When first-time City Council candidate Andrea Campbell emerged victorious in the 2015 municipal election, toppling an incumbent of 30 years, she brought a new voice to the table with a new set of issues and what six years later she still describes as an “electoral partnership” with the residents of District 4 – predominantly comprising Dorchester and Mattapan.
Now in the waning days of her time on the council, a stint that has included three years as president and a run for mayor this year, she said she is proud of all that has been done, but also wise to the limitations and slowness of city government. She added that while there are larger, citywide issues of transparency and accountability and education that were cornerstones of her work, it’s now the small things like the Neighborhood Slow Streets program that give her great encouragement.
“We’re proud of so much we were able to accomplish in a short period of time,” she said. “It’s not just the transparency and accountability we pushed for in education, development, policing, and other departments, but also the projects that folks in the community can see and feel daily… That’s what I get the most enjoyment about…As I walk around District 4, I see the improvements and I see the improvements also in City Hall and city government.”
Bringing back widespread door-knocking in 2015 as part of her campaign strategy, she said her team emerged with a detailed plan based on what they heard on doorsteps and front porches. However, she said, that plan quickly ran into what she called the “inefficiency” of local government.
“What I quickly learned and a point of frustration for me about city government is how much time and money we waste on not helping people,” she said. “We would sit in meeting after meeting and we’re having a second and third meeting about something without doing anything. I would say, ‘Does anyone else have a problem with this?’ The lack of efficiency and the lack of action clouded our expectations in District 4.”
Campbell said one thing that hasn’t changed since she hit the doorsteps in 2015 and succeeding campaigns was her making the time to engage the public. She noted that it is hard work, and often requires re-starting a process that might have been considered completed. The importance, she stressed, was that her tenure included everyone – even when it meant more work.
“There is no better satisfaction when folks say they feel they were a part of the discussion even when they don’t fully agree with what happened,” she said.
She added that the problem is that city government is based on from the top leadership, and that’s where she said she felt her office succeeded in its “electoral partnership” with her district that started from the bottom.
“That is not the norm in government,” she said. “It’s top down and not efficient. Because it’s top down the folks doing the work don’t have a great idea of what the solutions would be. That’s because they’re not connected to the folks on the ground living through these issues and who do have the solutions.”
Among the successes she cited during her tenure, and one that is just now becoming fully apparent, is the focus on vacant lots throughout District 4 – particularly those that are city-owned and mostly in the hands of the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND).
Campbell said the vacant lot initiative started as an anti-violence effort following a troubling event in the district. Many were saying that one solution to street violence was to utilize blighted vacant lots. Several studies in other cities suggested the same, but Campbell said she would have never guessed that these problem properties were city-owned.
“When you have these lots empty, it speaks to the community that we don’t value you, especially when they are government owned and blighted,” she said. “To my shock, I learned that most of these lots around were city-owned. We always thought they were privately owned and maybe absentee landlords. To learn they were city owned was incredible.”
She said they quickly sought the help of city Housing Chief Sheila Dillon and DND, and learned that there was interest but not of the high-priority sort from the administration at that time. Using stakeholders like Wentworth Institute of Technology to help brainstorm with residents, she said they were able to hoist the effort up the priority ladder.
“It’s very exciting to be able to see these lots now become a source of economic opportunity and that our local people have a shot at getting a chance to develop and build these economic opportunities,” she said while noting that community members would like to see them developed or filled on a faster timeline.
The issue of police accountability and transparency was another hallmark for Campbell. Routinely a critic of the status quo, as council president, she focused on pushing the body-worn police camera pilot program. She said that was a call she heard from the community, and one she advanced. The same is true for holding officers with a bad record accountable for their actions, she said, and promoting more of a community policing model than exists now.
As the chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, she championed increasing the diversity of public safety departments. All of this led to tough conversations, and Campbell stayed focused.
“I’m proud of that push and the continued push to diversify our public safety agencies, which were and are overwhelmingly white and mostly white men,” she said. “I’m really proud of our leadership there and about standing up when it’s hard and not backing down…Conversations about restructuring a department aren’t easy conversations to have.”
Campbell said she also leaves having grown personally and professionally during her year-long run for mayor beginning last year. She was the second of two challengers to announce before former Mayor Martin Walsh left office last March. She said having conversations across the city left her optimistic that everyone wanted to play a role in reversing inequities.
“There’s an assumption that white residents don’t care about inequities that disproportionately affect communities of color,” she said. “They do, and they want to do something about it…They get that if certain schools in certain neighborhoods aren’t working, then it doesn’t work for anybody. There’s a certain narrative that some downtown neighborhoods don’t care. They do. For me, it was incredible to see that. Covid-19 and George Floyd put it front and center for them…”
Meanwhile, her run for mayor and her time on the Council only cemented for Campbell her belief that Boston is the best city in the world, and one uniquely situated to solve difficult equity issues. “We have everything we need; other places do not, but that’s what makes us great,” she said.
Campbell said that she is spending most of her time working closely with incoming Councillor-elect Brian Worrell. She noted that no one helped her integrate into City Hall, and she wants to transition issues and concerns to Worrell so he can follow up on them. Having endorsed him during the campaign, she said she is excited about the trajectory of District 4 under his new leadership.
Campbell is taking her time in figuring out her next step, though she noted that there has been no shortage of friends and supporters calling her with their ideas. “I don’t want to make a decision right away. I can be thoughtful and considerate about it…Anything I do I want to align with my values… that’s about serving others, and that won’t change in whatever I do next.”