Doing It 'Her Way': Althea Garrison Finds Herself On The Verge Of Public Office Again

Althea Garrison, who is next in line for Ayanna Pressley's at-large Boston City Council seat, speaks outside Boston Public Library. Robin Lubbock/WBUR photo

On any given day of the week, Althea Garrison goes to the Boston Public Library to socialize or do research.

"I don't do computers, I don't do technology," she says, sitting in the courtyard. "So, I come here, basically, to look it up."

Many politicians know what it's like to lose, and some know when it's time to throw in the towel. But not Garrison. Since the 1980s, she's been running for almost any elected office — as a Democrat, as a Republican or as an independent. Mostly unsuccessfully, except one time in the '90s.

And now it looks like the 78-year-old Garrison's going to hold office again.

Further reading: Althea Garrison is back in the picture

A Trump-Backing Conservative

She says she stopped watching TV long ago; instead, she listens to the radio. On the day we meet, she listens to WRKO-AM.

"Is Elizabeth Warren trying to spark a civil war?" conservative commentator Jeff Kuhner asks, pointing to the scrutiny President Trump is under from Democrats with midterm elections coming up.

"They using using Trump to get re-elected," Garrison concludes. "And smart people would throw them the hell out of office."

She sympathizes with Trump. She voted for him, after all.

Throughout our conversation, Garrison describes herself as varying shades of conservative.

"I'm basically a conservative, but I also have some liberal ideas," she says at one point. "I am a conservative, I am independent also," Garrison says at another.

"A black conservative," she says toward the end of our talk.

Next year, Garrison is expected to take Ayanna Pressley's place on the Boston City Council when Pressley goes off to Congress.

Further reading: Ayanna Pressley says her election is "a mandate for hope"

Despite being ideological opposites, Garrison says she campaigned for Pressley.

"I'll be basically honest," she says. "Because I was next in line to succeed on the council — I was the runner-up in last year's election. So I knew if she got elected, I would take her seat. And everything worked out perfect."

Garrison got about 7 percent of the vote in last year's city council race, putting her in a distant fifth place for the at-large seats, and now in line to take Pressley's spot.

This won't be the first time she gets to hold an elected office through serendipity. Back in 1992, she was elected to the Massachusetts State House, in part, because of a technicality. The Democratic incumbent didn't file his papers properly.

Garrison only served one term. She was ousted by Democrat Charlotte Golar Richie. Despite being rivals, Golar Richie says she sees Garrison as inspirational.

"I benefited from the fact that Althea Garrison broke down a barrier as a black woman," Golar Richie says. "Yes, she was a Republican. But for me, she was a black woman elected to the 5th Suffolk District as state rep. I was the second black woman to be elected."

Wary Of The Media, But Known For Showing Up

Garrison has run for a lot of public offices — virtually every election since 1982, often for multiple seats. But she wants to serve on the city council the most.

"It's one of my dreams come true," Garrison says.

She won't disclose what her other dreams are.

"That I keep to myself," she says. "Because it might come out on some newspaper [as] fake news."

Garrison is suspicious of the media and rarely gives interviews. It's warranted. Back in 1992, a Boston Herald reporter confronted her with public records that indicated Garrison once went by a man's name. But Garrison has never identified as transgender. And some believe the public outing by the media contributed to her loss the next term.

"You can't just say anything. That's what damage[s] the news media," Garrison says. "A lot of times, they say or write things and they don't even know what they['re] talking about."

When asked if her gender identity being called into question hurt her, Garrison says no.

"I'm still standing strong," she says. "I just feel sorry for Trump. I really do. What they're doing to him shouldn't be allowed."

In any case, many people's qualms with Garrison stem from some anti-LGBT sentiments she held in the past, like when she was opposed to same-sex marriage.

But now, Garrison says she doesn't care what people thought she believed before.

"I treat everybody equal," she says. "No special privileges with me. I actually don't like special privileges."

As city councillor, Garrison says her priorities are to tackle homelessness and take care of seniors.

Golar Richie says that Garrison's strength is her visibility.

"She was known for showing up at every community meeting and her constituents really appreciated her presence at those meetings," Golar Richie says. "She cared. She cared about constituent services."

When Garrison is around the library, a lot of people recognize her. They debate her or say hi, ask how she's doing.

Dennis Jackson beams when he sees her walking out of the library. He's known Garrison for 40 years.

"I respect her, 'cause she's not a politician," Jackson says. "If she waffles and becomes a Democrat or one of those knuckleheads, I won't be her friend anymore."

As for Garrison, she's really excited to get on the city council and represent a conservative point of view. She says when all is said and done, she plans to write a book.

The working title: "Althea Did It Her Way."

This story was first published on WBUR's website. The Reporter and WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station, have a partnership in which the news organizations share resources to collaborate on stories.