Celester brings checkered past, expertise in crime and punishment before Sixth Suffolk voters

At right: Bill Celester at a key crossroads of the Sixth Suffolk: Blue Hill Ave. and Morton Street. Photo for the Reporter by Don West

It would seem, at first glance, that there are two Bill Celesters. On the one side is the tough-talking cop who won praise as a district commander in Roxbury and as Police Superintendent in Newark, NJ. On the other is an ex-con, who pleaded guilty to three counts of wire, tax, and mail fraud and who did two years in federal prison on those charges.

The two sides are intrinsically tied together. Bill Celester is, for better or worse, both. An ex-cop and an ex-con. The question now is if that dichotomy will be acceptable to voters in the Sixth Suffolk this fall.

All he can do, Celester says, is put himself out there, and let the voters decide. When he made the decision to run for the Sixth Suffolk House seat to be vacated by Shirley Owens-Hicks in January, he says he was certain his criminal past would become an issue.

"I knew it was going to happen when I went into this race," says Celester, over breakfast at Brother's Restaurant in Mattapan Square on Monday.

Soon after Celester made his candidacy public, pundits and columnists were already discussing what to make of it. Some have suggested that his running is a bad idea. They say that he's doing further damage to a black political establishment that has been hurt by State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson's past federal tax conviction and recent revelations about Rep. Marie St. Fleur's financial problems.

Some of the criticism is valid, Celester says, and he's comfortable that not everyone agrees with him. But some of it, he suggests, is personal, directed at him and intended to derail his agenda because he's been a reformer in the past .

"I think there's a group that is in power, that have a certain agenda, and do not want to see strong leadership come out of this community," says Celester.

To combat the personal attacks, Rep. Owens-Hicks' brother Bill Owens, an advisor to Celester's campaign, says that he should confront the issue head-on.

"I think that when you get in politics you open yourself up to a lot of scrutiny. I think that whatever is in his past he should put it on the table and let people weigh the issue," says Owens. "I would urge him to put the whole thing on the table and let people know from his thinking what has happened rather than listening to gossip and conjecture."

During the breakfast, Celester, who's accompanied by James Gildon, an attorney helping him with his campaign, is stopped three times by other patrons, all of whom pledge their support.

"I support you 100 percent," one says, adding that if anyone gives him too much trouble, to send them to deal with her.

These kinds of encounters are happening all the time, he says. People stop him on street corners and in the grocery store, telling him how thrilled they are that he's running and pledging their support. Most people in the district, he estimates, are aware of his past. He hopes they accept it and look past it to the issues.

"I don't want it to become the focus of this campaign, and some people are trying to make it the focus," he says. Issues, not background should be the focus, he adds.

Chief among his issues is public safety. His background in law enforcement makes him, "the right person at the right time," in light of the recent up-tick in violence across the city and throughout the district.

But it's his own criminal background that has given him unique insight on another issue, he says. The Commonwealth's CORI system is in need of reform.

"I think CORI and public safety are tied hand-in-hand," says Celester. During the conversation, he repeatedly brings up the case of an elderly gentleman who decades ago did time in Walpole. He's been clean ever since, but because of the conviction on his record, can't get into public housing. What's the sense in that, Celester asks.

The issue resonates with many activists in the district, who share Celester's opinion that CORI prevents people from getting their lives back on track. The Sixth Suffolk is carved through most of Dorchester's Ward 14, including Franklin Field and the Talbot-Morton Street corridor. It also includes sections of Roslindale and Mattapan.

Mattapan civic activist Mabel Graham, who lives in the Sixth Suffolk, has known Celester going back to his days as a police commander in B-2, and says that his leadership on CORI reform is something the state and the district need.

"When you do your time they should let you go," says Graham. "How can they expect young people to come out of prison and get a job and keep going on with their lives if they keep them under CORI?"

And that seems to be the question that Celester's candidacy asks of voters. How can he continue to serve his community if his criminal past prevents him from having his biggest opportunity to do so?

Celester's name recognition and support in the district make him a formidable candidate, says political consultant Joyce Ferriabough. However, she sees another avenue for Celester, suggesting that the State House might not be the best place for Celester to put his experience to use. "For someone of his talents, I think he needs to be somewhere connected in the fight against violence on a high level," says Ferriabough. She could see him working with young people or as a consultant to the Boston Police Department.

As of now, Celester's sole opponent in the race is Wayne Wilson, a 41-year old resident of Roslindale who touts his credentials as a long-time activist in the Democratic Party.

Wilson thinks that Celester's past is something voters should consider, and expressed surprise that he would even seek elected office.

"I'm surprised he's running to tell you the truth, in that someone who didn't protect the public trust as an employee is looking for the public's trust now," says Wilson.

Wilson believes that the issue will likely get plenty of attention in the media as the race goes forward, and is content for now to collect signatures and meet voters.

Wilson has sought elected office once before, running unsuccessfully against Rep. Liz Malia in 1998. When some districts were redrawn in 2001, his precinct was included in the Sixth Suffolk.