Charles Yancey, the loyal opposition

Yancey with bullhorn

At a rally against violence at Franklin Field last week, Yancey lashed out at the mayor’s latest budget: “This city is heading in the wrong direction.” Photo by Michael Caprio.

At a rally against violence at Franklin Field last week, Yancey lashed out at the mayor’s latest budget: “This city is heading in the wrong direction.” Photo by Michael Caprio

Standing in the doorway of his office shortly after the recent annual budget vote, City Councillor Charles Yancey shrugged and shook his head. Mayor Thomas Menino’s $2.4 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2012 had sailed through the 13-member City Council, with Yancey, unsurprisingly, as the lone “no” vote.

Lamenting that he couldn’t persuade any of his colleagues to join him in voting against the spending plan, Yancey stepped outside to chat. Straightaway, he criticized the mayor’s crackdown on motorized dirt bikes after a four-year-old was shot in the back at Harambee Park at Franklin Field as a distraction from the issue of gun violence.

A week later, a Herald headline: “Councilor: Mayor too soft on crime.” No guessing is needed about which councillor the headline referred to.

“I happen to like Tom Menino,” Yancey said to the Reporter during a sit-down interview at the Codman Square Public Library on Tuesday, where he and his staffers were preparing for his annual book fair, which is scheduled for this Saturday. “I think he means well. And he does a lot of good things. And many of the things I support.”

But a “but” was coming. “I could take the easy way out and say, ‘Everything you’re doing is fine, Tommy,’ and pat you on the head and go on and be, you know, very cooperative in that sense,” Yancey said. “But if I disagreed with him, there’s no way I could vote for an issue if I disagreed with him.”

Lately, Yancey has been disagreeing a lot, often alone in his opposition, at least publicly and style-wise. While other councillors have taken a more targeted and tactical approach, Yancey is the reliable administration foe, ready to let loose a fusillade of criticism, whether it’s over urban farms or the recent spate of shootings.

“He always has a different sense of what the issues may be,” Menino said Tuesday. “I respect him for that and it’s always good to have someone who voices the opposition. You learn from that individual. Sometimes, most often, I don’t agree with him.”

Voters in Dorchester and Mattapan keep returning Yancey to his District 4 seat on the City Council, and are likely to do so again this year with two long-shot candidates as his opposition. Yancey was first elected to the seat in 1983, on his third try. He has made three unsuccessful tries for higher office, too: for auditor in 1986, and for Congress in 1992 and 1998.

Now the dean of the City Council, its longest serving member, he bears the scars from a more contentious council era that featured clashes over busing and segregated housing. Yancey lists a Dorchester/Mattapan police station, a Mattapan public library, and the Mildred Ave. Community Center among his accomplishments.

“He’s a household name in the district,” said Darrin Howell, a District 4 resident who ran for state representative in Mattapan last fall. “He’s the longest standing councilor.”

But Yancey has also had some setbacks. He has been unable to get a new high school built in Mattapan, which he seems to lament in nearly every floor speech and conversation. He lost his staunchest ally earlier this year, when former City Councillor Chuck Turner was sent to jail on bribery charges. Last December, Yancey was again a lone vote, railing against his colleagues for attempting to throw Turner off the council and arguing they didn’t have the authority to do so.

The councillor frequently expresses frustration with City Hall’s fifth floor. The feeling is often mutual, with some saying that Yancey doesn’t push hard enough on his own legislation.

Asked to name the last piece of legislation that he passed with the help of his colleagues, he mentions a requirement for motorbike riders to have a helmet and a driver’s license. The legislation was passed in 2003. “If your question is do I reach out to my colleagues and try to get some support from them, absolutely I do,” Yancey said. “Some of my proposals are more controversial, perhaps, than others, but I believe that the City Council certainly has the opportunity to be a very strong legislative body. The mayor cannot spend any money without the approval of the city council. And my concern is we’re not really leveraging that authority that we have…so if that’s a criticism, that my colleagues aren’t supporting my legislation, my only response to that is I can’t control how they vote, and they can’t control how I vote.”

Yancey argued that the operating budget should have been rejected because of the closing of Hyde Park High School, a move he says will force students into a lesser facility.

Asked why he wasn’t able to persuade the other twelve councillors to join him against the budget, Yancey said, “You’re asking the wrong person. You have to ask them. I mean, you may ask, ‘Why can’t the mayor get me to vote for it?’ I say, well, if the proposals made sense for the people of Boston, I’ll be with him. But those proposals don’t make any sense. Why close 14 community centers in two years? You know, at the very least he should’ve selected a more gradual approach if that’s what he was going to do. And we’re closing dozens of schools. And I cannot support – I just have to vote my conscience. It’s not about being anti anyone. It’s about being pro the city of Boston.”

Yancey says he has an “open door policy” with his fellow councillors. “Now, I don’t know, maybe it’s just a coincidence that many of them used to be on the mayor’s staff,” he adds. “Maybe they still think they are on his staff. I don’t know if they need to get his permission.”

Did he individually lobby them to vote with him on the budget? No, Yancey said. “I’ve talked to a few but you have to be very careful these days, in the age of open meeting law.”

Did he try to negotiate with the Menino administration? “Yes. Well, with him and through his people,” Yancey said. “But they figured, you know, they had their seven votes so they didn’t have to make any concessions to me.”

One longtime political player said that District 4 received a library and a community center despite Yancey and his style. The observer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that Councillor Tito Jackson, who replaced Turner in an April special election, has been on the council for three months and was able to extract budget concessions from the Menino administration, such as keeping the Mason Pool in Roxbury staffed. (The administration is keeping staffers there “until further notice,” though the hours may be reduced in the fall and spring and “there is always the potential for a partner,” according to a spokeswoman.)

For his part, Jackson said he has known the councillor for most of his life. “I think Councillor Yancey, day in, day out, does a very good job at advocating for his district and really the city as a whole.” Jackson added that he often consults with Yancey about municipal finance issues.

Yancey said the budget reflects a “net loss” for Jackson’s District 7. “But again, he has to make his decisions,” Yancey said. “I just think the council as a whole doesn’t have to be a rubber stamp.”

Other councillors say the council regularly acts as a counterweight to Menino, in different ways, and Yancey isn’t the lone voice. “Charles Yancey is certainly not afraid to exercise his voice,” said Councillor Michael Ross, who represents Back Bay and Mission Hill. “And I would argue that the vast majority of city councillors are not afraid to do so.”

If there’s one thing City Hall insiders and outsiders universally praise when talking about Yancey, it’s his annual book fair, which, according to Yancey’s office, has delivered to date 500,000 free books into the hands of more than over 20,000 schoolchildren. Launched in 1987 and now in its 25th consecutive year, the fair will be held at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center this Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m.

Asked how much longer he plans to keep running for office, Yancey replied that it’s up to the voters. “Maybe I’ll think about retiring ten years from now,” he said. “I’m not saying I’ll be on the City Council at that time, but listen, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality of the time. And I’ve had the opportunity to see the results of my labors.”