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Remembering when Bruce Bolling made history

Posted by Rob Anderson  September 11, 2012 02:26 PM

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Bruce C. Bolling made history when he became the first African-American president of the Boston City Council in 1986.

But in Boston, when it comes to votes for council president, there’s always a back story; and Bolling’s death revived memories of what when down back then, for Michael McCormack, a former councilor who served at the same time.

Bolling had pledged his vote to Joseph M. Tierney, recalled McCormack. But six councilors who didn’t want to vote for Tierney came to Bolling with a counterproposal: If Bolling voted for himself, they would vote for him, allowing him to make history. Bolling at first resisted, because of his commitment to Tierney. But, again, as McCormack recalled it, others, including community activist Mel King, convinced Bolling this was his moment and he should seize it.

“Bruce was the reluctant city council president, and a very, very nice guy,” said McCormack.

Boston Globe news stories back up McCormack’s account.

On January 5, 1986, the Globe reported that Tierney “who has held the gavel five years — longer than any other City Council president in Boston’s history — is clearly the front-runner.”

On January 7, 1986, the Globe reported on what it described as “a last-minute upset” — Bolling’s election “by a 7-6 vote to become the first black in Boston’s history to be that legislative body’s leader and moderator.” In that story, Bolling told the Globe about the other councilors telling him the job was his if he voted for himself. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he told reporters.

Some of the good will evaporated after Bolling quickly suggested he might be interested in a mayoral run. In a story headlined “A Risky Case of Ambition,” Bolling was criticized by McCormack and others for publicly acknowledging that he might be interested in the mayor’s office.

Of course, at the time, McCormack was interested in that office. Competition from the first African-American City Council president was not what he had in mind, when he played a role in Bolling’s ascension to that post.

Tierney, meanwhile, kept his sense of humor about Bolling’s defection.

On January 12, 1986, the Globe reported that then Mayor Raymond Flynn and the City Council gathered for pasta and veal at Mario’s Restaurant in Hyde Park — and “there was much joking” about Bolling’s last-minute emergence as a candidate for president. When Bolling said he hoped they would continue to meet at Mario’s for many years, Tierney, the ousted, ex-president “sang out: You’ve got my word, Bruce.”

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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