Dylan Fernandes, 32, was driving home from a meeting at a historic Falmouth bus station last week when he got the call that about 50 migrants had been flown onto Martha’s Vineyard with no notice.
He arrived home, packed a bag, and headed to the 6:15 p.m. ferry from Woods Hole with a takeout container of Indian food in tow.
Nearly instantly, the migrants’ arrival catapulted the little-known state representative into the national spotlight as an outspoken critic of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and a steady voice for the island community. He has helped lead the call for a criminal investigation into the transport of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts, paid for by the DeSantis administration’s $12 million “relocation program,” a demand that he says has resulted in at least one death threat.
He said that on the ferry ride to the island he downloaded Twitter onto his phone — “I hate social media” — and began to highlight the plight of the mostly Venezuelan migrant families and defend the Martha’s Vineyard community, which created temporary housing inside an Edgartown church.
In the subsequent days, Fernandes, who represents Falmouth, the Vineyard, Nantucket, and Gosnold, has made more than 40 television and radio appearances, he said, and gained thousands of followers on social media.
“This has been a crazy circus,” he told the Globe in an interview, noting that he doesn’t have cable television and rarely watches TV. “In my mind, every human being, no matter their background, deserves to be treated like a human being. I felt very grounded in that and I know a lot of people on Martha’s Vineyard and in the state felt very similarly.”
Fernandes was first elected in 2016 at 26 years old, becoming the second-youngest member of the Massachusetts House.
Those who know him describe him as a quintessential “Cape kid,” a fourth-generation Falmouth native who kitesurfs, fishes, and knows his way around a boat. He is an energetic Democrat, described by staff as laser-focused on making sure his district gets what they need from Beacon Hill, planning his day to accommodate the ferry schedule when he needs to visit constituents on the islands.
The representative was raised by a landscaper and a potter in a middle-class family, working seasonal jobs throughout high school and college as a line cook at an upscale fish restaurant, a groundworker at the historic Woods Hole Golf Club, and a coffee brewer at a small store.
His father owns a tree business and his mother, who worked as a waitress when she moved to Falmouth in her early 20s, owns Flying Pig Pottery.
One set of his great-grandparents immigrated from the Azores to Fall River, eventually settling in Falmouth to work as strawberry farmers.
His grandfather, who was in the military, abandoned the family at a young age, leaving Fernandes’s father — one of nine — and his grandmother to raise the children on their own.
His father’s family was so poor that they had to share one bath’s worth of water each day.
“I got into government because I wanted to make an impact in vulnerable people’s lives,” he said. “I ground myself in their story.”
Fernandes, the first in his family to go to college, has a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the College of Charleston and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University.
He got his start in politics as an organizer on Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign. In 2013, he went on to do campaign work for Edward J. Markey’s special election campaign for Senate. In 2014, he worked as the political director on Maura Healey’s campaign for attorney general and served in her office as a civil rights mediator and digital director.
He was one of the first people Healey hired at the time and crisscrossed the state attending caucuses in his treasured Volvo, with the candidate in tow.
When Fernandes ran for office himself, Healey endorsed him, telling reporters at the time that she is “such a huge fan.”
“I think he learned a lot about the type of leader he wanted to be,” during the campaign, said Allie Owen, a political consultant who worked alongside Fernandes. “If the odds are stacked against you, as long as you have really good energy and are confident and consistently investing in the people around you, even when it’s really hard, that is worth seeing out.”
State Senator Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat who also represents Martha’s Vineyard, has been friends with Fernandes since they were young campaign field organizers in 2012 — Cyr for Barack Obama and Fernandes for Warren. Now, as the two elected officials representing the area on Beacon Hill, they travel together to the islands on a ferry or, sometimes, a boat. Cyr said the two meet constituents, attend events, and sometimes take a break to fish off of Cuttyhunk Island.
“We were laughing at and marveling at this level of exposure, it’s almost funny. Like Dylan did Don Lemon at 11 p.m.,” said Cyr, who himself has been active and outspoken on the migrant issue. “Dylan is representing Cape Cod values on a national stage. People are proud of that here. He has been really clear and really unafraid to call out the cruelty for what it is.”
In the community, some leaders see Fernandes destined for positions outside of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
“He has just grown into this role,” said Carla Cooper, chair of the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard. “I think he is going on to bigger and better things.”
Fernandes himself is mum on the issue.
“When you get elected at 26, it’s a constant question,” Fernandes said. “People are always asking me about this position or that . . . it’s important to me to not think about your future in terms of a position but the values that you have and what makes you happy.”
Samantha J. Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.