Journal of Community Power Building      COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

¡Sí Se Puede! (Yes We Can!)

By Jim Haskell

The atmosphere in the Neighbor-to-Neighbor (N2N) office that November evening in 2003 was electric.  The makeshift campaign headquarters read the results from Precinct One of Salem’s First Ward.  Lucy Corchado had come a bit short of her opponent, Kathy Driscoll-Gauthier.  But there was no reason to panic.  Precinct 1 covered the Derby Street and Willows areas of Salem, not Lucy’s base.  In Precinct Two, consisting of Salem’s Latino neighborhood known as the Point, Lucy beat Driscoll-Gauthier by an overwhelming margin.

Lucy Corchado, a Puerto Rican mother of three and President of the Point Neighborhood Association, was about to become Salem’s second Latina city councilor.

Less than ten years before, the very idea of a Latino city councilor in Salem was preposterous.  The Latino vote was so inconsequential that several white politicians privately commented that while they would really like to do things to help the Point, doing so cost them more votes from disgruntled white voters than they made up in Latino votes.

Since the early 1990s, a number of events have resulted in a turnaround of Latino influence in Salem politics.  They range from changes in the citizenship policies of the Dominican Republic to staging get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.  They involve partisan organizations and non-partisan ones – both of which rely on the same group of local activists. 

This article will look at how two organizations serving one immigrant neighborhood were able to capitalize upon several historical and demographic changes and significantly increase the clout that that neighborhood had over the local political process.

Historic background

In the early 1990s, Salem received a federal grant that provided funding to the Center for Addictive Behaviors (CAB) to create the Salem Community Alliance.  The grant program’s philosophy was that by organizing the community around like interests, the community would have greater strength to deal with drugs and other social ills.  Two of the groups that formed under the auspices of the Salem Community Alliance were the Point Neighborhood Action Group (PNAG) – a group largely made up of tenants – and the Point Neighborhood Improvement Association (PNIA), comprising of landlords and homeowners.

At the same time, Salem Harbor CDC had recently worked closely with the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO) to organize the residents of properties owned by a developer named Fred Small, and through this effort had been able to convert eleven of those buildings into the Salem Point Cooperative.  This development was a watershed for the Salem Harbor CDC.  From a nearly-bankrupt single person operation, the CDC was now financially healthy and was able to add a community outreach worker who worked closely with residents.  As the CDC became more engaged in the life of the community, its Board of Directors realized that any physical development in the Point would be hindered if the Point didn’t also have clout at City Hall.  Successive strategic plans in 1995 and 2000 placed an increasingly higher priority on neighborhood organizing towards exercising that clout.

The 1990s saw continuing changes in the Point’s demographics that foreshadowed the neighborhood’s new political ascendancy.  Historically, the Point area had been developed in the 1800s to provide housing for the Naumkeag Steam Mills – a large bed linen factory that sat on a point of land sticking out into SalemHarbor.  At the time of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, it was home predominantly to French-Canadians who had come from Quebec to work in the mills.  Although the neighborhood was leveled in the fire, the area was quickly rebuilt to meet war production needs.

In 1953 the mills shut down and moved to South Carolina, and virtually overnight an entire neighborhood was thrown into unemployment.  Some families found work in places like the two GTE Sylvania plants or Parker Brothers (making Monopoly games), but many others left the area.  The French-Canadian families were largely replaced by Puerto Ricans – often coming to Salem from New York.  Many were employed at Parker Brothers or in one of the many tanneries in operation at the time.

In the late 1970s, a trickle of Dominican immigrants began settling in the Point – finding a community where they could speak Spanish and also find employment in tanneries, at Parker Brothers and at warehouses springing up along the Route 128 corridor.  By the 1980s that trickle had become a flood, and by 2000 Salem had the fourth-largest Dominican population in the state.

This particular demographic shift had a devastating impact on the Point’s electoral clout.  While Puerto Ricans could vote by right, Dominicans needed to become naturalized citizens to vote.  This required at least five years of legal residency and passing a test in English.  Compounding the situation, the Dominican government would not allow a Dominican émigré to become a citizen of another country without first renouncing their Dominican citizenship.  As a result, very few Dominicans became U.S. citizens.

In 1993, the Dominican government reversed this prohibition. At the same time, adult English classes were being taught by Salem Harbor CDC, SalemPublic Schools and Massachusetts Job Training; and citizenship classes were led by North Shore Community Action Programs and VOCES.  The number of citizens and registered voters increased significantly.

After the 1997 municipal election, the CDC’s community organizer, Jorge Benitez, analyzed the voting list from Ward One, Precinct Two – the Point’s precinct.  Although there were relatively few voters with Hispanic surnames, all of them had voted in the election.  This level of political activism was also seen in the fervor with which Dominican political issues were debated by a large cross-section of the community.

The potential was there. The only hurdle left was somehow energizing the Latino vote in Salem so that it would make its presence felt.  Although not necessarily part of any one group’s strategic plan, what resulted was a three-part strategy that bore fruit in the 2003 election.

Form a Strong Neighborhood Association

The first strategy was to disband both PNAG and PNIA, and organize a single Point Neighborhood Association so that the neighborhood had a single voice – especially at City Hall.

After funding for the Salem Community Alliance ended in the mid-1990s, the task of supporting the PNAG and PNIA fell entirely on the shoulders of the CDC’s community organizer.  It soon became apparent that the two neighborhood associations were heading in very different directions, effectively dividing the neighborhood.  This dichotomy became abundantly clear one night when, by a series of coincidences, both groups met in the CDC’s office at the same time.  The tenants’ group, PNAG, was meeting in one room, while the landlords’ group, PNIA, was meeting in another.  One meeting was populated by all Latinos and held in Spanish, the other all Anglo and held in English.  Each group was complaining about the constituency represented by the other.  On that night, CDC staff understood that what they were supporting was not helping the neighborhood – if anything, they were aiding in its polarization.  For the next couple of years, there was no formal neighborhood association, even though groups from time to time would form around particular issues. 

However, at this time N2N decided to open a Salem office in order to get low-income people involved in the political process in general, and statewide policy issues in particular.  Seeing common goals, N2N’s organizer, Tony Mack, and the CDC’s new lead community organizer, Juan Carlos Canales, worked closely together to form a new Point Neighborhood Association in 2000.  As one of its first official acts, the PNA elected Lucy Corchado, a Salem native of Puerto Rican descent, to be its first President.

The PNA focused on both short-term and long-term issues.  The first short-term campaign focused on getting a mailbox placed in the Point in order to serve a neighborhood of 3,000.  This was successfully accomplished after a couple of months.  The long-term issue was influencing how the city allocated its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding.  The PNA spent its first months educating itself about how CDBG funds had been allocated in the past, and how they could be used to address the neighborhood’s infrastructural and urban planning concerns.

Members of the PNA became experts in the CDBG public input process, and held the city accountable during the annual public review – a process that had previously been notable for its lack of public involvement. Fortunately the PNA’s increased involvement coincided with the city’s requirement for developing a five-year Consolidated Plan, and resulted in the city increasing its level of support for housing – in particular direct support to renters and the production of rental housing.

The Process of Registering Voters

When N2N opened its Salem office in 1998, its first order of business was to systematically knock on every door in the Point and attempt to register every eligible adult resident to vote.  The door-to-door strategy allowed N2N to gather the most comprehensive address and phone list of Point residents to date, including unauthorized apartments and occupants, and to understand the citizenship status of the entire community.  It also significantly expanded the number of people who might be tapped to become leaders in the community, because N2N didn’t limit its leadership pool to those who came out to meetings.

In the days leading up to the election, volunteers knocked on doors and made phone calls to remind people to vote,and on the night before the election, door hangers were placed on the doors of registered voters.  On the day of the election, poll watchers kept track of the people in the neighborhood who had voted, and volunteers make phone calls and knock on the doors ofthose who hadn't voted by a certain hour.  Voters needing rides to the polls were provided transportation.

Between 1997 and 2001, the turnout of Latino voters in the Point increased by 350 percent.

Fielding Candidates – The Battle for Salem’s Ward One

Salem’s Ward One is evenly split between the low-income Point and the middle and upper-income Derby Street and Willows areas; however, due to the many immigrants living in the Point there are relatively few registered voters there. 

In 1999, Scott LaCava, a young political newcomer, became the first Salem candidate who was endorsed and supported by N2N.  In a three-way primary race LaCava received over 50 percent of the total votes cast, and LaCava easily beat Paskowski in the general election.  In 2001, LaCava chose not to run for re-election.  Instead, four candidates ran in the primary for the seat – including Domingo Dominguez and Claudia Chuber.

Dominguez is a Dominican native who is a former Salem school teacher and owner of DJD’s CallingCenter on Lafayette Street.  At the time of the election, he was a resident of the Point and Vice President of Salem Harbor CDC.

Chuber is a Colombian native who lives in the Derby Street area and also serves on Salem Harbor CDC’s board.  Chuber was elected to the Salem School Committee in 1997 – making her the first person of color ever elected to office in Salem.  During the election for three seats, Chuber received more votes than any other five School Committee candidates.

To the surprise of most political observers in Salem, on the night of the 2001 primary election, Dominguez and Chuber were the two highest vote getters – Dominguez carrying most of the vote in the Point and Chuber gaining enough of the vote throughout the ward to come in ahead of the other two candidates, both Anglos.  For the first time ever, Salem would elect a Latino to the city council.  In the general election, Chuber won the seat by less than fifty votes – a close election that many observers felt had been one of the more positive campaigns in Salem’s recent history. 

At the beginning of the 2003 election, Chuber decided to not run for re-election.  In the meantime, Dominguez had moved away from Ward One and decided to run for an at-large council seat.  This left the seat wide open, and PNA President Lucy Corchado (at the time six months pregnant) decided to make her first bid for public office.  Both Corchado and Dominguez were endorsed by N2N.  Corchado campaigned hard prior to the primary election in September – spending most of her time knocking on doors in the Willows and Derby Street areas where she was less known.  N2N volunteers door knocked in the Point to make sure her base knew of her candidacy and would come out to vote.  Corchado easily won the primary election, with second place going to Kathleen Driscoll-Gauthier, an aide to state representative J. Michael Ruane.

Despite giving birth to a son in October, Corchado won the Ward One seat in the general election – coming in thirty-three votes behind Driscoll-Gauthier in Precinct One, but trouncing her opponent seven-to-one in Precinct Two. 

For his part, Dominguez came in a close fifth for one of the four at-large council seats – posting the most votes of any non-city councilor (three of the at-large councilors ran for re-election, and a sitting ward councilor also ran for an at-large seat).  Dominguez was able to get support from a wide cross-section of the city with “Dominguez” signs sprouting up in neighborhoods throughout the city.


While there are several conclusions that can be drawn from this experience, we are going to focus on how this electoral effort was made possible through a collaboration of a non-partisan organization (Salem Harbor CDC) and another organization that can choose a partisan role (N2N).  While N2N is able to endorse candidates through its 501(c)(4) status, the CDC is prohibited from doing so as a 501(c)(3).  Thus, N2N staff and volunteers actively promote a N2N-endorsed candidate during this phase, while CDC staff focus more on referendum questions and other issue-related topics.  Registration outreach now also includes at least one other neighborhood along with the Point.

Although this strategy has been effective, it is not without its pitfalls.  Once N2N has endorsed a candidate, the normally close working relationship between the two organizations is affected.  For instance, the CDC then refrains from coordinating voter registration drives with N2N and limits itself to providing prospective voters with information about issues or ballot referenda.  CDC staff even avoid spending time at the N2N office (located in one of the CDC’s buildings) when that office becomes a campaign headquarters.  For organizers, in particular, this process of distancing oneself from a process when it is just beginning to heat up is difficult.  It is fun to be part of a political campaign, and CDC organizers can not participate unless they are clearly off duty.  For some in the neighborhood, the distinction between a non-partisan and a partisan effort is also difficult to understand.  Our experience has been that that message is actually better understood by the candidates themselves, but is often not as well regarded by their supporters.

Despite these issues, the result has been a profound increase in the level of political power in the Point neighborhood.  Both organizations' efforts have contributed to a dramatic increase in Latino voter turnout.  In Salem, where less than a decade ago there was no hope that Latino candidates could get elected, Councilor Corchado answers the roll call at City Council meetings.

Jim Haskell has been the Executive Director of Salem Harbor CDC since 1994. Jim obtained his Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University in 1987.  He is a past Chairperson of MACDC, the Clerk of the North Shore Housing Trust, the Treasurer of the Salem Theatre Company, and a member of various other civic and business organizations. Jim lives in Ipswich with his wife, Donna Randall, and son Jason.

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing