Everyone knew Luis Anthony Morales, 46, as “Tony”: at his church, at his family’s restaurants. But when he pulled papers to run for alderman at large, he remembered that a previous, failed candidate was named Tony—LaFuente.
He didn’t want to be just another Tony. So he filed under his first name.
But no one could confuse him with the past: Morales is only the second Latino to run for Somerville city office.
No matter what you think of the current aldermen, the board clearly doesn’t reflect Somerville in the slightest. 11 men, two women. All white. The city’s lone African-American alderman left office seven years ago. No foreign-born official since former mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay—in a city that’s one-third immigrants.
“We need representation,” Morales said.
When he came from El Salvador 30 years ago, there were so few Latin American immigrants “we couldn’t put a soccer team together,” he said. Now his family’s businesses blanket East Broadway. Siblings own a grocery and four restaurants: Gauchao, Taco Loco, Tapatio and Maya Sol. (This reporter greatly regrets that this piece did not require an adobada taco taste-off.)
Morales is a wheeler-dealer who sold his first restaurant weeks after he opened it for twice what he’d spent. Though he’s still a busy guy, these days he focuses on his role as pastor of Vida Real, an evangelical church on Winter Hill. He has master’s degrees in theology and counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Not surprisingly, a number of local progressives and immigrant advocates are excited by the prospect of a Latino alderman. “I think it’s important to have representation and diversity in local government,” said Patricia Montes, director of Centro Presente.
“What Luis represents is really a voice from within the city that is missing from City Hall,” said Marty Martinez, the previous Latino candidate and a new ally. His group the Progressive Democrats of Somerville endorsed Morales as well as incumbents Bill White and Dennis Sullivan for the four seats. (Also running: incumbents Jack Connolly and Bruce Desmond.)
But Morales, who lives in Ten Hills, needs to appeal beyond his base. He’s billing himself as a business expert, criticizing parking regulations, zoning issues and the shortage of bilingual Inspectional Services staff.
He also thought the city needed to create youth activities with substance and cultural sensitivity, like Vida Real’s teen leadership program. “We teach them how to have character… how to be dreamers… how to learn from other people’s mistakes,” Morales said. “When you empower people, things change.”
There’s another reason Morales has to reach out: Somerville’s immigrants vote at lower rates, Montes said.
Some became disenchanted with government after seeing corruption in their birth countries. Some just don’t know how the system works.
“We need to reengage our people,” Montes said. Centro has signed up over 50 voters so far in an information campaign. Oct. 14 is the deadline to register for the Nov. 3 elections. And Somerville Community Access Television will air segments on the (few) contested city races at the end of the month.
So far, nothing terribly controversial has come out about Morales. While Montes emphasized that her organization wasn’t endorsing anyone, she thought he had “a really good reputation.”
A few anonymous commenters on the Somerville Journal’s SpeakOut hotline questioned his loyalty. “One of them said that I should be proud to be an American. If I wasn’t proud I wouldn’t be running,” Morales responded, indignant. He became a citizen in the mid-1980s thanks to President Reagan’s regulations, he said, and has now lived more than half his life in Somerville (with a few months in Cambridge and Boston).
With 600–800 congregants, Vida Real has a history of noise complaints, said ward alderman Sean O’Donovan, adding that he’d not heard of the church holding service projects for the larger community.
However, Morales said they’d compromised with the next-door neighbor and added insulation. Police spokesman Paul Upton reported no noise complaints this year. (Hey, this reporter suggested, there’s a perfectly good empty supermarket right down the street that the city would love to see filled. Morales said he’d talked to the owner but the price was too steep.)
With barely any contested local races and everyone focused on the Senate seat—does this political newcomer have a chance?
“I don’t really know,” Martinez said, who has fought the good fight twice with no aldermanic seat to show for it. “He’s out there making connections.”
Morales acknowledged the challenge. “It’s difficult to tell,” he said. “I know that trust has to be earned. But I have shown with all communities that I have come out of nowhere to be what I am right now.”
Contact Danielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.