Charles Yancey is on the move.
The District Four city councillor arrives at the Codman Square Library twenty minutes late and thanks the three volunteers who are laying out some of the 40,000 books that will be given out this weekend. It’s Tuesday. Charles Yancey’s Book Fair is on Saturday, and the councillor has to get ready.
He takes a break to talk to the Reporter about his 17th run for the council where, once again, he is facing challengers – as he has in all but two elections. But today he is focused on his 29th book fair.
“I’m not going to demean any of my opponents. I’m not going to criticize them for their lack of experience. But I’m here to work for the people,” Yancey said.
Those people are the ones who have made Yancey the longest serving councillor on the city’s legislative body. The 66-year-old Dorchester resident has held the District Four seat since 1984. A redrawing of district lines unpacked the Fourth in 2012 and changed its borders to include more of Dorchester and Roslindale. Still, Yancey won again in 2013. His base turned out, delivering 68 percent of the vote to him.
Yancey’s opponent in 2013, Terrence Williams, sees his 31 percent vote from that contest as a solid base of his own. The former Boston Water and Sewer Commission employee is mounting another run for the seat – and he’s stepping up his anti-incumbent rhetoric this time around.
“Don’t get me wrong. Charles Yancey back in the day was a great councillor. Now, he’s not. It’s just a paycheck for him. It’s just to show up on issues as a johnny-come-lately for photo ops,” Williams, 46, told the Reporter on Monday.
But Williams is not the challenger who is getting the most buzz at the moment. That distinction goes to Andrea Campbell, a 33-year-old former legal counsel to Gov. Deval Patrick and first-time candidate who has spent the last nine months or so ramping up a grassroots campaign that she hopes will dislodge the dean of the council.
Just before noon last Sunday, Campbell and a team of two staffers and two additional volunteers packed bottles of water in their Fields Corner campaign office to prepare for six hours of door-knocking. In June, Campbell opened an office on Dorchester Avenue at the Adams Street intersection that serves as her base of operations, although the candidate doesn’t spend much time there.
“So far, we’ve knocked over 3,000 doors across this district with the goal of reaching as many voters as we can,” Campbell said. “We’ve heard so frequently that ‘this is the first time that I’ve seen a candidate at my door,’ which always strikes me. When I meet someone who is in their 90s who is moved by my story, it moves me.”
Campbell grew up in Mattapan and Dorchester and attended Boston public schools. She lost her father and a twin brother to the criminal justice system, but took a far different path herself. She attended Princeton for undergraduate studies and the at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for law school, returning to Boston following her brother’s death to land a job as deputy counsel in Patrick’s office.
“Her being an accomplished woman is absolutely an asset,” said Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, a board member of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus that has unanimously voted to endorse Campbell. The caucus also endorsed the three other female candidates running in the city’s council races. Ferriabough-Bolling, a Roxbury resident and political strategist, was careful to note that she personally is not endorsing in this race.
“And to the folks who say she’s new: She may be new to the electoral process, but she’s been working for the state and working for the interest of the people working for the state.”
Campbell has developed a robust ground game, working the doors for five to six hours a day. But she has also introduced another dynamic to her challenge of Yancey: fundraising prowess.
To date, Campbell has raised $81,217 and spent $55,907.
Barbara Lee, the local philanthropist and heavyweight donor, is in Campbell’s camp. Both Emily’s List and the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus political action committees have endorsed and helped to fund her. Individual donors hail from as far as California and she counts among them former Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral and former state Rep. Marie St. Fleur. And former state attorney general and former Dorchester resident Martha Coakley is among Campbell’s donors and supporters. She plans to help host an event in August for her candidate, she confirmed to the Reporter.
Campbell’s fundraising has helped put a target on her back for her opponents, even if they will not admit it outright.
“The district is not for sale. I know a lot of people are pouring money into some of my opponents’ campaigns, and that’s not right,” Yancey said, not mentioning Campbell by name.
Campbell’s campaign account as of July 15 checks in at just over $24,718. For his part, Yancey’s account stands at $24,253. His bi-monthly expenditure reports with the office of Campaign and Political Finance show spending in the hundreds of dollars while Campbell’s show numbers in the thousands. Williams and Jovan Lacet, the other first-time candidate and fourth person in the race, show no money in their war chests, although Lacet has spent $2,872 on campaign materials so far.
A lawyer with time in the Marines, Lacet said he is running a grassroots campaign and he does not mince words when talking about the two frontrunners in the district. Of Yancey: “There’s no way he can be fully active, fully advocating for the community and insurance is still the price it is and with schools still closing.” Of Campbell: “She is not from the district.”
The challenge from Campbell is clearly Yancey’s most significant hurdle since 2003, when he faced off against the insurgent Ego Ezedi, a 30-year-old Baptist minister and former congressional aide. A Dorchester native with Nigerian roots, Ezedi garnered heavy media attention and even counted some of Yancey’s council colleagues among his champions. That dynamic, coupled with a backlash against “outside” money and influence targeting Yancey, helped the incumbent surge to a November victory as he bested Ezedi by 689 votes.
“I think that there was a very energetic and loud groundswell of support [for Yancey] in 2003, internal to the district,” said former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who is backing Yancey. Wilkerson was a key surrogate for Yancey in his ’03 race as well. “There was a sense that there was a hand, across the water, from outside the district, that is working hard to get him out of the district. I’m feeling like I’ve seen this play before.”
Both Campbell and Yancey agree that this race is different than 2003.
“This is 12 years later,” said Campbell. “This is a different time, with a different constituency, and different demographics.” Said Yancey: “I don’t draw a whole lot of comparisons. I’ve had much tougher opponents than Ms. Campbell, Mr. Williams, or Mr. Ezedi.”
Still, ask experienced voters and activists in the district, and you’re not likely to get a definitive prediction on how this race will turn out.
“Oh, please don’t ask me about the race!” exclaimed Mattapan civic leader Barbara Crichlow when reached on Tuesday. She, like many others in the district declined to handicap the outcome when contacted for this story. But, she said, “most of them haven’t been in the community long enough to know the real issues. And if the ones that are in office now haven’t done it, what makes me think the ones that aren’t there are able to do anything?”
That attitude poses a real challenge for the four candidates. Another challenge: the timing of the preliminary election. It’s Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day and two weeks ahead of schedule to accommodate a high Jewish holiday. Additionally, there will only be a preliminary election in Districts Four and Seven, with no city-wide races to help draw out voters. The top two vote-getters will advance to the final ballot on Nov. 3.
The Campbell campaign says workers are looking to counteract apathy by registering as many new voters as possible, carrying voter registration slips as they knock on doors, and preparing to mobilize as many voters as possible despite the off-election year.
Cynthia Loesch, a member of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council who is not aligned with any candidate in the District Four race, is organizing visits from the candidates to the Codman Square Farmers Market to meet with voters. “We’ve seen what [Yancey] has done over the decades, but it’s 2015 and we’re also hopeful to see what new energy could do in the future,” Loesch said on Tuesday.
Yancey, for his part, is adamant that his work on the council is not done. And that’s not just because his long-dreamed-of Mattapan High School is not yet a reality. He has eschewed running for a seat in the Legislature, saying “I would be bored to tears at the State House.” But he would not rule out a shot at the mayor’s office or even Congress.
“Even Ted Kennedy was able to challenge the conscience of the legislative body for more than 40 years.” Yancey said. “I’d like to do the same thing.”
But first, he must hit the campaign trail. “I’ll be back next month once the book fair is behind us,” he said.