1989 Lowell English-Only Referendum
By Charles Gargiulo
In 1989, the “English-Only” Referendum was an initiative put on the ballot and championed by George Kouloheras to stoke the same white nativist populism we see fueling Trumpism today. It was in large response to the political gains made by the city’s Latino community in the 1980’s with the successes of the Coalition for a Better Acre’s (CBA) battles to stop two slated displacement efforts aimed at the city’s Latino community. The Acre Triangle neighborhood, bordered by Suffolk, Broadway and Adams Street, and the North Canal Apartments along Moody Street.
As President of CBA at the time, I helped organize a separate political action committee called Save Our City in 1987, to continue voter identification, registration and mobilization of people of color and progressive white people to impact local elections. In particular, we needed to identify City Council candidates in 1987 who would commit to protect City Manager Jim Campbell, who supported our efforts to preserve North Canal Apartments for its residents, over an attempt by then Lowell Housing Authority (LHA) Director Michael McLaughlin, to elect a slate of City Councilors who would remove Campbell and appoint him as City Manager. This effort was being backed by the Lowell Sun and political allies of McLaughlin. Chief among his goals was to take over North Canal, displace its residents, raze it and build market rate and commercial development to reap huge profits based on the new value of the land, due to its proximity to Lowell’s new Urban National Park and the subsequent redeveloped and attractive downtown. (The fact that McLaughlin was the Director of LHA was the height of irony in that he was seeking to remove 267 units of badly needed existing affordable housing. It was later revealed that McLaughlin had links with organized crime and his controversial career ended up with his conviction for corruption in 2013 for his role as Executive Director of the Chelsea Housing Authority.
We recognized a flaw in the old Plan E government which allowed us to impact local elections in a way the framers of it never intended. Most City Council and School Committee elections found that if a committed block of 1000 voters was organized to bullet vote a slate of candidates, it could be the difference between candidates who narrowly won or narrowly lost. Through years of community organizing battles in the 1980’s to fight displacement efforts, desegregate Lowell’s schools and other anti-racism efforts aimed primarily at Lowell’s Latino community, and the more recent, but rapidly growing new influx of Southeast Asian residents, the Save Our City PAC was able to develop the ability to mobilize and get to the polls 1000-1200 voters who were identified and committed to bullet vote candidates in the City Council race who would support Jim Campbell, after educating them that the only way to keep him as City Manager was to control a majority of the City Council because they were the body that had the power to hire and fire the City Manager.
Since institutional racism made most people of color nearly invisible, or irrelevant, to the power structure, we were able to do this in a stealth manner the McLaughlin-backed cabal didn’t even see coming and we successfully maintained a majority of City Councilors committed to Campbell and opposed to the McLaughlin takeover. With Campbell’s strong backing, the residents saved North Canal and CBA was able to generate strong local support to get the federal government to turn North Canal over to a joint CBA/North Canal Tenant Association ownership and win private, local, state and federal financing to completely renovate and save North Canal as affordable housing for its existing residents.
Two years later in 1989, the English Only Initiative was put on the ballot in Lowell. It was part of a national movement organized in the 1980’s by white nationalists hostile to Spanish-speaking immigrants. The movement still exists nationally today.
The English Only referendum grew out of a strong backlash among many white residents hostile to Lowell’s growing linguistic minority communities. Local politicians knew there was much to gain by championing “white grievance” and engaging in aggressive demagoguery against “those people.” Hence, there became a local effort to place a non-binding (since it couldn’t be legally enforced), symbolic “English-Only” referendum on the ballot. The motive was to fire up the base of white resentment voters and to send an intimidating, hostile message to the Latino and Southeast Asian community about “knowing their place” and who controlled the city. It was built on the same political dynamic that fuels the “base” of Trump voters today which draws its propellant from “white grievance” against challenges to institutional racism.
Ironically, in 1989 the linguistic minority community, who was targeted, was able to turn the English Only movement’s efforts on its head, out-smart its backers, and make those responsible pay a heavy price for it. By re-instituting the successful Save Our City political action committee, which helped to save City Manager Jim Campbell’s job in 1987, we turned our sights on the English-Only Initiative and used it to develop a strategy that made it appear we were focusing on the English Only initiative, which we knew we couldn’t defeat, and instead set our sights on three School Committee members who were leading the charge on behalf of the English Only referendum.
It was readily apparent that there was no way we would be able to stop the ballot from winning. However, since the ballot initiative was sponsored and promoted by longtime populist and School Committee person George Kouloheras, and strongly supported by his School Committee allies, Kathryn Stoklosa and Sean Sullivan, the Save Our City Committee organized to expand its disciplined voter base from 1987 and target all three in the election, while also seeking to protect progressive candidates Regina Faticanti and Mary Anne Sullivan from the backlash they would face for opposing the English Only initiative.
The English Only initiative gained much publicity and passion among Lowell voters as its proponents primed the same energy and singular focus on its symbolism that we recently saw Trump effectively use around “building the wall” on the Mexican border. It didn’t matter that the English only initiative was non-binding and couldn’t be enforced, much as it didn’t matter that Mexico was never going to pay to build a wall around the border. It’s point was to “fire up the base” to cynically manipulate political fervor and support for the candidate(s). To the linguistic minority community, the English only initiative generated an atmosphere of being targeted and the rabid support of the referendum was very painful and intimidating.
Our first step in the effort was to give witness to this institutionally racist assault and take a moral stand. To send a message that the Lowell community wouldn’t take this lying down, we organized a coalition of religious and community leaders to exercise moral leadership and attack this initiative by exposing its roots and renaming the “English Only” referendum the “Bigot Bill.” This immediately reversed the bullying efforts of its proponents by putting them on the defensive. It was understood that, although this would not change the outcome of the election, and that the English only referendum would still pass overwhelmingly, it would empower the referendum’s targets by drawing on the same moral authority which fueled the civil rights movement in its fight against Jim Crow. The knowledge that, although they might not be powerful enough to achieve an immediate political victory, by resisting they would project their unified strength by making it clear they would never surrender their dignity to those seeking to oppress them.
The next step was to take the energy of that righteous anger to educate, organize, and turn out voters on Election Day to win a majority of the School Committee opposed to the English Only movement. Ironically, although its proponents would be fighting to achieve a “victory” of winning a powerless non-binding referendum to thumb their noses at linguistic minorities, those being targeted became determined to deliver a crushing defeat in the very real and binding School Committee election. As a result of delivering a block of nearly 1200 votes for Regina Faticanti and Mary Anne Sullivan, and denying any votes for Kouloheras, Stoklosa and Sullivan, the Save Our City Committee helped Raymond Riddick knock Kouloheras out of the top spot he traditionally won, and delivered upset defeats to Stoklosa and Sean Sullivan, while maintaining Faticanti and Sullivan in office. So although English Only won a meaningless, powerless referendum vote, it ended up changing the School Committee from one in which a majority no longer supported the English Only movement.
I hope someday the University of Massachusetts Lowell and others will seek to better document the history of Lowell from the perspective of the voices from the “other side of the track.” In particular, Lowell has a great history of amazing grassroots victories by people of color and progressive allies from the 1980’s that sadly seems to have become lost among the historical record. When the story is told about Lowell’s revitalization in the 1980’s, it generally does so in a stereotypical “founding fathers” style, properly extolling the wonderful achievements of great men like Paul Tsongas and Pat Mogan, but minimizing, and often ignoring, the essential role many grassroots leaders made in winning major moral and revitalization achievements. Powerful, innovative and groundbreaking community organizing victories saved our city from another series of Urban Renewal disasters, finally desegregated Lowell schools and achieved many other important grassroots victories. This history must be preserved to serve as inspiration for grassroots people today to keep them linked with those who came before them and give them historical proof and examples of how effective moral authority can be in their own struggles today.