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Representation Matters

6 min read

If 20 years ago you had told a young Henry Santana that someday he would run for Boston City Council, the recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic growing up in public housing would have thought you were playing a joke on him.

Now that first-time candidate Santana is a sitting At-Large City Council member, he credits a lived experience much closer to his voters than that of typical candidates for office as a key to his victory. “I think people were excited to see a young, Black, Dominican immigrant who grew up in public housing, who’s a product of the city, who’s a product of Boston Public Schools,” Santana said in a recent Boston Sun article.

His personal story also makes the 28-year-old Santana exactly the type of candidate that the New Power Project was launched to support. New Power is a national initiative uniquely focused on recruiting and empowering individuals who have grown up experiencing the impacts of poverty to run for local and district-level elective office.

Launched in 2021, in our first two election cycles (2022 and 2023) nearly 75 percent of New Power candidates won their elections. From Texas to Georgia to Oregon, New Power connects with potential candidates for city councils, state representatives, school boards and similar “down ballot” offices through several national and state-based network partners. 

The premise of New Power is simple: Our country’s criminal justice, education, housing, workforce and other systems that most impact the average person’s day-to-day life are largely controlled at the local and district level. Accordingly, a healthy democracy requires more elected officials who understand first-hand what needs to be fixed to best serve their communities. Yet candidates from these backgrounds face the highest barriers to running and winning elective office. 

When I launched New Power a few years ago, it was designed to overcome barriers, such as a shortage of “social capital,” the absence of a fundraising base, minimal financial reserves, lack of the “right credentials” and many more. Henry Santana illustrates this.

Unlike many candidates who can readily rely on savings, paid leave, investment income or a spouse while they run, New Power candidates, like Santana, must work to pay the rent. Because he was employed by the City of Boston, Santana quit when he declared. After burning through savings, he applied to multiple flexible part-time jobs, which would leave time for campaigning, but only landed one – an overnight shift as an apartment building concierge/guard. So, for three months Santana had no choice but to work nights and campaign during the day to avoid being evicted, an almost impossible task that candidates from wealthier backgrounds don’t face.

New Power offers a time-tested wraparound suite of campaign support that is free to candidates. Running with modest budgets and ingrained challenges to fundraising, New Power candidates benefit from being paired with an experienced campaign adviser. The adviser supplements the candidate’s team, who often have limited campaign experience, with expertise on nuts-and-bolts issues: getting out the vote, messaging and navigating the pitfalls of running as a first-time candidate. 

New Power staff also assist with expertise in helping candidates identify and reach out to donors, something particularly difficult for people who grew up with limited means.

Take Katrina Callsen, whose bi-racial father was given up for adoption in 1966 because at that time interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia. When Callsen decided to run for the House of Delegates and first connected with New Power, she explained that while growing up her family was sometimes on the edge of homelessness.

Callsen recounted that as a girl she would hear her mother on the phone, imploring family and friends for funds. As a result, when she started calling donors for her campaign, she felt shame and the emotions from her childhood welling up in her, making it almost impossible to make “the ask.” Understanding this, the New Power team was able to work with Callsen on overcoming this barrier to the point where she eventually was one of the top fundraisers in state house races last year.

The concept for New Power grew out, in part, from decades of work in affordable housing and youth workforce development. There is a common saying that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not, something many in the affordable housing community have observed firsthand.

New Power takes this observation further, recognizing that it has never been a lack of plans, ideas or solutions that have kept potential working-class talent from succeeding in our political system, but rather a lack of resources and access to the right opportunities. This is where creating a broad base of donors for New Power candidates comes into the equation.

A common experience of many of these candidates happens at political training. The trainer at some point tells them to take out a legal pad and write down the names of 50 or more people who can write them a $500 or larger check. Most of our candidates are suddenly struck by the realization that they don’t know even one person who can write a $100 check, telegraphing them a message that maybe they are not cut out to run for office.

New Power steps in to connect them with donors who believe in this mission, but who might never find a Katrina Callsen or Henry Santana on their own. When donors invest in these new leaders, they discover candidates who are truly embedded in their communities and are exceptional at bringing new and infrequent voters to the polls. Moreover, donors appreciate backing candidates with the potential to forge diverse coalitions that are truly representative of all of America.

Those of us in the affordable housing industry are uniquely positioned to look around at the residents in our communities and see examples of this kind of talent. Now we have a way to support those who are ready to step forward into the political arena to represent their neighbors.

If you would like to support the work of New Power Project, you can do so here.   

David M. Abromowitz is a nationally known affordable housing attorney at Goulston & Storrs.