Barrier-breaking candidate of status quo

Charlotte Richie’s identity crisis

There was excitement in the air last Wednesday night as Charlotte Golar Richie addressed several hundred supporters gathered at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. But the charge in the room certainly didn’t come from the candidate’s speech, which offered boilerplate platitudes about the need to improve schools, public safety, and the economic fortunes of all city residents.

It seemed a pretty fair reflection of Richie’s performance to date at several candidate forums, where the former Dorchester state representative and city housing chief under Mayor Tom Menino often seemed flat and dodged firm stands on controversial issues.

Richie is the wild card in the Boston mayor’s race, the candidate who has yet to catch fire but who many people think still could. She has a solid resume, with experience in state and city government, and is well-connected around town, especially among Menino loyalists. But it is her status as the only woman and strongest black contender in a 12-way contest that makes Richie the candidate who could still rocket into contention, despite lackluster fundraising and the absence of a clearly-defined message. With a gaggle of Irish-American guys dividing up votes in predominantly white strongholds of the city, if identity politics has legs in Boston, Richie stands to be its biggest beneficiary.

Richie supporters outside Hibernian Hall before Wednesday’s speech.
She has played the issue cleverly, insisting that she is the most qualified candidate in the race, while rarely passing up an opportunity to point out the twin barriers she would break as the city’s first woman mayor and first minority leader. In her speech last week, Richie said she often gets asked how she’ll distinguish herself in a 12-candidate field. “Well, I guess I can say that I am the tallest candidate,” said the lanky Brooklyn native. “And I am the only one who’s wearing a skirt.”

The room included more than a few graybeards who were around 30 years ago when Mel King made history by becoming the first black candidate to make it into a Boston mayoral final election. Richie’s campaign has a decidedly different feel to it, in ways that are both good and bad for her electoral fortunes.

King, a veteran community organizer who spent years challenging the power structure on everything from development issues to jobs programs to foreign policy, made it to the final, but even his most ardent backers realized he stood little chance against Ray Flynn, a more mainstream, white candidate who staked out similar ground as a neighborhood-based populist. In a reversal of that template, many politicos today believe Richie will be tough to beat in a final election – if her thus-far wobbly campaign gets enough traction to grab one of the two top qualifying spots in the September 24 preliminary. That it is so easy to imagine her winning the final race is a measure of how far the city has come in its openness to candidates, regardless of their background.

By the same token, however, Richie’s insider-driven campaign lacks the much of the grassroots excitement and broader sweep that the King campaign had, a sense that this was about a movement as much as a man. In campaigns that have had that added dimension – whether it was King’s effort 30 years ago, Deval Patrick’s run in 2006, or Elizabeth Warren’s campaign last fall – the candidate became a cause.

Richie is a credible candidate, but there’s little about her mayoral run thus far that makes her a cause. She may be poised to break barriers of race and gender, but she does not otherwise project the bearings of a change agent. Indeed, the biggest indication of how much the political landscape has shifted in Boston may be the fact that the black female in the mayoral race is, in many ways, also the candidate of the status quo.

You didn’t need to look further for proof of that on Wednesday night than the giant screen on the Hibernian Hall stage. In the run-up to Richie’s speech, it displayed a slide show highlighting Richie’s career. A familiar face dominated the presentation, as Richie appeared in one shot after another – at groundbreakings, neighborhood meetings, and other events – alongside Mayor Tom Menino.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Selling your candidacy as the dawn of a new day becomes a mixed message when one of the biggest cards you play is your prominent role in the administration that’s giving up the municipal reins after 20 years. As a result, when Richie did touch on substance in her speech, it was with the sort of we-can-do-even-better rhetoric that often characterizes an incumbent’s pitch for reelection.

She talked about strengthening the Boston jobs policy — without saying directly that the existing one is deficient. She pledged to address public education “in a clear and courageous way,” but offered no bold reform ideas for doing so. She said she will push for a “clear definition of quality and measurements for school performance.” Twenty years into the education reform era, aren’t English and math proficiency rates, along with high school graduation figures, pretty well-established places to start? In a system where more than half of all students aren’t proficient in math and English and one-third end up dropping out, some urgency about strategies to address those alarming statistics seems more in order than gauzy talk of new quality measurements.

Menino remains wildly popular, according to recent polls. Those same surveys, however, say most voters are ready for a change at the helm in City Hall. All of which sounds like a pretty good combination for a former Menino lieutenant who would clearly change the face of city government, though perhaps not so much its basic orientation.