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Lawrence Harmon

Amiable vs. edgy for council

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / February 13, 2011

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VOTERS IN Roxbury got burned in their relationship with ousted city councilor Chuck Turner, who was sentenced last month to three years in prison for accepting a bribe and lying to the FBI. RoxVote, a civic engagement coalition, offered voters a way to move on last Tuesday by sponsoring a lively “speed dating’’ candidates’ night at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square.

Six candidates seeking to succeed Turner in the District 7 race lined up to impress the voters. At a prearranged signal, each sat down at an assigned table and fielded questions for 15 minutes from a dozen or more voters. At the buzzer, the candidates moved to the next occupied table until every voter had an opportunity to query every candidate.

The top two finishers in this Tuesday’s preliminary race will run off on March 15.

The two most eligible candidates to emerge are likely to be Tito Jackson and Cornell Mills. Jackson, 35, wins in the amiability category. He boasts a solid work history as an economic development specialist for the state and political director for Governor Patrick’s reelection campaign. No one would think twice about introducing him to the folks.

Mills, 36, is edgier. He knows a lot about the public safety and foreclosure problems plaguing District 7. He also has a record of arrests between 1991 and 2000, including charges for assault and battery and marijuana possession that were later dismissed. Mills is the son of former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson.

This is the toughest council district in the city, and not just because parts of it suffer from high crime rates. Dissatisfaction with the quality of public education, suspicion of City Hall, and a deep-rooted belief that blacks and Hispanics can’t get a fair shot at construction jobs in the district were common topics around the tables. Many older voters are stuck on fiery orators like Turner who give voice to their anger and frustration. Younger voters seem more interested in upgrades to their neighborhoods that often require a smooth relationship with the mayor’s office.

Jackson, Mills, or whoever wins this seat must perform a high-wire act where one false step can land you in deep trouble with constituents, in the mayor’s dog house or, in Turner’s case, federal prison.

Just ask Gareth Saunders, who represented the district for three terms from 1994 to 1999. He got along well with the Menino administration until 1996, when Saunders advocated to replace the mayorally appointed school committee with an elected body. Suddenly he found himself fighting “tooth and nail’’ to make sure that an adequate number of police recruits would be assigned to the busy station in Roxbury.

Both Jackson and Mills, incidentally, support the return of an elected school committee.

Jackson looks like the stronger candidate for voters whose highest priority is constituent service. On the campaign trail, his staffers have difficulty moving him off of people’s doorsteps as he listens to appeals for jobs and city services. At the speed dating forum, Jackson seemed to be taking pains not to alienate anyone.

Mills came across as bolder, telling one group around a table that he favored term limits for the mayor. In a district where the absence of black men in the home and civic life is keenly felt, he has managed to mobilize a lot of young men to serve both as campaign workers and mentors to troubled young people.

Mills has settled down with a family and real estate business since his own run-ins with the law. “It’s not what you did,’’ said Mills during an earlier interview. “It’s what you learn from it.’’

District 7 voters can be a very tolerant lot. But watching the FBI’s arrests of Turner and Wilkerson, who was sentenced last month to 3 1/2 years in prison for accepting $23,500 in bribes, isn’t a sight easily forgotten. Like all special elections, this will be a field fight. But it’s also a test of whether the voters in District 7 are looking for the stability of a Jackson or the buzz of a Mills.

Correction: In last week’s column, I incorrectly identified Roderick Fraser as Boston’s first civilian fire commissioner. Civilian commissioners were common prior to 1976, according to city archivists.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.