he maintains. He admits he had a conversation with Balser before the original plan was publicized — but claims he only discussed "shifting a precinct or two" to help a colleague, adding, "I was never asked, nor did I agree to give up any part of my district." Still, he recognizes that his tenure will be forever linked to the loss of what’s been a source of pride for minorities. "This happened on my watch," he says. "People who are angry should know I share in the blame."

(The irony in all this is that Finneran would rather have seen Balser or Khan go — both of whom voted against the term-limit repeal — but the fact that Barrios was poised to run for state senate made it easy for Balser and Khan’s colleagues to rally around them.)

TO BE sure, Barrios is the progressive’s dream candidate. He is smart, articulate, personable, good on the issues, and a gay Latino — a real rising star for two groups that have had few seats at the table of power. He could be an important leader to so many people. As a career move, his decision to run for the Senate makes sense. Despite his successes there, the House can be an exceedingly frustrating place for a bright, talented, liberal Democrat. On the other hand, issues that he has championed — gay rights, human services, women’s choice — do get a fair hearing in the Senate. Someone like Barrios may even find it easier to stand out in the crowd. Or, as he says, "There are issues I can still make a difference on in the Senate."

But is he ready to make the jump? "His ego is out of control," says the political hired gun. "He’s officious." His need to spin events to make himself look good — as seen most clearly in the redistricting imbroglio — betray an inability to take tough shots on the chin and move on. Why, for instance, can’t Barrios recognize what Glenn Koocher, a veteran politico in Cambridge, realizes? "The overall perception about redistricting is one of indifference," he says. He goes so far as to predict that any trouble Barrios is facing will soon fade. "Nine months from now," says Koocher, "nobody will be thinking about redistricting. The public’s memory is very short." Which once again raises the question of why Barrios got so offended by people doubting his word — especially when, on this issue, the facts show his word is doubtful.

Such actions only fuel the wrath of his detractors. Graham, for one, is fired up. The former representative, who also served on the Cambridge City Council, has ties to local political powerhouses like Reeves, Wolf, and City Councilor–elect Denise Simmons. And she’s already vowed to try to thwart Barrios’s move up. "He will not go happily to the Senate," she promises. "I will let people know that he will sell you out to get to higher ground."

The more important question, however, is not what Barrios’s problems will do to his Senate bid — or to his career if he gets there. Rather, it’s what they will do to him. Conceivably, they could help season the fledgling yet promising politician. They could make him a better leader and coalition-builder. Or, as has happened to so many others, they could wear him down and drive this intelligent and capable man out of politics altogether.

For now, Barrios is content to leave the speculations alone. Yes, he supposes there may come a day when he doesn’t have energy for politics. But not yet. Not when he has people to meet, issues to advocate, lives to improve. After all, as he readily admits, "All I really aspire to is a bully pulpit from which I can push causes I care about."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi@phx.com

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Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001

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