When Jim Brett was a longtime state representative running for mayor in 1993, he was the only candidate on the ballot who was also a Dorchester resident. He was up against Hyde Park City Councillor Thomas Menino, who would go on to win the coveted job.
Twenty years later, Savin Hill’s Marty Walsh holds Brett’s old House seat and he has launched his own mayoral bid, amassing cash and union support early on. But this time, there may be more than one Dorchester resident’s name on the ballot.
The nomination signatures are still being counted and the full ballot remains unclear, but this year’s race for mayor could feature six to seven candidates coming out of the city’s largest neighborhood. The other potential candidates reside in West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, East Boston, and Mission Hill.
“I think one of the reasons that people run from Dorchester is not only the size, being as big as it is, it’s multi-cultural, it’s the diversity. The richness of the diversity of the city is right in this neighborhood,” Brett said in a sit-down Monday after the Memorial Day ceremony at Cedar Grove Cemetery, where several candidates spent some of their Monday morning. “So a lot of candidates feel as though they’ve experienced all of the different challenges that one would face as an elected official in a community like this, and they feel as though why not the next step, to run for mayor?”
The Dorchester candidates, aside from Walsh, include former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, a Brooklyn native living on Meeting House Hill who represented the House district adjacent to Walsh’s for almost three terms; John Barros, a community activist and former School Committee member who was born in Roxbury and now lives on Virginia Street in Uphams Corner; Bill Walczak, a New Jersey native who co-founded of the Codman Square Health Center and briefly served as president of Carney Hospital; longtime District 4 Councillor Charles Yancey, who lives on Hooper Street; and Charles Clemons, who co-founded a low-frequency radio station and lives on Rosseter Street David Portnoy, a Swampscott native who founded the Barstool Sports website, lives in Lower Mills, but has few ties to Dorchester.
For the most part, Dorchester is part of their biographies and the narrative they’re using to introduce themselves to voters in the neighborhood and across the city. Walsh, a Dorchester native whose parents moved here from Ireland in the 1950s, weaved growing up in St. Margaret’s Parish into his kick-off speech earlier this month.
Golar Richie, who was brought here by a summer job at WBZ-TV, ended up staying. “We’re in a very good position to elect a mayor from Dorchester this fall,” she said, adding, naturally, that she hopes it’s her.
She and her husband, Winston, have lived on Meeting House Hill for 26 years, and she used to walk their dog, Benji, to the top of Ronan Park early in the morning. “We would enjoy sitting up on top of that park, looking up over the harbor,” she said.
Barros, who is of Cape Verdean descent, recalls attempting to improve the neighborhood since the age of 14. He pledged to campaign throughout Boston, focusing on his background as a small businessman, executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and his brief tenure on the seven-member School Committee.
Walczak said his wife Linda, who was born and raised in Dorchester, led him to put down roots in the neighborhood. They were married at St. Gregory’s when they were 18. “The energy of Dorchester is in its people,” he said during a recent sit-down at his home in Savin Hill, over the I-93 bridge and blocks away from Walsh’s home on Tuttle Street. “I’m a convert. I came to Boston and I fell in love with Boston” – a city filled with “people trying to make a difference.”
Yancey, elected to the City Council in 1983, was born in Roxbury and moved to Dorchester in 1975. “It’s hard to say what motivates people to run for office,” he said. “But we are blessed in Dorchester to have so many activists who believe in public office.” Yancey is running for mayor and for reelection to his council seat. He will have to choose one office or the other if he wins both seats.
Clemons, the radio station co-founder and first-time candidate, grew up in Roxbury and Four Corners. “Whatever the mind and heart believes it shall achieve,” Clemons told the Reporter in a 2009 profile of him. “I say five words every day: pray, create, adapt, improvise, and overcome. That’s my mandate and I can do it. I’m not doing it for Brother Charles, I’m doing it for the people.”
Asked if he thinks any candidates have an edge, Brett, now president and CEO of the New England Council, an alliance of institutions that advocates for economic growth for the six-state region, noted that the September preliminary, which will winnow the field to two candidates, is still months away. “I think they all have a unique message,” he said. “And they all have their assets. But I think it’s too early to assess who’s the front runner.”
The question for each candidate is how to break away from the pack, he said. “You need more than just Dorchester, but it’s a good base,” he said.
When he ran for representative in 1981, Brett had Savin Hill as his base, while the other candidates came from other parts of Dorchester. “You don’t bank on Savin Hill as your base. You hope to do okay there, but you have to do well in other areas of the city,” Brett said. His goal, he said, was to come in second in all the different parishes, because every parish had its own candidate.
“I think these guys have to be that way, too,” he said. “Get a good chunk of the vote out of here and then do well in other areas of the city.”