The Political Debate Outside Market Basket

by Chris Wangler

July 20, 2022

Could the issue of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants become a ballot question in the fall election? The debate has come to Market Basket in Waltham.

Earlier this year, Massachusetts state legislators voted overwhelmingly to pass the Work and Family Mobility Act and then overcame a subsequent veto by Governor Charlie Baker.

The new law would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses starting in July 2023. More than a dozen other states already have similar laws.

But Fair and Secure Massachusetts wants to repeal the law through a ballot initiative. 

Repeal supporters in Waltham believe that those in the country illegally should not have licenses and that the new law could unfairly grant voting rights to undocumented immigrants.

Repeal opponents believe the law will increase safety through licensing and insurance for residents who already drive. They also say ballot initiative supporters are misrepresenting the law and using hate speech.

Some heated discussions among Waltham residents during permitted signature collection events at Market Basket have resulted in two Waltham Police responses, including one where Fair and Secure volunteers say they were unjustly asked to leave.

Police Matter?

State law allows for the collection of signatures at supermarkets and shopping centers, as long as certain rules are followed.

Fair and Secure volunteers obtained permission from Market Basket to set up tables in front of the store on two consecutive Sundays.

On July 10, Ward 9 city councilor Jonathan Paz and a handful of repeal opponents arrived holding signs reading “DECLINE TO SIGN ASK ME WHY.” 

One ballot initiative supporter held a sign reading “AMERICANS GET AMERICAN PRIVILEGES NOT ILLEGALS.”

Ballot initiative volunteer David Cain was collecting signatures when Waltham Police responded and asked him and the other volunteers to leave. 

“We were scheduled to be there from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., but around 3:00 p.m. the sergeant told us that the assistant manager had revoked her permission for us to be there,” he said.

Cain and other volunteers were upset that their peaceful signature collection was upended by opponents who did not have permission to demonstrate.

A Belmont town meeting member, Tommasina Olson, wrote a letter to Waltham mayor Jeannette McCarthy claiming that the ballot initiative opponents harassed a Belmont volunteer.

“The harassment caused him to fear for his safety,” she wrote. Olson asked that Paz be removed from the council or publicly censured for “denial of this young man's civil rights.” 

But councilor Paz said that he and others did not protest or interfere, but rather “civilly and respectfully” exercised First Amendment rights to prevent misrepresentations of the law.

“This anti-immigrant group used disrespectful and inflammatory language discussing immigrants as ‘illegals,’ ‘criminals’ and ‘border hoppers,’” said Paz. He claimed some customers were offended.

“This hateful speech is not a reflection of Waltham and our values as a diverse community,” he said.

Waltham Police explained that Market Basket sought to de-escalate the situation.

“Due to the situation escalating and business being impacted negatively, management requested that all parties be asked to leave,” said Waltham Police Det. Sgt. Tim King.

Fair and Secure volunteers believe Market Basket and Waltham Police wrongly asked them to leave as they exercised their First Amendment rights to collect signatures for a legitimate ballot initiative.

They proceeded to Hannaford, where David Cain said they were able to collect signatures with permission and without interference.

“Illegals,” Voting and Road Safety

Undeterred, Fair and Secure returned with permission to Market Basket last weekend, on July 17, now with Waltham volunteers.

Collecting signatures was Jim Dixon, chair of the Waltham Republican City Committee and a Third Middlesex District GOP delegate.

Dixon worries about the Work and Family Mobility Act’s implications for voting.

“There was no protection in the motor vehicle portion of the law from keeping undocumented immigrants from voting,” he said.

It was the same reason why Governor Charlie Baker tried unsuccessfully to veto the new law back in May, saying “it restricts the Registry of Motor Vehicle's ability to share citizenship information with those entities responsible for ensuring that only citizens register for and vote in our elections.”

Along with voting eligibility concerns, Waltham ballot initiative supporters see the law as part of a larger illegal immigration crisis―and law and order.

“The law is the law,” said ballot initiative volunteer Joe Guinan, of Waltham. “Illegals shouldn’t have driver’s licenses.”

“It’s despicable,” said Waltham resident Sal Cimino. “They’re illegals. They’re notorious for not being able to read and they cause a lot of accidents.”

“I am concerned about the crime wave we’re experiencing due to the explosion of illegals crossing the southern border,” said Evelyn Reilly, another Waltham signature collector.

Waltham community activist Josh Kastorf spoke with some of the ballot initiative supporters on Sunday. 

“The bill was passed to keep everyone safe, so it’s hard to understand why they would want to repeal it if not because of prejudice,” Kastorf said.

“They didn’t seem to know much about illegal immigration or possible solutions,” he said.

Ward 9 resident Nina Kammerer, a constituent of councilor Jonathan Paz’s, was there on both days and held a sign on July 10. She supports ballot initiative rights, but objected to the use of the word “illegal” on signs and in discussions about the issue.

“You don’t have permission to use hate speech and you can’t misrepresent the law,” she said.

Kammerer denied that the new law would automatically grant licenses or voting rights to undocumented immigrants, as some opponents worry.

After some disagreements in front of Market Basket on July 17, Waltham Police responded once again, although there was no report and no arrests.

Like many chiefs across the state, Waltham Police chief Kevin O’Connell supports the Work and Family Mobility Act.

“As long as those issued driver’s licenses are properly trained and insured, this law will help to not only make our roads safer, but will assist in breaking down some of the barriers that have created distrust due to encounters when previously driving without a license,” O'Connell said in a statement. 

He added that “This law will assist in keeping people employed and helping families get to school and other important activities.”

November Ballot Question?

So does the ballot initiative have a chance? The issue has brought conservatives together.

Last Sunday, residents from all over came to Market Basket in Waltham to sign up, and Waltham supporters like Darren West expressed confidence that it would be on the ballot this fall.

One of the organizers for Fair and Secure Massachusetts, Henry Barbaro, estimated that 100 signatures were collected on July 10 at Market Basket and roughly the same on July 17.

The head of the ballot initiative, Republican strategist Wendy Wakeman, said it’s hard to give a precise figure of signatures given the hundreds of volunteers deployed across the state.

“I’d say we will come out of this weekend with 12,000 signatures of our 60,000 goal,” she said earlier this week. 

The ballot initiative needs roughly 40,000 certified signatures by August 24. If Fair and Secure meets a September deadline with the secretary of state, the ballot question can be put to voters in November.

“The volunteers in Waltham are exceptional,” Wakeman said. “They’ve withstood interference, intimidation and harassment from city officials and paid thugs, and they will not back down.”