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Pariahs, pantheons, and Chuck Turner

It was a little after the City Council vote last week to expel Chuck Turner when I got off the trolley at Government Center. As I was on the way up the stairs, I saw a descending face that looked familiar yet puzzling.

This figure on the escalator seemed to recognize me. I still don’t know who this was, but it was only a couple of seconds before misplaced resemblance became a reminder of a tarnished political figure in Boston’s past. That’s why, as I headed across the wet brick plaza toward a funereal mass of people outside City Hall, I thought of the late state representative from Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain, Kevin Fitzgerald.

Unlike Turner, Fitzgerald was never convicted of a crime. But he was entangled in a civil action over money he came by after helping an elderly woman described as being mentally impaired and having bags of cash containing thousands of dollars. Though Fitzgerald was a beneficiary in the woman’s will, there was no proof beyond all reasonable doubt of stealing money that, sooner or later, should have gone to someone else. And Fitzgerald denied that it was a case of private compensation for public service. Though the case was widely reported in the Boston media, Fitzgerald kept being re-elected. For the rest of his political career, he would also be saddled with a familiar nickname, “Money Fitz.”

As he made his defense before [the Council’s] vote, Chuck Turner compared himself to a more famous figure who went from humble origins in Roxbury to Jamaica Plain – Boston’s “Rascal King,” James Michael Curley. Along with rising as high as mayor, governor and congressman, Curley was convicted twice, and on the second occasion for a federal crime. Not only that, he continued serving as mayor of Boston after his release from prison.

As a Roxbury politician who spent some time helping local constituents –including ex-offenders – Curley certainly has some things in common with Turner, who has lived in Roxbury for decades but was born in Ohio. To be sure, Curley had his attractive traits and admirable accomplishments. Unlike Turner, the son of immigrants moved to the Jamaicaway and lived in a mansion with servants (plus legendary lines of supplicants at his door).

The author of The Rascal King, Jack Beatty, offers plenty of detail about the dark side of Curley, as off-and-on demagogue and possible crook. When asked if Curley might have done any garnishing along the way, the author of a more recent book on Curley, former State Senate President William Bulger, strongly disagreed.

Two years before he died, Curley moved from the mansion to a smaller house in Jamaica Plain. He was diminished materially and, more importantly, by the death of all but one of his children. The combination of accomplishments, misdeeds, and misfortune made him seem larger than life.

When Curley died in 1958, there was what has been called “the largest funeral in the history of the city of Boston,” maybe surpassing even the turnout at Columbia Point last year after the death of Ted Kennedy. Likewise, Fitzgerald was remembered before and after his death as a strong champion of human services. He would eventually be honored by the naming of a scenic park looking out on the office towers of downtown Boston and the spires of Mission Church.

Further on in Boston’s political afterlife, Chuck Turner will be remembered as a leader of campaigns for jobs, reform around criminal background checks, and for putting a spotlight on the persistent achievement gap in the city’s schools. If he was remembered in [the Council] vote for taking a wad of cash at his office in Dudley Square (as the federal jury saw it), he might also be remembered for spending time there to help individuals trying to get their lives back on track.

When Turner invoked Curley yesterday in the City Council’s Iannella Chamber, some found the comparison fatuous or offensive. If it was a plea for being allowed to stay in office, it was certainly wishful. If less than fully persuasive, it did open the door to more comparisons with elected and non-elected officials who, despite serious lapses, managed to keep their positions.

But the view of Curley in Boston is like an image in a cracked mirror, or a pair of images that don’t quite match. So it is with the two pieces of sculpture near City Hall. One shows Curley standing proud – Curley the beloved, the admirable, and, perhaps, shrewdly mythological. The other shows an old man on a bench, a fellow mortal, not so much enthroned as deposed.

Yes, Curley the ex-offender was allowed to serve the remainder of his term as mayor. He ran again more than once but was never again elected. While he was a strong candidate for immortality, the voters of his last decade confirmed that he had outlived his usefulness as a public official.

By voting to expel Turner, his colleagues might seem to have been slighting the positive elements that people might remember in years ahead. If Turner were to have continued serving, the sting leading to his conviction might have gotten more life as a public issue –with voters in Roxbury’s District 7 left to see his behavior as principled defiance or colossal stupidity.

But, instead, the expulsion left the district’s voters to concentrate on something else. That takes the spotlight off the afterlife of other officials who go on to work for interests with business before the city or the state. And it dims the glare on the more roundabout –though usually quite legal – ways of rewarding people in the public realm for benefits in the private realm. What Turner’s exit also makes less apparent is any resemblance to the lingering presence of Curley on the bench.

Chris Lovett is the News Director of BNN-TV’s Neighborhood Network News. This article originally appeared on his blog, CivicBoston.