By Jim Coughlin
Worcester’s 2021 Municipal election for Worcester City Council and Worcester School Committee only drew 16% of the city’s eligible voters to the polls, but the biggest surprise of the evening came with surprise victory of first time candidate Thu Nguyen who captured the fourth slot for Worcester City Councillor at Large, bumping out Matt Wally, district councillor incumbent and Worcester political good old Irish boy network insider … Nguyen got 7,364 votes in a race that had 10 candidates competing for the six city councillor at large seats.
Nguyen won 10.9% of the vote.
Wally, the district 5 councillor who gave up his seat in the hopes of following in the footsteps of councillor at large Gary Rosen who is retiring from politics and formerly held the district 5 seat and later won an at large seat in 2011, fell short of winning an at large seat by 678 votes. He came in seventh place, with 6,658 votes.
But with Nyguen’s win, as the first Southeast Asian non-binary candidate, this is a major “breakthrough” in diversifying the face of the Worcester City Council. Not only is this a “political first” for Worcester, but Nyguen’s win is believed to be the first win by a Southeast Asian/non-binary city council candidate in Massachusetts and maybe all of New England as well.
I remember Thu was the very first candidate to announce their candidacy for city council back in January of this year. However, perhaps what is most striking is not only that they won and placed 4th in the 10 candidate field but that they defeated Matt Wally who, in the minds of many, and according to reliable sources, was considered as a councillor the insiders at City Hall were grooming to succeed long-time incumbent Mayor Joseph Petty. (Petty easily won re-election as both Worcester City Councillor at Large and as Worcester Mayor. He will also chair the Worcester School Committee.) …
… But with Nyguen taking the open seat on the city council, the Wally scenario will not be happening anytime soon.
In years and decades past, the Worcester City Council was mostly comprised of nine White European North American men who were mostly either Irish … sometimes Italian. That dynamic changed in 1973 with the election of three women for the first time in the city’s history: Mary Scano, Barbara Kohin Barbara J. Sinnott.
At the time, this political sea change on the city council was called by various local pundits and observers as the “year of the women.” This did not last long because, two years later, all three women councillors were voted out by Worcester voters.
It was not until just under a decade later in November, 1981, that the previous method of councillors caucusing with each other after the election to see who amongst them would become Mayor that the Worcester City Council produced the first woman Mayor in our city’s history, Sara J. Robertson. Robertson had previously served on the Worcester School Committee and was subsequently elected to the city council in the late 1970s.
At the time, this was big news. And in later years, the councillors selected another woman, former councillor at large Konstantina “Konnie” Lukes to serve as mayor from 1982 to 1983. In 2019, Lukes decided not to seek re-election to the city council.
But the surprise victory of Thu in our election is big news for the Worcester. As a result, it puts the notion and the reality in place that our city council is open to all in the political arena, regardless of their background.
Last night, I happened to accompany another council candidate, Johanna Hampton Dance who challenged incumbent District 2 City Councillor Candice “Candy” Mero-Carlson. I sat and waited with the candidate until just about 8 p.m. when the polls had closed election night. Dance was sitting with a small group of supporters and friends at about a little past at 8 p.m. at a bar called “Electric Haze” on Millbury Street when council candidate Thu Nguyen walked in accompanied by a campaign aide. When they came in the candidate did not know what was going to happen within the next hour that would once again be a “game changer” in Worcester politics.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Thu, who was seated with a few supporters and had their eyes glued to a cell phone, heard that they had won the open city council seat. This news even surprised them! A few days ago, they wrote in a Facebook post, “I also hold that – statistically- “a person like me shouldn’t win. I am a new challenger.” Their election even surprised caused th the first-time candidate to break out into a jubilant cheer! They flashed a broad smile and their supporters cheered as the announcement was made!
In fact, I can say for the record that I was the second person to congratulate them upon the surprise victory. In congratulating them, I was the first one to call Nguyen by their newly acquired prefix for the former council candidate: “Councillor-Elect Nguyen”!
There is a lot! The notion that the Worcester City Council is a group of “Nine White Irish Catholic Guys” is for sure a chapter in our city’s ancient past. Our urban, American story has permanently changed.