Education focus at Sixth forum

Four of the five candidates running to succeed retiring state Rep. Willie Mae Allen made their pitch to voters last week at a Grove Hall forum, discussing local jobs policies and education, and why Sixth Suffolk District residents should vote for them.

Russell Holmes, a community activist and certified financial planner with Ameriprise, touted his financial experience, saying his work with families on balancing their budget will help when he gets to the State House, which has faced making $8 billion in cuts to the state budget in the last several years.

“We’re going to get hit even worse next year,” Holmes told the crowd gathered in Prince Hall.

Voting rights organization MassVOTE and a coalition of other groups, as well as the Dorchester Reporter, sponsored the Thursday night forum. Russell Contreras, who covers immigration and minority affairs for the Associated Press, was the moderator.

Candidates Karen Payne and Kathy Gabriel touted themselves as dedicated to the community, which includes Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, as well as small parts of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. Payne, who has taken a leave from her job as head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said as state representative, she “will do everything in my power to ensure” more students graduate from high school.

Darrin Howell, who has worked in City Councillor Chuck Turner’s office on constituent services, said he would provide leadership that is “in tune” with the community and stand up to the Massachusetts House speaker as well as House leaders.

“Beacon Hill is not coming to Dorchester,” Howell said. “Let’s bring Dorchester to Beacon Hill.”
A fifth candidate, Divo Monteiro, did not make an appearance at the forum. He is a local justice of the peace.

All are running as Democrats. With no Republicans in the race, the Sept. 14 primary will effectively determine Allen’s successor.

Each candidate touted education has a top priority. “You cannot be successful without education,” said Gabriel, who is on leave from her job at Suffolk Superior Court. She is making a second run for the seat, having unsuccessfully faced off against Allen in 2008.

Asked about the number of federal stimulus funds the state has received, none of the candidates knew the figure.

“Each time I sit down I have another number,” Holmes said. He expressed disappointment in the state being forced to turn down $147 million in stimulus funds aimed at improving public transportation on Blue Hill Ave. A proposal for an improved bus line was shot down by community outcry after residents said they felt it was being pushed onto them.

Howell said the information on federal stimulus funds, which can be found at a state website (mass.gov/recovery) needs to be more readily available. “It’s not transparent,” he said. “I will go and find out for you.”

Candidates were also questioned on Boston’s resident jobs policy, guidelines that ask developers and contractors to hire Boston residents for 50 percent of the work, minorities for 25 percent of the work, and female workers for 10 percent.

Howell said he supported adding a requirement to hire workers with criminal offender records.
Howell himself has a CORI record, which he frequently mentions on the campaign trail, for firearm possession and domestic violence. He says Turner offered him a second chance and was able to turn his life around.

Payne said pressure must be put on City Hall officials to enforce the guidelines. “It’s our responsibility to ensure these laws on the books are enforced,” she said.

Asked what they would do direct youth away from gun violence, Payne said she supports partnering with schools and programs should steer students towards jobs in radiology and nursing.

“We have 400,000 jobs” available, not enough applying, she said.

Holmes said he would encourage volunteerism with nonprofits.

Howell said community members have to tap into youth culture through social networking, such as the Facebook website. “Education needs to be relevant to youth right now,” he said.