It was a vote of the City Council that set in motion a special election to replace former City Councillor Chuck Turner. With the first round of that election now just two weeks away, five of the six candidates running to replace Turner gathered together for the first time at a forum held at the Roxbury YMCA last Thursday evening.
The candidates offered a range of responses to the question of whether the council’s 11-1 vote to oust Turner was the right move. Turner, unsurprisingly, thinks it wasn’t, and he is suing city officials over the vote, saying it was illegal and violated his Constitutional rights.
The move, which city councillors have defended as legal and within Council rules that Turner himself signed off on, occurred about a month after a jury had convicted Turner of accepting a $1,000 bribe and lying to federal agents. He was sentenced on Tuesday to three years in prison, but he is pressing ahead with his civil lawsuit against the city, which could determine whether the Council can legally expel one of its own and, if he’s successful, provide him with around two months’ worth of back pay.
“I support him in exhausting all his legal avenues,” said Tito Jackson, a former political aide to Gov. Deval Patrick who is running for Turner’s seat. “I think that’s fair.”
Jackson called Turner, who has said he is supporting Jackson as his successor, a dedicated organizer for the community.
“I hope to never have to take a vote like that, “Jackson said of the council’s decision to remove their 70 year-old colleague. Asked if he would have voted to remove Turner, Jackson said that was a hypothetical question. “I wasn’t in the seat at the time,” he said.
Cornell Mills, a former homicide investigator and the son of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, said the legality of the move is up to the courts to decide. “I’m not an attorney,” he said.
The question of the legality of the City Council’s move was highlighted in a press release promoting the forum last Thursday at the Roxbury YMCA that was organized by a consortium of neighborhood groups. But the question did not come up because of time constraints, organizers said. The Reporter asked the candidates the question after the forum was over.
“He was convicted of a crime,” said Natalie Carithers, an ex-aide to former state Rep. Willie Mae Allen, when asked. But she added that the council’s move may have been “bit premature,” since Turner has not yet been sentenced. “I might have waited until sentencing,” she said.
Asked how she would have voted if she was on the council, Carithers said that was a “difficult call.”
“I can’t answer that right now,” she said.
Danielle Renee Williams, a former aide to state Rep. Gloria Fox, said the voters decided in the last City Council election in 2009 to keep Turner on the council, despite the federal corruption charges.
“They had no right to” oust Turner, she said of the City Council. “The voters decided. They wanted Chuck.”
Haywood Fennell, a community activist waging a write-in campaign because he missed the deadline to gather signatures, said the Council’s vote “wasn’t a fair decision.”
Perennial candidate Roy Owens said, “That’s a good question.” He then clapped a reporter on the shoulder and said he was going to “sleep on it.”
Former state Rep. Althea Garrison, a frequent candidate for public office, did not attend last week’s forum.
During the forum, the candidates fielded questions on increasing the political power of the district, whether they would “stand up” to Mayor Thomas Menino, and whether they would support redrawing the Congressional map in order to better the chances of electing a U.S. congressperson of color.
Williams said the Eighth Congressional District, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, was originally created as a minority-majority district, but “we lost that opportunity” because communities of color were not organized.
Jackson said he supported creating a bi-partisan redistricting committee. The state Senate earlier Thursday voted down a Republican proposal to create a similar entity. Instead, House and Senate lawmakers will be the ones redrawing districts.
Jackson said a bi-partisan committee would “de-politicize” the redrawing. “There have been too many backroom deals cut” in the past, he said.
Asked by audience members whether they would “confront” or “stand up” to the mayor, Jackson, Mills and Fennell said the onus is on the District 7 community to work together towards its goals, such as getting more minorities jobs at local construction sites.
“It’s really not up to the councillors, it’s up to the community,” Mills said.
“The mayor organizes. Why can’t we organize?” Fennell said.
Williams and Carithers said councillors can refuse to sign off on the budget.
The candidates also outlined their priorities if they were elected.
Mills said preventing crime and violence would be his top priority, citing his experience as a homicide investigator.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see the inside and outside of the issue,” he said.
Jackson and Carithers said jobs would be their top priority. “I believe a job is the best social program,” Jackson said, adding that he worked in the Patrick administration’s economic development secretariat.
Williams said she would keep a district office open, as Turner did during his time on the Council.
Fennell said he would challenge the City Council to take a closer look at the hiring of minority workers at city-sponsored or developed construction sites.
“We need jobs in our community,” he said.
The city cannot legally require the hiring of minority workers at job sites, but encourages the hiring through guidelines known as the Boston Jobs Policy.
Owens, a perennial candidate, frequently mentioned abortion as an issue, saying it adversely impacts communities of color, and that he was a “family values” candidate.
The forum was sponsored by the New Democracy Coalition, the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, the Center for Church and Prison, the Cultural Café Collective, and the College of Community and Public Service, among others.
The forum was attended by over 80 people, many of them political activists and “supervoters” in the district.
A “candidates night” is set for Tuesday, Feb. 8 at Hibernian Hall. That forum, sponsored by the RoxVOTE coalition, starts at 6 p.m.
District 7 includes Dorchester, Roxbury, Lower Roxbury, and parts of the Fenway, and the South End. The preliminary election, which will narrow the field to two candidates, is set for Feb. 15. The final special election day for March 15.