“I am truly a progressive champion,” says lawyer and activist Mike Connolly. Towering well over six feet tall, he certainly looks the part.
Connolly is running for State Representative of the 26th Middlesex District, and his candidacy marks the first contested primary since 2004 for the region, which includes parts of Somerville and Cambridge. He’s running against Tim Toomey, who has held the seat since 1993, for the Democratic nomination, in the September 8 primary.
Connolly’s personal history is a major impetus for his campaign. He was born in Dorchester, grew up in Norwood’s Washington Heights public housing project and was in the foster care system for a period of time. He participated in a Head Start program, which he credits as having a profound impact on the course of his life. Eventually, he would go on to attend Duke University on a full football scholarship.
“From all the research and all the data, we know for a fact that if it wasn’t for that Head Start program, the odds are a million to one that I ever would have gone on to achieve the sorts of things I did,” he says. “Education and commitment to our children is really the driving force that’s brought me into wanting to do public service.”
It’s those experiences that he says have prompted his emphasis on social justice.
“I realized how many of the kids I grew up with never had the opportunity to access the kinds of opportunities I had,” he explains. “That really informs both my perspective on politics and my passion for activism. We’re becoming too much of a city of have and have nots, and we’re losing everything in between.”
Connolly made his unique stance on politics clear in his 2012 bid for state representative. Running as an Independent, Connolly put campaign finance at the forefront by intentionally not raising any money, earning himself the nickname “No Money” Mike.
This time around, Connolly’s accepting donations, but not from any sources that might seek—or appear to seek—to hold sway over his policies. The change reflects the seriousness of Connolly’s bid; while his refusal of donations in 2012 was what he calls “an experiment in democracy,” he seems determined to take the seat this year. He is campaigning full-time and has even put things like laundry on the backburner: “What I’m prioritizing—one, two and three—is talking to voters. The goal of being a state representative is to represent the voters.”
Connolly has been an activist in Cambridge for years, focusing specifically on issues involving the environment and affordable housing. He was a driving force behind the Net Zero Action Plan, which transformed sustainability policy in Cambridge and led to him serving as a legislative aide for the Cambridge City Council.
One of Connolly’s priorities is affordable housing. As a board member of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, he says that Cambridge and Somerville need comprehensive plans to address the affordable housing crisis, suggesting actions such as rental subsidy programs and real estate transfer taxes.
“I’ve actually witnessed a lot of scenes that have just seemed really heartbreaking—long-term residents, sometimes elderly people, sometimes disabled people, who are told, ‘You have 30 days and your rent’s going to be tripled or you have to get out,’” he said.
Connolly sees the lack of housing for graduate students as a part of the problem, especially in Cambridge. He explains that graduate students at MIT, for example, often flock to Cambridge and drive up rents. He’s working to make sure that schools like MIT help their students more so that they don’t put pressure on Cambridge housing.
In terms of criminal justice, Connolly is critical of mandatory minimum sentencing and the criminalization of addiction. He supports the legalization of marijuana, which will be on the ballot in November.
Looking at the issues, Connolly’s platform doesn’t appear substantially different from Toomey’s. Like Connolly, Toomey emphasizes his commitment to affordable housing, supports the Green Line Extension and believes that we need to reform our criminal justice system.
But Connolly says that unlike Toomey, he’s a real progressive. He explains that Toomey has a mixed-rating, according to a 2015 Planned Parenthood scorecard, and voted to defund a program that would enforce clean elections in what the Boston Phoenix called “a grotesque manipulation of the democratic process.” He also voted for casino gambling expansion.
Mass Alliance, an organization that works to help elect and support progressive candidates, has endorsed Connolly.
Massachusetts doesn’t have a term limit for state representatives. Scandals ranging from tax evasion to corruption surrounded the last three speakers of the house, so a four-term limit was set for that position only. The limit, however, was soon nixed. “We set an eight-year term limit and kept it for six years,” Connolly points out, incredulously.
Needless to say, Connolly thinks it’s time for a fresh perspective in the house.
“[Toomey is] at odds with the progressive values of our district,” Connolly says, zeroing in on his opponent’s mixed record on progressive issues. “I believe we deserve an absolute champion.”
Connolly will square off against Tim Toomey on Thursday, September 8. You can learn more about his opponent’s platform here.