Althea Garrison is back in the picture

Althea Garrison BNN photo

Perennial candidate, in wings for council slot, is seeking the open local Senate seat

With seemingly limitless optimism, Althea Garrison, the city’s 78-year-old perennial candidate, is in the running for two legislative seats this year.

She is actively running to return to the State House, having submitted nomination papers this week for the First Suffolk Senate seat left vacant by former Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. This campaign marks the seventh time in the last decade that her name will be on a ballot for voters to consider.

The second potential seat in her future seat won’t require a campaign. Last November, Garrison finished fifth on the citywide City Council ballot, leaving her as the next in line should there be an at-large council vacancy, which there very well could be. Last month, City Councillor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley announced her challenge to incumbent Congressman Michael Capuano. If Pressley were to win in November, that would leave an open council seat that Garrison would fill.

On Tuesday, longtime Councillor Michael Flaherty indicated that he might seek to succeed Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, who will not seek re-election this year. If Flaherty runs and wins, he, too, would leave an open seat on the council.

Althea Garrison has been a constant on the city’s political scene since the 1980s. In 1992, she won the Fifth Suffolk state representative’s seat as a Republican candidate, knocking the incumbent Democratic, Nelson Merced, out of office— not at the ballot box— but by winning a court challenge to his nomination papers. Merced did not appear on the election ballot and Garrison cruised to victory.

Garrison is notable for another reason from that campaign: She became the first transgender person to serve in state office. Although she does not publicly acknowledge it, “In May 1976, court records show, Garrison changed her name, from A.C. Garson to Althea Garrison, and apparently her gender,” according to a Boston Globe article in 2001.”

Garrison has also switched her party affiliations. She has run as a Democrat, a Republican, and as an unenrolled candidate in various contests for state representative, city council, and other offices. She says she supported Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1980, and George H. W. Bush’s campaign in 1992, describing herself as “an independent progressive. Neither party serves my purpose,” she said.

Over the past three decades of campaigning, Garrison has been able to count on a reliable base of senior citizens, whom she courts constantly by going directly to their homes. “They are the ones with the votes,” she said, smiling broadly and taking a sip of coffee during a recent interview with the Reporter.

When she is not knocking on doors and gathering signatures, Garrison works as a clerk in the office of the state Comptroller. She has also served over three decades on Uphams Corner Health Center’s board of directors— most recently as a vice president. Garrison says that work has given her experience dealing with budgets.

Although she declined to specifically define her goals in running for office, she said that she is most interested in advocating for the middle class— and believes that she can do that well from either City Hall or the State House.

“I’m very motivated, I have lots of energy, and I’m determined,” she said. “Basically I haven’t changed, the things I believe in like affordable housing haven’t changed.”

Garrison has served only one term in the House. She was unseated by Charlotte Golar Richie in 1994, a loss that she blames on Mayor Tom Menino, who, Garrison said, helped Richie get elected. “I had a problem with Menino, and Menino had a problem with me,” she said, declining to elaborate.
She says she likes Mayor Marty Walsh— “I can work with him”— but is not a fan of Gov. Charlie Baker. “He keeps raising fares on the middle class,” she says. She plans to back Democrat Setti Warren’s candidacy for governor.

If elected, Garrison said that she would continue to be a presence in the community, noting that some elected officials are rarely seen at community meetings. “I never see some of them there. I wouldn’t be like that,” she said.

She also supports Pressley’s Congressional run, and not just because that would give open up a seat for her in City Hall. “I’m telling all of my friends to vote for Ayanna and I’m getting very involved,” Garrison said.

“We are thrilled to have the support of anyone,” Pressley’s campaign said in a statement. Noting Garrison’s place in waiting for a council opening, the Pressley camp said, “It’s a credit to the campaign that Althea ran.” She garnered 18,253 votes in the most recent municipal election, landing her fifth on the ballot.

If she does get a job at either City Hall or the State House, Garrison says she would like to tackle housing as a key issue. “There needs to be some kind of rent control,” she told the Reporter, but again declined to get into specific policy proposals.

As a frequent rider herself, Garrison would also look into the MBTA’s performance. “They keep cutting back services, and they want more money…it’s not even fair,” she said.

In general, Garrison supports the work that the city council has done in recent years. “I think you could do more in City Hall,” she said. “I didn’t like that plastic bag thing though,” she added, referencing a ban on single-use plastic bags now set to take effect in December. She argues that the ban will put an unnecessary burden on senior citizens who might not want to use heavier reusable bags. “The middle class was better off when I first came to Boston,” she said.

Originally from Georgia, Garrison said that she moved to Boston for school. She attended Suffolk University as an undergrad and received her master’s from Lesley University where she specialized in human services. She also noted that she earned a certificate from Harvard. “Sometimes I think it frightens people how much education I have,” she said.

She has called Uphams Corner home for about 50 years. “When I moved to Uphams Corner it was basically all white; it’s not as good now,” she said, citing the crime in the neighborhood.

If she were to fill the at-large vacancy, Garrison said that she would work well with the other twelve councillors. “We’re very closely aligned, though we might have some difference on things like taxes.”

Garrison said that she does not find that she has to introduce herself to people in the community.

“A lot of people know me. Actually, I think most people know me,” she said.

Further reading: Senate hopefuls meet up with voters at First Parish forum, Garrison switches races

Maddie Kilgannon can be reached at m.kilgannon.news@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter at @MaddieKilgannon.

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