Why are African-Americans still struggling to get a foothold in Boston politics?
THE BALLROOM on the top floor of the Parker House hotel in downtown Boston was overflowing, and it seemed that the world of Boston politics was being turned on its head. When the results of the preliminary election for mayor rolled in on a crisp October night in 1983, Mel King, a former state representative and veteran community activist, became the first black candidate in Boston history to win one of the two spots on the final election ballot for mayor. With supporters jamming the hotel lobby and spilling out onto the sidewalks, King led his exuberant followers down from the ballroom and onto Tremont Street.
Clockwise from upper left: Mel King, Charles Yancey, Andrea
Cabral, Bruce Bolling, Charlotte Richie, Jean McGuire, Marie
St. Fleur, Chuck Turner, Byron Rushing
“There were so many people outside who couldn’t get in [the ballroom] that it didn’t make sense for some of us to be inside,” King says of the scene that made good on the “bring the city together” theme of his campaign. King led his followers in an impromptu march to City Hall, where his “rainbow coalition” celebrated on a public plaza where only seven years earlier a very different image of Boston had been seared into the national memory, as a black architect in a business suit was attacked by a white tough wielding an American flag as a weapon. “I think people felt that they had changed Boston,” King says of the campaign of 20 years ago. King’s victory that night was “a glorious moment,” says Janis Pryor, a veteran black political operative and consultant. “I felt it was a real turning point for Boston.”
“I would say the state of black politics is dismal,” says Hubie Jones, former dean of the Boston University School of Social Work. “We have no black congressman, we have no black at-large city councilor. We have no black mayor, [and] we’re not in shouting distance of getting one in the near future.”
Ted Landsmark, who gained unwanted fame as the man on the receiving end of the flagpole attack on City Hall Plaza, echoes Jones’s disappointment.”Black political empowerment has regressed substantially since Mel King ran for mayor 20 years ago,” says Landsmark, who served in City Hall under mayors Ray Flynn and Tom Menino.
“I think there was a pretty broad assumption that this would be kind of the beginning of the flourishing of blacks making inroads in the electoral arena,” says Ken Wade, who worked on the King campaign and now directs a nonprofit housing agency. But that’s not the way it worked out. Rather, what many saw as the dawn of a new day remains the high point of black advancement in electoral politics.
primary night in 1983: “I think people felt
they had changed Boston,” he says now.
The complaints of a political deck stacked against blacks have remained largely unchanged over the years. The numbers just aren’t there, say advocates: Blacks in Boston constitute only one-quarter of the city’s population, not enough to wield the kind of electoral clout held by African-Americans in other large cities. Meanwhile, they say, white voters still shun black candidates, much as they did in 1983 when King barely expanded his share of the vote from the preliminary election to the final, losing to Ray Flynn by a margin of 2-to-1. And some say ethnic and racial voting habits remain too strong here for nonwhite candidates to succeed as they have in Denver or Seattle, where black mayors have been elected despite black populations far smaller than Boston’s. So smoldering resentment against perceived disenfranchisement has been channeled into legalistic challenges. For example, the recent redistricting of state representative seats is being contested in federal court by several groups who charge that the new lines dilute minority voting strength in Boston and elsewhere. And the redrawing of Boston’s city council districts last year drew fire from minority leaders who pushed for the creation of a district with greater Hispanic voting strength.
But if there remain material obstacles to black political advancement, the woes of black politicos may be, at least in part, of their own making. Many black officials in lower-tier state and city offices have remained fixed in place, neither climbing to higher posts nor moving out of the way to make room for a new generation of leaders. On the municipal level, few black candidates of stature have even bothered to test the citywide political waters–and when such candidates have come forward, they have not found the unity that bolstered King’s run for mayor. And for all the complaints about disadvantageous redistricting, there have also been huge opportunities created by newly drawn lines that have come and gone without credible black candidates taking advantage. As a result, 20 years after Mel King’s historic run for mayor, the most closely watched race involving African-American candidates is a showdown for the modest prize of a city council seat in a predominantly black district, a contest pitting a 20-year incumbent defending the only office he has ever held against a young challenger who says a change of leadership is long overdue.
“The state of black politics in Boston is a direct reflection of the community’s voice in aggregate,” says former city councilor Bruce Bolling.”You can’t look outside of the community and point the finger. The community having a strong voice is 99 percent dependent on what the community does or does not do. It’s not external at this point; it’s wholly internal.”
In 1983, the stage seemed to be set for a long–even not-so-long–march of Boston’s black community into the political spotlight. Not only had King, even in defeat, set a new standard for black electoral achievement, but Boston had partly replaced the citywide election of municipal officials–which worked against minorities who were outnumbered in the population as a whole–with district representation, where the concentration (not to say, segregation) of blacks in some neighborhoods gave them presumptive claim to certain seats.
But onward-and-upward into the political mainstream did not turn out to be the trajectory of the black community in the 1980s. On the grassroots level, the new push was for withdrawal from the Boston power structure, not assimilation into it. Decrying what they said was unfair control of city resources, black activists waged unsuccessful campaigns for two successive city ballot referenda calling for predominantly black neighborhoods to secede from Boston. “Quit going hat in hand, and let’s go make a hat,” is how Curtis Davis, one of the leaders of the drive to create an independent municipality known as Mandela, describes it. The nonbinding question appeared on the ballot in 10 state legislative districts in 1986 and was defeated 3-to-1. In 1988, it was placed on the ballot in six districts and was rejected 2-to-1, with opponents not even waging a campaign to defeat it. But those who worked hard to defeat the proposal at the polls in 1986–among them Mayor Flynn and the black community leaders, including clergy, he recruited to the anti-Mandela cause–saw it as a distraction.
“We didn’t need to organize and struggle to be marginalized,” says the Rev. Charles Stith, who later served as US ambassador to Tanzania in the Clinton administration. Stith says the agenda for black Boston ought to have been”how do we more fully become part of the broader economy, the broader political mix, the broader cultural mix of the city?”
And Boston blacks lost an important political foothold when the elected school committee was abolished in 1991. In pushing for a school committee appointed by the mayor, Flynn argued that the move would make the mayor accountable for improving the schools–an argument that appealed to black religious leaders who provided key support for the ballot question, which won narrow approval citywide. The new arrangement set the stage for Flynn’s successor, Thomas Menino, and his handpicked superintendent, Thomas Payzant, to conduct the most concerted effort to reform Boston’s schools since the turmoil of busing (see “Marathon Man,” CW Education Reform Extra, 2002). But black political leaders fought the proposal vociferously, arguing that it ceded the black community’s role in the governance of a school system whose population consisted overwhelmingly of minority children.
To this day, King cites the elimination of the elected school committee as his biggest disappointment in the 20 years since his run for mayor. “They just went and essentially sold out the power of the community,” says King of the black ministers who sided with Flynn, including Stith.
On the level of pure politics, wiping out these 13 elective offices–four were held by blacks at the time–also cut off one route into public life for aspiring minority politicos. “When you cut off the school committee, you cut off the training ground,” says Jean McGuire, who served as an at-large school committee member from 1981 to the end. “That’s the farm team.”
Even district representation did not turn out to be the political catalyst it was expected to be. Although the new system placed black representatives in two new district seats on the city council, it cost the black community its one citywide representative, when incumbent Bruce Bolling chose to claim the new Roxbury-based district seat rather than compete for the diminished number of at-large spots. Since then, not a single black or other minority candidate has been elected to one of the four at-large seats. (Felix Arroyo, who finished fifth in 2001 and became the first Latino at-large city councilor when Francis “Mickey” Roache resigned his seat earlier this year to become Suffolk County Register of Deeds, has a chance to break the white monopoly on at-large election this fall, when he tries to win the seat outright from a position of incumbency.) Only on the school committee did blacks win both district and at-large seats, posts that disappeared with the elective body.
Bolling considers his decision to play it safe in 1983 the “biggest mistake” of his political career. The excitement of King’s mayoral campaign could have been “the basis on which broad-based support for my candidacy citywide could be propelled,” says Bolling, who now directs an organization that assists minority- and women-owned construction contractors. At-large councilors have no more formal power than those holding district seats–which is to say, very little, under Boston’s strong-mayor form of government. But a few terms in a citywide seat–and a few campaigns through which to build a citywide political and organizational base–would have given Bolling a better launching pad for other political openings, including the one that opened up in City Hall in 1993.
That summer, Flynn resigned to become US ambassador to the Vatican, setting off the first open race for mayor since he and King squared off 10 years earlier. City Council President Tom Menino, who represented a district based in Hyde Park, took the reins as acting mayor and quickly consolidated support for his bid for the office that fall. But that didn’t stop a big field of contenders from throwing their hats in the ring–including Bolling, the son of a prominent Roxbury political family and a moderate voice in the city’s black community.
Two years before, in 1991, Bolling had finally made the citywide run for council he regrets not having done in 1983. He placed fifth in the race for four seats but then assumed an at-large seat the following September upon the death of longtime councilor Christopher Iannella.
When Bolling sought to parlay his newly acquired citywide standing into a mayoral run the following summer, his candidacy failed to ignite the passions of the city’s black community. Indeed, several prominent ministers urged him to drop out of the race. “We could not afford another situation where hopes got raised and then dashed,” says one of those ministers, the Rev. Ray Hammond. “I think the feeling was that that would set us back. We’d been through that to some extent with Mel’s candidacy. People got very excited and then very let down.”
Still, so acute was that sense of opportunity that some black leaders urged state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson to consider running, though she had been in office for less than a year. Wilkerson decided not to run, and not to back Bolling either. Instead, she endorsed Dorchester state Rep. James Brett, who advanced to the mayoral final election before losing decisively to Menino.
“I didn’t believe then and I don’t believe now that he was the kind of candidate that was going to create that kind of excitement and dynamism that existed in ’83,” Wilkerson says of Bolling, who finished fifth in the preliminary election for mayor.
the new face of 1992, hampered
by tax troubles in ’98.
Wilkerson herself might well have been that kind of candidate for the next big opportunity to come down the political pike. In 1998, US Rep. Joseph Kennedy gave up his seat in the 8th Congressional District, which he had represented since 1986. For more than 60 years the storied seat–held before Kennedy by House Speaker Tip O’Neill; by Joe’s uncle, John F. Kennedy; and by legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley–symbolized the Irish domination of Boston politics. But under pressure from minority leaders, redistricting in 1992 resulted in a district in which minorities accounted for nearly 40 percent of the overall population and about 34 percent of the voting-age residents, providing a legitimate chance for a strong black candidate.
By the mid-1990s, that candidate ought to have been Dianne Wilkerson. A bright Boston College Law School graduate, Wilkerson had made a big mark in the late ’80s and early ’90s as the lead attorney in the local NAACP’s lawsuit that forced the desegregation of Boston’s public housing developments. In 1992, Wilkerson took the local political world by storm by sweeping veteran state Sen. Bill Owens from office with the campaign slogan “we can do better.”
“Dianne was looked upon as fresh, young, new blood–smart and, most importantly, [she] had the fire in her belly that she wanted to be a player,” says Ron Homer, the former CEO of the Boston Bank of Commerce, who raised money for Wilkerson’s Senate campaign.
But a year before the congressional seat opened up, Wilkerson’s promising career careened off the tracks when she pleaded guilty to federal charges of failing to file income taxes from 1991 to 1994.
As 10 candidates competed for the Democratic nomination to succeed Kennedy–tantamount to election in the overwhelmingly Democratic district–Wilkerson could only watch from the sidelines. Indeed, as the race unfolded, she was sentenced to serve 30 days in a halfway house after violating the terms of her original sentence. The lone black candidate in the race was Charles Yancey, a district city councilor from Dorchester who had run failed campaigns for state auditor in 1986 and, most quixotically, against Kennedy himself in 1992. Victory went to Michael Capuano, then mayor of Somerville, who won with just 23 percent of the primary vote. Yancey finished seventh.
“That was a very big moment, and it was blown, to put it bluntly,” says Janis Pryor, the veteran political consultant and operative.
Some think another opportunity for black political advancement came and went last year, when new district boundaries for state legislative seats took effect. Under Wilkerson’s leadership, state senators agreed to a radical remaking of the South Boston-based state Senate seat that had most recently been held by Stephen Lynch, who ascended to the late Joe Moakley’s congressional seat. Jack Hart, a three-term state representative from South Boston, won the special election to finish out Lynch’s unexpired term in the Senate, under the old district boundaries. Under the new lines, however, the district shifted to include virtually all of Dorchester and Mattapan. Though by no means a lock for any black candidate, the district was now 61 percent nonwhite by population. Even considering that the voting-age population was not nearly that strongly minority–and that voter turnout in South Boston is legendary–the new district was at least within reach of the right candidate of color.
At first, all eyes turned to state Rep. Marie St. Fleur of Dorchester. An attorney and former state prosecutor who arrived in this country as a young girl, St. Fleur became the first Haitian-American elected to any state legislature when she won office in 1999. A moderate Democrat with an up-by-the-bootstraps attitude toward issues like MCAS, which she supports, St. Fleur appeared to be just the type of candidate who could make a play for the seat. If not St. Fleur, some looked to her predecessor in that House seat, Charlotte Richie, who had been an emerging black leader in the Legislature until she left to become chief of neighborhood development for Mayor Menino. But in the end, neither St. Fleur nor Richie took the plunge–and neither did any other black leader of stature.
After winning the battle to create the potential for a second minority state Senate district, Wilkerson says it was a big disappointment to lose the war, especially by forfeit. “It was a missed opportunity,” she says.
State Rep. Byron Rushing of the South End sounds a similar note of frustration. “It didn’t have to be her,” Rushing says, referring to St. Fleur. “But it was nobody.”
Political brain drain
Why it was “nobody” may have to do not only with the state of black politics in Boston but also with the state of black opportunities. “I used to give speeches in the 1970s about the black brain drain–all the talent that was educated and trained in the universities here who would get the hell out as soon as they got their degrees,” says Hubie Jones. “That’s changed.”
“We’re producing impressive numbers of African-American professionals in law, medicine, business, and education who, for the first time, are thinking of making their careers in Boston rather than returning to New York or North Carolina or California or Illinois,” says Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree.
But that career ambition isn’t getting channeled into political life. Benaree Wiley, who directs The Partnership, a 16-year-old organization focused on supporting minority professionals in Boston, remains optimistic that it will be. “If we can build a critical mass of people of color who are succeeding in the economic mainstream of the city, then we also build a leadership base for having a role in the social and political fabric of the city,” she says.
Jones is not so sure. Rather, he sees a level of political disengagement among minority up-and-comers more akin to their white peers than to their trailblazing predecessors. “You’re dealing with a phenomenon that goes beyond the black community and the Latino community,” says Jones. “You’ve got a phenomenon here where smart, young, effective people don’t see the political system as a way to really get things done.”
Larry Harris and Jesse Levey made the same observation while undergraduates at Tufts University. In 1999, Harris and Levey founded United Leaders, a nonprofit organization devoted to getting college students, who are flocking to volunteer opportunities, to stake a claim in the political process as well. While United Leaders isn’t aimed specifically at minority students, Harris, a black Washington, DC, native who is now working toward a master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, sees an acute need in the African-American community for the work the group is doing.
co-founder Larry Harris.
“You have the private sector actively recruiting talented young black students,” says Harris. “The public sector doesn’t really have a mechanism to regenerate itself. What we’re doing is trying to recruit and train the next generation of leaders.”
Boston’s black community is one place where nearly everyone agrees there is a desperate need to do just that.
“Cultivating the next level of leadership–that’s where we’re lacking,” says political consultant Joyce Ferriabough. After going through the list of black elected officials in Greater Boston, she says, “When I can’t find or think of someone younger than the folks I’ve mentioned, who are all 40-plus, that’s bothersome.”
The inertia in black politics in Boston is the result of “our own internal failure to nurture the next generation of leaders,” says Ted Landsmark. But he also sees a built-in obstacle: Boston’s tight municipal boundaries, which don’t include nearby communities–such as Cambridge, Brookline, and Milton–that attract many black professionals. As blacks move up in their careers, they often move out of Boston, he says, leaving the city and its political life behind in ways that wouldn’t happen in sprawling metropolises like Atlanta and Chicago.
Then there is the matter of a clogged political pipeline. With higher offices largely out of reach and, in many cases, fewer lucrative job offers in the private sector, many black politicos hit a glass ceiling and stay put.
“They move up and out,” says former bank CEO Homer, referring to white pols.”We just settle in.”
Of the four black state representatives from Boston, the three other than St. Fleur, who is 41, are all the same age–61–and have been in office at least 15 years. City Councilor Charles Yancey, age 54, has held his district seat since its creation in 1983. The most recently elected black official in the city is Roxbury district councilor Chuck Turner, age 63, elected four years ago. “When Chuck Turner is your fresh face, then you’ve got an issue,” says one former elected official.
Turner himself might not quarrel with that assertion. The Harvard-educated community organizer, who spent more than 30 years as an in-the-streets activist, says he sought public office because no other political leadership was coming forward. “In 1999, I chose to run because. . .activism in the community had reached an all-time low,” says Turner. “I said, let’s see if I can use the office of city councilor to reinvigorate politics.”
The bearded, bald-headed firebrand has certainly shaken things up in City Hall and in his district, where he has opened a storefront office and convened monthly roundtable discussions. But Turner hardly represents the future of black politics.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job in the African-American community to bring the next generation of leadership along,” says Ken Wade. “I don’t think anybody’s done a good job at creating vehicles and opportunities for them to get engaged.”
One political career track that the black community has availed itself of is the sprawling government apparatus controlled by Boston’s mayors. Despite hard feelings lingering from the 1983 election, Ray Flynn drew an impressive cohort of black leaders into top city positions, including city treasurer, auditor, housing authority administrator, and director of the mayor’s jobs and community service office.
Menino has continued to appoint blacks to top positions, including some who appeared to be rising stars on the political scene before they signed on with the administration. For example, Juanita Wade–a top lieutenant in Mel King’s mayoral campaign who later served as a member of the elected school committee–is chief of human services in Menino’s cabinet. Charlotte Richie resigned her seat in the state House of Representatives to take the helm of the city’s department of neighborhood development in 1999.
Landsmark, who himself directed offices in City Hall under Flynn and Menino, says these city posts cut both ways, putting blacks in positions of influence but not of political visibility. Thus, he says, mayoral sign-ons like Wade and Richie have “largely been very effective as managers and largely anonymous as future political leaders.”
But better that than shut high-octane blacks out of City Hall jobs, others say. If Menino weren’t “hiring talented black people, folks would be whining on the other side,” says the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a founder of Boston’s clergy-led Ten Point Coalition.
As Menino sees it, black political clout goes beyond elected offices and City Hall appointments. “Political leadership doesn’t mean just elected officials. It means getting things done,” Menino says. “Take a look at Blue Hill Avenue. Take a look at Sister Virginia at the Grove Hall CDC and the Mecca Mall,” he says, referring to a $13 million retail plaza developed, with the city’s help, in a depressed Roxbury business district by a local nonprofit community development corporation headed by Sister Virginia Morrison. “How many people thought that would get done?”
Indeed, Menino gets high marks for the investments he has made in black neighborhoods, even from those who see the mayor as leveraging those investments for political loyalty. “He’s been very good in terms of resources,” says Turner, the Roxbury district city councilor. “I think he’s tried to share resources in an equitable way. But in terms of the issues of power and control, he makes it very clear that he doesn’t want any challenges to his way of doing things or thinking.”
Menino has also been known to use his influence to bolster minority candidates for office, giving crucial help to Ralph Martin in his 1994 race for district attorney and to former City Hall staffer Jeffrey Sanchez, a Latino son of the Mission Main housing development, who won a state representative seat last year. “I think the decision to help these individuals was good for our city,” says Menino.
But the allies Menino has come to rely on most in the black community are the clergy. Ministers have long been key players in black political life, but Menino, like Flynn before him, has forged ties with black clergy that some say have come at the expense of elected black leaders.
“It’s clear the mayor has made a political alliance with the ministers, and I think part of that is to have a base of power independent of the black political leadership,” says Turner. “I think in some instances there’s been a marginalization, a kind of bypassing, of elected officials,” says former city councilor Bolling.
If clergy are playing a more prominent role, says Rivers, that’s in part because black elected officials have abdicated responsibility when the issues have not fit the traditional interest-group politics they practice.
“Black political leadership never showed up, reported for duty, on the public safety issue,” says Rivers. “There was not a strategy for dealing with increased violent crime or a crack epidemic, as well as increasing, accelerating, out-of-wedlock births–the internal sources of inequality and oppression.”
Menino concedes that the black clergy have become the “go-to group” in some circumstances, but denies that he sidesteps elected leaders. “The elected officials have their place in what happens, and the ministers have their place,” he says diplomatically.
Shock of the new
About a hundred people are standing in a parking lot behind a brick storefront building on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan. A hush comes over the gathering as the Rev. John Borders of the Morning Star Baptist Church takes the makeshift stage. “The changing of the guard is always a solemn observance,” says Borders.
trying to revive the “We can do better” slogan in
challenging a 20-year incumbent.
Not for nothing does Borders appear to be presiding alternately over a funeral and a revival. The crowd is gathered on a hot Saturday morning in July for the campaign kickoff of Ego Ezedi, a 30-year-old associate minister at Borders’s church who has taken a leave from his position as an aide to US Rep. Michael Capuano to mount a challenge to a 20-year city council incumbent. The Dorchester/Mattapan council district contest has been played up as a clash between old and new, and that’s just the way Ezedi likes it.”It is, many sense, old guardnew guard, old thoughtnew thought, old approachnew approach,” says Ezedi, in an interview. “We can do better,” he adds, making a knowing reference to the campaign theme used by Wilkerson 11 years ago when she unseated another veteran black politician.
Charles Yancey, the target of Ezedi’s political insurgency, does little to dispel the challenger’s characterization of Yancey’s “vigilante activism politics” at his re-election launch a few weeks later. At another Blue Hill Avenue storefront, less than a mile from Ezedi’s campaign office, Yancey rails against the city’s businesses, and against its nonprofit institutions in education and health care, for giving too little back to the community.”I don’t believe that the tokenistic gestures we’ve been receiving are enough,” Yancey declares.
But it’s Wilkerson, a Yancey backer, who defines the campaign’s meaning to the two dozen loyalists in the room. “This is a race about more than Charles Yancey,” says Wilkerson. It’s about “the right to determine our own destiny.”
Enjoying support from several key Menino loyalists as well as three of Yancey’s white colleagues on the city council–an unusual breach of protocol–Ezedi’s challenge has convinced some black leaders that Yancey’s re-election is a matter of preserving an independent voice for the black community. Two weeks before the preliminary election, that tension erupted in an ugly scene, when Ezedi crashed a Yancey campaign powwow at Dorchester’s Temple Baptist Church, charging Yancey and his forces with spreading the idea “that I’m the mayor’s candidate, that I’m the white man’s candidate,” according to coverage in The Boston Globe.
Despite the overwrought overtones, in the end, the Yancey-Ezedi clash is a zero-sum game, an internecine struggle over a seat that will remain safely in black hands no matter who wins. But the contest could prove to have broader changing-of-the-guard significance even if Ezedi fails to unseat the incumbent.
“We see in Ego a reflection of ourselves,” says Sean Daughtry, a 34-year-old MIT-trained chemist. Daughtry is a member of a new group of young black professionals called Boston’s Urban Progressives. The group initially formed to organize social get-togethers and networking events. But the organization, which claims a membership list of about 150, decided earlier this year to train its sights on the political world. In June, the group held a fund-raiser that drew about 300 people and raised more than $3,000 for Ezedi. Daughtry and other organizers say that most had never before donated to a political campaign.
The group proclaimed in its press release advertising the fundraiser that its members are “dissatisfied with the grooming process for emerging leaders of color and have decided to combine their intellect, financial means, and voting power with the goal of revolutionizing Boston politics.” That manifesto suggests a generational difference in thinking about black politics.
Michael Curry, a health insurance lobbyist and a leader of the new group, says he appreciates the role played by Chuck Turner and other black politicians who play the agitator role. “We have them and we need them,” he says. “There just has been a void of ‘the other’–the Egos.”
Ken Wade, the former Mel King campaign soldier, says that kind of shift is natural. “Most of the old activists came of age in the ’60s, and that time has gone,” he says. “The next generation didn’t grow up in that period, so I do think they will not look like nor act like they’re back in that period–nor should they. It’s a different day.”
But whose day is it? Maybe Will Dorcena’s. The 30-year-old Haitian-American served as Marie St. Fleur’s campaign manager in her 1999 race for state representative. Dorcena went on to co-found the city’s first Haitian newspaper and now serves as community outreach director for Boston 2004, the local committee coordinating the festivities surrounding next summer’s Democratic National Convention.
“It’s not about the protest movement anymore,” says Dorcena. Indeed, when Dorcena talks about the growing interest in politics among Haitians, he sounds like someone explaining voter turnout in middle-class suburbs. “Once you buy a home, you’re a homeowner or may have a small business, you begin to feel you’re really part of the fabric of the society,” he says. “You naturally want to move into politics.”
“When people think about black folks getting involved [in politics], either we’re marching or we’re holding these huge meetings or we’re holding a press conference or what have you,” says St. Fleur. “But these folks don’t want to do that,” she says of the blacks she sees dipping their toes into politics.”They’re doing it just like the Irish and the Italians used to. We think of ourselves as mainstream, and we want to be involved in the mainstream. Yes, we’re black, but we want to be at the table just like everyone else.”
Mobilizing a new majority
This political generation gap in the black community is emerging just when an increasing presence of minorities in civic affairs might be expected. The 2000 US Census certified that nonwhites now constitute just over half of the city’s population, leading to use of the awkward term “majority minority” to describe the city’s new racial makeup. How this increasing strength in numbers will translate into political clout for people of color is far from certain.
The low voter turnout that has long diluted minority power shows signs of turning around. Organizations such as BostonVote and Dunk-the-Vote, which focus on improving voter participation in predominantly minority neighborhoods, have boosted voting rates in the last three elections. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, targeted districts in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury increased participation more than 25 percent compared with four years before; in Chinatown, the jump was 70 percent.
But the city’s demographic changes have hardly favored African-Americans. Blacks remain the largest minority group in the city, at 24 percent of the population, but the Hispanic and Asian communities, now 14 and 7 percent, respectively, are gaining–and growing at a faster rate. As the city’s black population grew by 18,000 from 1980 to 2000, the Hispanic population increased by nearly 50,000, while the number of Asians rose by 29,000.
Even within the black community there is now a diversity that didn’t exist 20 years ago, as an influx of Haitians and immigrants from other Caribbean countries, as well as from Africa, has dramatically changed the makeup of black Boston. In 1970, 7 percent of blacks in Greater Boston were foreign-born; today, more than 25 percent fit that category.
Many of the new Bostonians are not yet citizens, so the voting strength represented by the city’s “new majority” is not as great as its raw numbers. But in the future, the city’s expanding communities of color will become increasingly important constellations in the political firmament.
“The work now is around bringing together those groups, more than a focus on the black community,” says Mel King, who, along with city councilors Chuck Turner and Felix Arroyo, has been helping plan an October conference at the University of Massachusetts Boston titled “The New Majority: Uniting Boston’s Communities of Color,” which is sponsored by the campus institutes focusing on African-American, Latino, and Asian studies.
In a way, that statement brings things full circle, back to King’s Rainbow Coalition of 20 years ago, when he spoke of “bringing people together” to open the doors of city government to all. But even with minorities in a stronger position in terms of sheer numbers–and perhaps because of that stronger presence–it seems less clear that there is a common agenda they could push today. King says his 1983 effort drew people together in part because it came “on the heels of a united effort to deal with the desegregation [crisis].” It’s hard to see what issue could unite today’s more disparate minority population.
That’s not to say that a strong minority candidate couldn’t excite the city’s diverse communities of color and at the same time appeal to white voters who are at ease with, and even embracing of, the racial melting pot Boston has become. But should Tom Menino give up the reins of the mayor’s office in two years, or (a more likely scenario) in six years after serving another term, who would step forward?
Could it be Ralph Martin, who left office last year after 10 years as Suffolk County District Attorney? “I feel like I have another run in me, but I don’t know what the circumstances would be,” says Martin, noncommittally.
Some look hopefully to St. Fleur, who has several years to continue burnishing her leadership credentials, or to Charlotte Richie, hoping she might trade her City Hall department head hat for a return to the political mix.
The one black political figure who doesn’t hide her ambitions for the mayor’s office is one for whom a run would be an act not only of ambition, but also of redemption. “I’ve been contemplating” a future campaign for mayor, says state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. She thinks she’s recovering from her tax-offense setback. “I have spent the last six years working overtime to get back to where I was,” says Wilkerson.
Meanwhile, the challenge for Boston’s black political community is to recapture the energy it had 20 years ago.
“The stakes are too high for government to be a spectator sport,” said the late Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan. But so far, the stakes have not been high enough to change the racial dynamics of Boston politics.“I’m not discouraged because it could happen if we wanted to make it happen,” says Hubie Jones. “There are not insurmountable obstacles to making it happen, but we’ve got to energize and help figure out some people who will devote themselves to doing it.”
Adds Harvard law professor Charles Olgetree: “The door isn’t closed; it’s just we haven’t walked through it.”