By Cary Shuman
Even before Lydia Edwards completed her outstanding campaign with an impressive victory in the district council election for East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, political observers were recognizing her potential, saying that she was a rising star on the Boston political scene.
In 2015, Boston Globe Magazine tabbed Edwards for Honorable Recognition as Bostonian of the Year, praising Edwards as: The lawyer with heart of an activist.
Edwards, 36, defeated a formidable candidate, Stephen Passacantilli, to win election to the 11-member Council. She is one of six women who will serve on the new Council.
Asked about the tremendous vote she received in the election, Edwards responded, “I feel humbled, excited – it was just great to see all the hard work pay off.”
Edwards decided in the spring that she would be a candidate for the seat held by longtime Councilor Sal LaMattina, who had announced earlier this year that he had decided to step down from the position.
“I checked it with my husband, Roger, and he said, ‘I’m with you 100 percent and trust your gut’ and that was it,” said Edwards. “So once my husband was in, I was in.”
Edwards brought in talented 25-year-old campaign manager, Gabriela Coletta, a Democratic state committeewoman from East Boston, who had a leadership role in the successful campaign of State Rep. Adrian Madaro, who was elected in his first run for office in a strong field of candidates.
“Gabriela and I talked and there was a genuine excitement in both of our voices,” recalled Edwards. “We knew each other, and it was just the thought of us working together, especially. I also knew that Gabriela is a bridge between communities. I’m not born and raised in Eastie and she is. We needed to make sure that our campaign presented from the very beginning as a campaign that’s about all of East Boston, and the ways in which people can be connected.”
Coletta saw a number of excellent qualities in Edwards as a candidate.
“I saw somebody who was articulate, smart, understood the issues, who I knew could lead, not just individuals, but whole communities, as she had done in organizing. She was already an asset to the community but I knew she would be amazing as a leader for East Boston and Charlestown and the North End.”
The two women knew it would be a challenging road to winning an election. Despite her lofty credentials and excellent showing in the state senate race, many considered Edwards as somewhat of an underdog in the contest.
“I think what’s that old saying: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the fight in the dog,” she said. “And that’s what we stayed focused on. We knew that we could work our way to the win by working extremely hard.”
Edwards and Coletta began knocking on doors in April and people were asking, ‘“Aren’t you out here a bit early?”’ the candidate recalled. “We were doing everything we could to present our campaign. We knew that we would not be able to have more signs on certain avenues, but we knew that conversations, handshakes and door knocking could lead to a pathway to a win.”
Through Coletta’s energetic organizing and recruitment, and the growing belief that Edwards was an outstanding candidate who would best serve the best interests of residents, the campaign grew to 500 volunteers. Edwards and her volunteers campaigned in all areas of the district, visiting every home in the neighborhoods on five separate occasions through the spring, summer, and fall.
Edwards said residents spoke to her one-on-one and in meet-and-greets about issues such as development and traffic.
“People were concerned about too much development that didn’t include them or the community,” said Edwards. “It felt like we were developing for people who don’t live in East Boston, Charlestown, or the North End. We were developing one-and-two-bedroom condos, but not for families, not for the middle class, because they were so expensive. But I don’t want it to be characterized as an anti-development argument. It’s really being led by the community.”
Education was also a prime issue among residents throughout the district.
“A lot of people really felt pushed out of the city because their kids were not getting in to schools that were literally on the same block,” said Edwards. “I live by the Otis School. I want nothing more than my kids to go to that school. And that means it needs to continue to be a school of quality. The lottery system could actually cause my kid to end up in a school across town or across the street, and that’s a fair criticism. And I think we need to build more new schools and more neighborhood schools in Boston. I think we need a middle school in East Boston.”
Edwards said she ran on the platform of being an independent voice that was reflective of the needs of the community.
That consistent message of representing all residents of all neighborhoods in the district resonated well with voters, according to Coletta.
“Our campaign attracted everybody – from groups of high school students to older individuals from all across the community,” said Coletta. “Every single neighborhood came out and had their own group. We had East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End and it was just so diverse. I think our campaign team was representative of the district.”
Edwards said the tone of the campaign was cordial among the three candidates. Passacantilli had edged Edwards in the preliminary while Margaret Farmer finished third.
“Stephen and I are going to lunch today,” said Edwards during the interview. “If there was ever any discord, I have felt that the individuals who had the discord may have had it before this campaign. Steve and I were friends before and during the campaign, and we are friends after the campaign. I learned that lesson from my last campaign – as you saw with [Senator] Joe Boncore [who endorsed Edwards in this election] and me. You become friends with the person who defeats you in the election. You learn from him, and you work immediately together with him to help out our district. That was a good lesson, and I carried it in to this campaign as well.”
Since Election Day, Edwards has received numerous congratulatory calls from such officials as Mayor Martin Walsh, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, State Auditor Suzanne Bump, Clerk of Superior Court Maura Hennigan, Sens. Joe Boncore and Sal DiDomenico, State Reps. Adrian Madaro (who also endorsed Edwards), Dan Ryan, and Aaron Michlewicz, Sheriff Steve Tomkins and her future colleagues on the City Council.
Her commanding win in East Boston surprised some, but not the Edwards camp.
“I live in East Boston so a lot of those votes came from my neighbors, the people with whom I go to church, the people who know from my work at the soup kitchen – these are people whom I see every day. The neighborhood came out and supported me. I think more than anything people wanted someone who was accessible, who was OK with being held accountable, and who was totally transparent.”
Coletta’s strong ties to East Boston [her parents, Edward Coletta and Nina Coletta are longtime residents and highly respected leaders in community endeavors) also proved to be a valuable asset in the campaign.
Edwards’s accessibility and responsiveness to voters were positive factors in the campaign. She met with residents in their homes and she returned phone calls throughout the campaign.
Social media played a key role in the success of the campaign.
“It was extremely advantageous in letting people know what she was doing in the community,” said Coletta. “It was extremely helpful as a communications tool for our volunteers. It was effective in getting her message across. Whenever something would be released, like her transportation policy, we would follow up with a graphic highlighting the key points. I think we were able to amplify her message a little bit more on top of what we were doing at the doors and in our meetings with people.”
Coletta said with the 500 volunteers working hard each week, the campaign became “a well-oiled machine.”
“It was a beautiful thing,” said Coletta. “People knew what to do and we had an amazing staff.”
Edwards noted the important contributions to the campaign that were made by field organizers Dan Ertis and Corina Pinto, who helped to rally and train the campaign’s volunteers.
Also helping Edwards was a series of stellar performances in the debates. Edwards demonstrated her knowledge of the issues and created enthusiasm with her proposals and her optimism for Boston’s future.
“I think we were able to deliver the message,” said Edwards. “The point of a debate is not to win or lose. The point of a debate is to show distinction, and I think people saw a real distinction between Steve and me and they were able to make a clearer decision about whom to vote for.”
Edwards said that Coletta’s work at the helm of the campaign was outstanding and the two became close friends in the course of the campaign.
“Gabriela and I have become like sisters through the campaign and I know a lot of campaigns can’t say that,” said Edwards. “At the end of the day, I would call her up just as much as I would before. Having her with me just feels incredible. I look forward to working with her as long as possible.”
While some Eastie residents are already looking at the dynamic Edwards as a potential candidate for higher office, the charismatic attorney is focused on January when she begins her service on the City Council.
“I’m excited and honored to be a member of the Boston City Council,” said Edwards. “The only date I’m looking at it is Jan. 3, 2018. Right now I’m reaching out to the other councillors and getting educated about the process on different matters such as picking a staff.”
“I’m excited, too,” said Coletta. “I think Eastie and the district are in good hands.”
One thing is apparent after a highly organized campaign from start to finish and the candidate’s ascension to a coveted seat on the City Council: Boston and state political observers will be following the careers of City Councilor Lydia Edwards and her superb campaign manager, Gabriela Coletta, in the months and years to come.