A small fraction of District 7’s 40,000 registered voters are expected to hit the polls on Tuesday, with six contenders on the ballot and a write-in candidate vying to replace former City Councillor Chuck Turner.
Turner’s ouster from the council after his bribery conviction and 11 years on the 13-member body has led to a bumper crop of candidates who, aside from a pair of perennial candidates, are relatively new to the political scene and are attempting to carry forward a legacy of activism within the district.
Tito Jackson, an unsuccessful candidate for City Council At-Large in 2009, is the son of the late Herbert Kwaku Zulu Jackson, a community activist. Cornell Mills, a former homicide investigator, is the son of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. Natalie Carithers is an ex-aide to former Mattapan state Rep. Willie Mae Allen and Danielle Renee Williams has served as an aide to Turner and other local politicians.
Haywood Fennell is a veteran and author, waging a write-in campaign after missing the deadline to pull nomination papers.
Tuesday’s election will determine the two candidates who will face off on March 15 to serve out the rest of Turner’s term this year. The winner, and perhaps the runner-up as well, will likely run again this fall for a full two-year term in the seat.
Jackson, a former aide to Gov. Deval Patrick, is the odds-on favorite in the race, given the tens of thousands of dollars he has raised in a relatively short period and his strong run in wards and precincts in the heart of District 7 despite placing fifth in a bid for one of four at-large seats. The district includes Dorchester, Roxbury, the South End, and parts of the Fenway neighborhood.
If Jackson runs to form, who is most likely to face him in the short campaign that will follow? Many local political observers believe it will be Mills, while others, inside and outside the district, say the field remains wide open because of the unpredictable dynamics of a special election in the middle of February. Althea Garrison, a former state representative who frequently runs for public office, has often received several hundred votes. Roy Owens, another perennial candidate, also has drawn a consistent share of votes in the past.
State Rep. Carlos Henriquez, who ran against Turner twice before winning a State House seat in his third bid for public office, has been attending events for both Jackson and Mills while staying neutral in the race. “Their presence is the largest in the district,” Henriquez said. “You can be driving through Dudley and Uphams Corner, and they’re the ones with standouts and with people going door to door.”
Jackson and Mills have also been racking up endorsements. Jackson touted support from 13 unions, including the politically powerful healthcare union SEIU 1199, while Mills had a fundraiser on Tuesday that drew support from a number of local ministers.
Jackson also has the support of Turner, a friend of his late father. And despite the presence of three women in the race, the Boston chapter of the National Organization for Women has endorsed Jackson.
In some respects, Jackson and Mills are similar: Both are natives of the district who are close in age and grew up in politically active homes. They’re leaning on seasoned veterans to help them with their campaigns: In Mills’ case, there’s Boyce Slayman, who managed his mother’s campaign. Wilkerson, who is fighting a 42-month jail sentence that’s due to start next month, is also advising his campaign. Jackson has a number of former aides from Gov. Patrick’s re-election campaign working for him.
But Jackson and Mills differ in style and approach to public office: While Jackson projects a “Together We Can” mentality, taking a page from his former boss’s playbook, Mills frames things in terms of fights and struggles.
“We’re not going to get anything without a fight,” Mills said when asked what he learned growing up. “There’s not going to be any progress without struggle. Because everyone has different issues and everyone wants a piece of this one pie.”
How that pie is divided up is based on who’s going to fight for their constituencies, Mills contends. At a recent candidates’ forum where audience members kept pressing the candidates on whether they would step up to Mayor Thomas Menino, Mills said, “The mayor’s constituency is not necessarily Roxbury. He’s from – you know, he lives in Hyde Park. He’s of Italian descent, so he has a lot of North End connections. And you know, what happens a lot of times, this is just old school politics.”
When you’ve been around as long as the mayor, you build up influence and enemies, said Mills, who supports mayoral term limits. “So you know, I think he’s been able to do both. He’s done a great job of listening to other communities’ concerns, but you know, like I said, most people in this community know our history, so they know that everything that we’ve gotten has been from a fight, whether it be a legal fight, or a boycott fight, or whatever it is.”
Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for Menino, who remains popular in communities of color as well as across the city, pointed to an announcement this week on funding for an afterschool program for 30 freshmen at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, the new police station in District B-3, and investments in the Ferdinand building in Dudley Square. “That whole corridor has seen transformations under his leadership,” Dot Joyce, the spokeswoman, said.
But the questions at the recent forum show voters don’t want a “go-along-to-get-along candidate” in District 7, Mills said. “And I think, you know, that’s some of the challenges that Tito’s going to have to face, considering the endorsements, because obviously they come with repercussions.”
He has known many of the same people that Jackson knows, he said. “The main difference is I don’t owe anybody anything.”
For his part, Jackson points to helping register 50,000 new registered voters in his work with Dunk the Vote, the 2,500 jobs created when he was working in the governor’s economic development secretariat, and the 30,000 votes he received in his at-large run. “I have a demonstrated history of delivering results,” he said.
“What’s most important for District 7, facing the obstacles and challenges that we have, is a candidate who on Day One is prepared, has the know-how and particularly in economic development, with the joblessness that we have, to be able to deliver results,” Jackson said. “We can’t afford to have anyone riding with training wheels.”
In an interview at his Tremont Street campaign offices, Jackson pointed to blacks making up one-fifth of the population of Boston, but 55 percent of the unemployed. His focus will be on the 2,200 small businesses in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, and pulling together networking nights for entrepreneurs who need access to capital, he said.
“Many of them have four employees or less, but these are the folks who are hiring people. These are the people we need to invest in and make sure they’re doing okay.”
The preliminary election comes during Black History Month, Jackson added.
“The country was burning in 1968, including Roxbury,” he said. “And the amazing people who were here were resilient, they were persistent, they built partnerships, they built collaborations. My father was there, Chuck was there, Mel King was there, Bruce Bolling, all these folks. And they rebuilt. And they did it together. They leaned on one another. And hopefully in this race I can be the rock for the community. I want them to lean on me as we continue to build better schools…some safer streets, and most importantly, that economic revitalization that we need to see.”
Mills, in an interview at the Haley House restaurant, said he is focusing on crime as a top priority. A former homicide investigator, he has worked on gang mediation issues, heading into the rougher neighborhoods in the city.
The drug trade that has led to a rise in homicides is about the finances of a population that doesn’t have high school diplomas and needs alternatives focused on entrepreneurship, Mills said, biting into a grilled jerk chicken sandwich.
“Obviously, they’re self employed already, so they’re into the whole idea of being able to run their own business, so it’s a matter of convincing them to take it from an illegal trade to a legal trade,” he said.
Mills, who said he has not yet considered running again for the seat if he loses the elections this month or next, will also push for more reform of the criminal offender record information (CORI) system. The law signed last year falls short because it doesn’t include juveniles’ records, and the sealing of criminal records, now done at 10 years, should be left up to the discretion of a judge, he said.
Jackson sidestepped the question of whether he would run in the fall if he lost the special elections. “I’m trying to get to Feb. 15,” he said. “I am very focused on Feb. 15 and in no way am I taking anyone or anything for granted.”
Nor should anybody, local political observers say. “I wouldn’t underestimate the quietness of any candidate,” Rep. Henriquez said, after noting the door-knocking and the more visible standouts – even during snowstorms – of the Mills and Jackson campaigns.
At a candidates’ forum in Hibernian Hall on Tuesday, six of the contenders pitched their candidacies, speed dating-style, hitting table after table of residents and answering a handful of questions before organizers hit a cymbal, signaling them to move onto another group of potential voters.
Williams and Carithers, who in her opening statement noted that her father passed away last week, both pledged to maintain an office in the district, as Turner did. Fennell touted himself as a consensus builder.
Williams said she would have voted to support a controversial firefighters’ contract, drawing some consternation from the table she was at, with several of those seated pointing out that Turner voted against the contract because he felt the city could not afford it.
Carithers said she would attempt to stop payments to contractors with projects in the district if they don’t give jobs in the neighborhood to local minorities and women. “I have an issue with that because I see it,” she said. “All the time.”