The District 3 final: O'Toole: Cedar Grove work makes me 'best candidate'
At 10 p.m. on a crisp Thursday night, John O’Toole was driving through Adams Corner in his old Cadillac after finishing up at a college fair with his son Jack. They cruised past the newly set-up outpost of Frank Baker’s campaign, its windows still bearing a welcoming gift from an unknown assailant: Eggs.
Who did it, O’Toole didn’t know. But no one had washed the eggs off. “It was bothering me,” O’Toole later recalled.
So he dropped Jack off at their home, picked up a bucket of warm water, and headed back to his rival’s campaign office where he quietly washed down the windows.
The move was reflective of O’Toole’s low-key manner. After he relayed the incident to the Reporter, his campaign manager, Dan Cullinane, shook his head, smiled, and asked his boss, “Why don’t you tell me about these things?” O’Toole then agreed to put the matter on the record.
Like many of his fellow candidates in the Sept. 27 preliminary, O’Toole, a long-time civic activist in Cedar Grove, was a first-time candidate for public office. He did, though, serve as president of the Cedar Grove Civic Association for 14 years.
“I always try to be a low-key guy,” said O’Toole while sitting on a bench outside of Gerard’s as work crews prepped the area for the weekend’s Irish Heritage Festival. “But I was told, ‘John, if you’re going to promote yourself for this job, you’ve got to show people that should vote for you, you have to talk about what you’ve done.’ And it was uncomfortable for me at first."
And it’s because of his time as head of the civic association, he says, that he’s best prepared for the job. “I recognize what the job entails. It’s the front line of constituent services. You know, being civic president for as long as I did is almost councillor-in-training. Because what you’re doing is, you’re the first call that a lot of these people make when they have an issue, and it’s not just city issues. You’re the conduit to all things. You’re the conduit to things state, you’re the conduit to things federal, you know, personal issues for families, employment, people out of jobs. It’s everything. So I’ve been doing it. I’ve been doing it for twenty years. And like I said before, the relationships that I’ve built over the 20 years I think are the things that make me the best candidate for the job.”
The O’Toole family has deep roots in Dorchester. His grandparents came from Ireland, his grandfather from Galway, his grandmother from Donegal. His father’s family is from the St. Mark’s area, while his mother is from Romsey Street in Savin Hill. “The whole district is important to me,” O’Toole said, “north to south, east to west.”
O’Toole’s first home was on Talbot Avenue in a “burnt-out Victorian” house. He moved in with several tradesmen who fixed it up before he married and his wife joined him there. They have since separated.
“That’s when nobody was moving to Talbot Ave.,” he said. “I mean, nobody was moving there. And I was literally told you are out of your mind. You’re out of your mind.”
He later lived in Pope’s Hill for a while before moving to his current home on Minot Street.
At some point, O’Toole came to know City Councillor Maureen Feeney, who announced earlier this year that she wouldn’t be running for re-election. She later endorsed him as her successor, based on their “history of working together,” he said, during her 18 years on the City Council. “My career as a community activist and her career as councillor run parallel,” O’Toole said.
Asked if he ever disagreed with Feeney on an issue, O‘Toole said, “Oh, sure. I mean, we’ve had our issues over the years. Maureen’s opinionated. She has her opinions on things, I have my opinions on things. It even goes to other elected officials.
But, he added, “I’m more about dialogue and figuring out, figuring out the differences and then trying to get to a consensus. One of the things that I learned from being a civic president is to be proactive in a situation, so if I know if there’s going to be a situation coming up, I’m not going to wait till the meeting to try to find a some resolution. I’m going to go to both parties, find out what the issues are, try to get some resolution, so that when we go into this meeting, we’re halfway there. That doesn’t always work, but I’ve found that it works to a great degree of success.”
Pressed to cite a particular disagreement, he said, “I’ll tell you, there’s been some issues,” and turned to Cullinane, who noted that as a civic association president, O’Toole needed to stand by the membership and not put his opinions forward as much.
“I guess it’s hard to say because almost always we’ve been able to work it out,” O’Toole said. “There’s been issues that … we’ve certainly been at odds on issues.”
And O’Toole has been at odds with city officials as well. Over a decade ago, he took the city to federal court over the school assignment policy, and his son Jack was a plaintiff. The lawsuit called for eliminating race as a factor in the assignment policy, the Bay State Banner reported last week.
O’Toole has often spoken of the lawsuit, which was eventually settled, in general terms.
The Banner noted: “If fully successful, the suit would have eliminated one of the last remnants of the 1974 federal court order to desegregate Boston’s schools.”
Asked about the Banner article, O‘Toole stood by his role in the lawsuit. “It was just nobody should be denied a seat on the basis of race. That’s the statement. Nobody should be, right? And he was,” he said of his son. “And that’s all it was. The options for too many families was that it was happening so often, that we were losing families by the droves. Because if you can’t get your kid into kindergarten, that’s a terrible start.”
So instead of moving, they headed to federal court. “It was unconstitutional,” O’Toole told the Reporter. “It was deemed to be unconstitutional. Very simple. And that was a great personal expense. That was three years of my life in federal court. And I like to think the city as a whole is a better place. We now have schools in the neighborhood, K through 8; good schools build good communities.”
But, he added, “The way I look at this, too… this is a new time for the city. We haven’t seen a race like this; it’s been 18 years. We have a lot of young elected officials. I think it’s time to move forward and not necessarily look back too much.”
As the interview wrapped up, O‘Toole sought to draw a distinction between him and other candidates who have sought the job. “I think the difference in the candidates, the others have spoken of vision,” O’Toole said. “‘I have vision for this, I have vision for that, I have vision for this.’ But what have you done to back it up, to show that you’re going to do it? And my motivation is my passion for Dorchester.”
For more on each candidate's positions on issues in the neighborhood, please refer to the Reporter's questionnaire— which they filled out prior to the Sept. 27 preliminary election.