A new political action committee called Save Nonantum recently formed in Newton to “preserve, protect, and promote the culture of the Nonantum community,” according to the group’s website. The group said that Nonantum, a village in Newton, is under attack by a group of politicians working to end Nonantum traditions.
Save Nonantum was established through Massachusetts’ Office of Campaign and Political Finance on Feb. 8.
Ahead of the special election on March 16, the organization has been the subject of controversy on social media, particularly in the Newton Civic Action Forum Facebook group. The special election is being held to fill two vacant at-large seats on the Newton City Council. Jake Auchincloss previously held the at-large seat in Ward 2 until he was recently elected to Congress, and Jay Ciccone, who died in November, held the at-large seat in Ward 1.
“After the passing of our beloved City Counselor Jay Ciccone it became evident that the people of Nonantum needed a voice in politics,” Francis Yerardi, chair of Save Nonantum’s Community Organizing Committee, said in an email to The Heights. “With the way the city charter is written the political power elites in Newton control who is elected and oftentimes those elected officials don’t have the best interest of the people in the neighborhood at heart.”
Save Nonantum announced its endorsement of Oliver and Lucas on Wednesday.
“We will endorse and or spend money now and in the future as it is needed to protect, preserve and promote the culture of Nonantum. We will support those in politics who support us, and stand against those who don’t,” Yerardi said in the email.
Both candidates reposted the statement on their social media accounts and said that they are grateful for Save Nonantum’s endorsement.
I am so grateful for the support of the Save Nonantum PAC, Nonantum is a special village with its own unique character and I look forward to working with village leaders and residents in the months and years ahead as your City Councilor. pic.twitter.com/zsmD5bK0dW
— Tarik Lucas (@electtariklucas) February 25, 2021
Kevin Riffe, treasurer of Save Nonantum, said in the statement that Oliver and Lucas are candidates who share the values of Nonantum residents, as well as residents throughout Newton.
“We are especially proud that our inaugural endorsement includes a person, Tarik Lucas, who if elected would be the first African American in 35 years to sit on the city council,” Riffe said in the statement. “Nonantum is the most diverse community in Newton, and the time has come to have some real diversity on the council.”
Demographic reports for the City of Newton by Barry Bluestone from Northeastern University in 2014 indicate that Nonantum is the third most diverse of Newton villages, with 20.1 percent of Nonantum residents being non-white, based on census data from 2010. The most diverse villages include Newton Upper Falls with 27.8 percent non-white residents and Oak Hill Park with 22.5 percent non-white residents.
On the organization’s GoFundMe page, which received its first donations over two weeks ago, the organization describes which traditions it feels are being threatened.
“Instead of respecting our differences, they claim our traditions are offensive. They want an end to all the Italian colors and flags in our neighborhood,” the GoFundMe reads. “They have already force[d] the cancelation of celebrations of being an Italian American. If we allow them to continue they will end our festival, our procession of saints in our streets and even put an end to our Santa!”
The GoFundMe page also says that 100 percent of the funds raised will go toward preserving Nonantum’s traditions and culture, including supporting politicians who support this mission and opposing those who do not.
“For far too long our community has silently gone along, hoping you will lead us and do the right thing by us. Instead, we have been disappointed. Not by all, but by many,” a letter from Save Nonantum to the community reads. “You have disrespected our firefighters, our police, our Italian American heritage, and the straw that broke our backs, recently it was suggested by a candidate that our community culture is not inclusive. We will not get into a who said what blame game.”
Barash and Ranalli publicly responded on social media to the issues raised by Save Nonantum.
I don’t know where these rumors about me opposing our Italian flag paint, Festa, or beloved Santa started, but they're absolutely false. These traditions are what makes Nonantum so special to my family and have helped me connect to my Italian heritage. https://t.co/KYxRn3deAU
— Maddy Ranalli (@madelineranalli) February 13, 2021
Barash told The Heights that he has no desire to eliminate any Nonantum traditions and explained his personal connection to Nonantum, including the first home he bought there with his wife and his frequent bike rides in the area.
“I don’t know why anyone would be against flying the Italian flag or painting the streets green, white and red, but I will state for the record that I am for being able to continue doing those things,” Barash wrote. “I’ve been to the St. Mary of Carmen Festival many times, and in fact hope it resumes safely this summer. And as it relates to Santa, I even made a donation to the Nonantum Children’s Christmas Party Association this winter. I have the receipt if anyone is interested.”
Barash said in an interview with The Heights that he denies any claims that Save Nonantum is making about him.
“I don’t have any desire to take away people’s cultural heritage or their Italian flags,” Barash said. “I don’t have any desire to change the way that they paint the streets, or the way that they celebrate their cultural days.”
Barash said he first saw Save Nonantum on Facebook and feels that it is a smear campaign aimed against himself and Ranalli.
“The people who are leading it made it clear in their private Facebook posts that they were raising money to attack us,” Barash said in an interview with The Heights. “But they, you know, they didn’t indicate who it was against in the fundraiser, which I think was part of the tactic, right, to use generic allegations rather than specific names, because there’s people who donated to it who wouldn’t have a face to all the names.”
Yerardi would not name the politicians that Save Nonantum is referencing, saying that the group would not “get into a who said what blame game.”
“We have not mentioned any candidates on our website or anywhere else, the reaction by many politicians and candidates over the course of the past week have spoken volumes to us,” Yerardi said in the email.
Barash said he expects the Save Nonantum funds to be used for attack ads, although there would be no way to confirm this because the organization does not disclose its finances.
Save Nonantum received its first GoFundMe donation, raising $18,230 through 189 donations, some of which appear publicly as anonymous donations. The GoFundMe is currently disabled and not accepting new donations at this time.
Political action committees are required to document the name and the address of each political contribution, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. If the donation amount is greater than $200, contributors are required to list their occupation and employer. Yerardi said that Save Nonanum is collecting all required information and is working with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to ensure compliance with state regulations.
Based on the contributor list on the GoFundMe page, 21 of the donations are currently listed as “anonymous.” Four of the anonymous donations are equal to or greater than $200.
“Anonymous may show on the public side of the site, but the back end administrative side is not anonymous.” Yerardi said in the email. “Many people don’t want their names listed because they fear retaliation by the very politicians that we want to hold accountable. Frankly, given the vicious reaction we have gotten from some over this past week, I don’t blame them.”
Save Nonantum is accepting donations online through eFundraising Connections or by mail to 328 Watertown St., which is the preferred method, according to the group’s website. Save Nonantum instructs contributors donating over $200 to include their occupation and employer.
“Funds are coming in every day by day 5 we were over $20,000,” Yerardi said in the email. “We could raise a lot more, however there are special interests that are strategically trying to jam up our funds electronically. I assume it’s because they don’t want us to have a voice.”
Yerardi said that Columbus Day was originally established to combat anti-immigration and anti-Italian rhetoric, which he said demonstrates the promises that councilors have not followed through on. Newton City Council voted on Nov. 2 to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“We don’t appreciate the removal of any day established to combat anti-immigration and anti-Italian rhetoric,” Yerardi said in the email. “However this issue is not the main focus of the Save Nonantum group, but it does highlight another in a series of broken promises from the politicians who pledged ‘We will establish another day to honor Italians’ – they have yet to do so.”
Eight City Councilors—Emily Norton, Jake Auchincloss, Alicia Bowman, Becky Grossman, Bill Humphrey, Josh Krinzman, Brenda Noel, and Holly Ryan—proposed the renaming of the holiday. Ciccone and Lenny Gentile voted against the change.
Barash told The Heights that it is unfortunate that people feel the need to engage in negative politics in a local race. He said that he feels this is what people are exhausted with on a national level.
“I think this is just a symptom of campaigns, that campaign of my opponent where they’re using language like, radical and, you know, other kinds of attacks that we see at the federal level that I don’t think we want to see in Newton politics,” Barash said in an interview. “I’m trying to run a positive issue-oriented campaign, and I think that’s what Newton voters want us to be doing. So I just call for them to stop these negative attacks.”
Featured Image by Keara Hanlon / for The Heights