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Race for Mayor | The Challengers

Sharpening his aim - and his image

Colorful candidate is toning it down

By Eric Moskowitz
Boston Globe / September 14, 2009

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Nine months and 24,000 miles into an around-the-world honeymoon by motorcycle, Kevin McCrea paused in Istanbul and updated his blogs.

On one blog, “Motorcycle Moments,’’ McCrea reflected on the “smiles and friendship’’ he and his wife encountered along their journey. He envisioned writing a book called “The World Is Full of Good People.’’

On the other, a feisty political blog he started during his 2005 campaign for Boston City Council, McCrea sounded off on a controversy flaring back home: the ouster of the Boston Public Library president, orchestrated by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

McCrea composed a taunting verse for the occasion: “Taxes are too high / Services are too low / The Schools are terrible / The Mayor has got to Go!’’

The twin postings, in late 2007, were classic McCrea, at once buoyant and disenchanted - a self-made millionaire on a biker’s dream of a honeymoon pausing to stir things up back home.

Over his 42 years, McCrea is, has been, or has called himself a chess prodigy; a table-tennis champion; a professional motorcycle racer; a National Merit Scholar; a Framingham Heart Study participant; a high-altitude geophysicist; an affordable-housing developer; a mentor to urban youth; a competitive ice sculptor; a celebrity-by-marriage in Colombia; and an expert witness on motorcycle crashes.

This year he added a new line to his unique résumé: mayoral candidate.

McCrea is not, by any measure, a political insider. He is one man’s crusader, another’s gadfly. He has sued the City Council, accusing it of violating open-meeting laws; has shot and edited homemade “gotcha’’ videos about Boston politics; and has made so many Freedom of Information Act requests that he has been assigned his own point person at City Hall.

In the mayor’s race, McCrea is determined to hold accountable Menino and his two other opponents - both City Council members - and hopes to be seen as more than the bomb-throwing long shot.

“I’m running because, as my wife tells me to say, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,’’ McCrea likes to say in his stump speech.

After 2005 loss, a new tack
As difficult as McCrea is to classify, many in 2005 saw him as just one thing: the Motorcycle Guy, a say-anything, do-anything thrill-seeker.

That year, McCrea roared to campaign appearances on a star-spangled Harley-Davidson, clad in dusty jeans and a helmet fit for Evel Knievel.

The Motorcycle Guy, who made his money in construction and development, said he wanted to put “the party back in party politics.’’ He offered a reporter a ballroom-to-bedroom tour of his soaring South End townhouse, with Latin mottos etched into glass and marble, motorcycle logos carved into the wood, and a staircase inscribed with the Chinese translations of inspirational song titles by Bob Marley, John Lennon, and the Clash.

The word “big’’ - make that “BIG’’ - appeared throughout “The BIG House’’ and elsewhere in his life. McCrea’s racing website, BIGRACING.com, called him “Mr. BIG’’ and described “BIG adventures.’’ Missed calls to his cellphone were greeted by “the BIG voice mail.’’

It was, he now says, a political miscalculation. He thought he would come across as a colorful character from outside the establishment, drawing voters to his candidacy.

He was right about looking colorful, wrong about the strategy. In the preliminary election, he finished 10th of 15 candidates.

This time around, McCrea campaigns in a suit. He let the registration lapse on his 20 motorcycles, stripped the word “BIG’’ from his campaign blog, and closed most of his home to the media.

“This campaign is not about my house,’’ he said. “This campaign is about truth, justice, and the American way.’’

After his 2005 loss, McCrea read about Princeton University research showing how people’s split-second judgments about a candidate’s appearance can dictate election outcomes.

“My mother tells me, ‘You never have a second chance to make a first impression, and image matters,’ ’’ McCrea said in an interview. “Sometimes I can be a slow learner.’’

So on a recent Friday afternoon, McCrea arrived at a Mattapan nursing home not by Harley but in a Ford, driving the pockmarked pickup he uses for work, a campaign sign lashed to the truck bed with bungee cords. He wore a charcoal suit, striped tie, and flag pin, and carried a clipboard, not a helmet.

After eager handshakes, McCrea spoke of his modest upbringing and his disdain for politicians who favor the well-connected.

Competing with the whir of an air conditioner, he described being moved by the work he did in the year-and-a-half he shuttled between Boston and New Orleans, helping to rebuild housing after Hurricane Katrina.

“I really learned the lesson that Martin Luther King taught us about ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ ’’ he said. “Now is the time to address the problems that we have in society.’’

McCrea told voters in slippers and wheelchairs about his plans to impose term limits for all elected officials, boost the police force, visit every school in the city, and eliminate “zoning for sale,’’ a reference to his charge that Menino favors friends and allies in development.

“I’m a regular person. I’m just like you. I work with my hands,’’ he said. “We need people that are going to be honest with us, that aren’t going to waste our money, and that are going to treat the citizens right.’’

He did not mention motorcycles.

Fending for himself
McCrea was born in Brighton on Valentine’s Day in 1967, the first of three children of a former Illinois farm boy and a Framingham pharmacist’s daughter. They lived briefly in Boston and Natick but moved to Ohio when McCrea was a toddler.

For a time, he lived comfortably in a well-appointed home outside Columbus. His father was a globe-trotting entrepreneur; his mother worked in marketing. “The term yuppie hadn’t been invented yet, but my parents were yuppies,’’ McCrea said.

By 5, he had mastered Roman numerals and was featured on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer for his chess prowess, according to his mother, Joanne. Having beaten his teacher, the boy told the paper he wanted to challenge world champion Bobby Fischer.

McCrea’s parents split when he was 10, and the children followed their mother to Vermont, where money soon grew tight.

McCrea remembers threadbare clothing and a father who visited once a year, but he was happy. His mother coached his football team. He collected a state ping-pong title. He read voraciously.

And he was a stickler for fair play. “Playing games was always a challenge, because he would always say, ‘Oh no, that’s not the rule,’ ’’ said his mother, who now lives in Salem.

In adolescence, he increasingly tested her authority. Frustrated after she moved the family to Acton before his freshman year, McCrea boarded a plane for Ohio, determined to live with his father.

Only then did he discover that his dad had remarried and moved to Indianapolis. But his boyhood home had not yet sold, so McCrea spent the remainder of his freshman year of high school living alone in Ohio, he said.

On his own at age 14, McCrea dutifully went to school, fixed dinner before “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,’’ and avoided the liquor cabinet. “I was a nerd!’’ he said. His father returned periodically to check in and restock the refrigerator before bringing McCrea to live with his new family in Indiana the following year.

It was not a good fit. McCrea left home after his junior year of high school, having already won a scholarship to Wabash College, an all-male liberal arts school west of Indianapolis, where he majored in physics and philosophy and minored in math.

“Kevin was really a guy who had to kind of fend for himself early on,’’ said Rick Evans, a close friend from high school.

After college, McCrea moved to Boston for a job in high-altitude geophysics research at Hanscom Air Force Base. But he quit the next year to start a construction business, naming it Wabash.

The firm grew slowly but steadily. While working on a bathroom renovation in his late 20s, McCrea hit it off with homeowner Andrew Chen. The MIT graduate student and future venture capitalist asked him if he had considered being a developer.

“I said, ‘Well, yeah, sure, but I don’t have half a million dollars in the bank,’ ’’ McCrea said. “And he said, ‘Well, I have half a million dollars in the bank, but I need someone who knows how to build something.’ ’’

They bought a South End townhouse in 1995 for $305,000, fixed it up, and resold it the next year as three condos for $845,000. Their partnership, which McCrea said has since developed about 10 multifamily properties, hires McCrea’s Wabash Construction to do the work. Wabash has also grown in its own right as a residential and commercial contractor.

On the side, McCrea has taught motorcycle safety, advised the carpentry program at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, raced motorcycles and hovercraft on at least three continents, and coached an inner-city baseball team in the South End. He also painstakingly restored the home he now shares with his wife, Clara, a psychologist.

Taking on the mayor
McCrea was an occasional critic of the Boston Redevelopment Authority when he successfully bid on a BRA project about eight years ago, to rehab derelict rowhouses in Roxbury. He says he completed the work on time, on budget, and with more units earmarked for affordable housing than required.

But when he approached Menino at a community event soon after to pitch policies for expanding affordable housing citywide, he said, the mayor brushed him off. McCrea also failed to win subsequent BRA contracts.

He grew convinced that development deals with the city were “all about who you know, not what you know.’’ He began tracking the City Council as well.

With his customary intensity, he became a monitor of meetings and collector of paperwork. Never one to wait, he ran for office in 2005 while initiating a lawsuit with two fellow activists that accused the City Council of conducting business in private.

A superior court judge found the council guilty of 11 violations of open-meeting laws, which the city appealed. Although aspects of the lawsuit remain unresolved, City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty Jr. - who had been council president of the time - publicly accepted responsibility in January when he launched his mayoral campaign. McCrea frequently tells voters the city has spent about $200,000 to fight the suit.

Among his opponents and their operatives, McCrea’s name elicits groans, though in joint appearances they attempt diplomacy. “I like you a lot,’’ Menino replied, after McCrea made an accusation about the budget in the first debate, earlier this month. “But you don’t understand budget management.’’

In the same debate, McCrea accused Menino of “corruption’’ and “giveaways.’’ Producing a deed with a flourish, he accused the mayor of allowing a city worker to buy a city-owned lot assessed at $100,000 for just $5,000. “Kevin, that’s nonsense,’’ Menino said.

A Globe review, however, found that McCrea had a point. The city has sold hundreds of lots at far below market value, including at least a few to well-connected buyers and to others who profited handsomely.

McCrea, who lacks a traditional campaign organization, operates with a freedom unavailable to candidates who have come through the establishment, whose career hopes rest on the outcome.

On a recent drive through the city, McCrea waxed sarcastically about Boston’s problems funding high school athletics, an issue explored in a Globe series.

“You know how different teams have mascots?’’ he said. “We’re going to name every high school in the city the Meninos, so we have the East Boston Meninos vs. the West Roxbury Meninos vs. the Southie Meninos vs. the Hyde Park Meninos. And [Menino will say], ‘Hey, all these kids will be wearing shirts with my name on ’em. I can fund that!’ ’’

Jim Spencer, chief strategist for rival Sam Yoon, said he appreciates McCrea’s citizen activism, but not his sometimes incendiary style.

“If we’re trying to bring a new civility into Boston politics so that we can get things done, clearly Kevin McCrea is not a very good ambassador,’’ Spencer said.

McCrea’s friends see his campaign as a valiant effort. “I know he’s not going to win,’’ said Mario Fontana of Allston, who coached baseball with McCrea. “But he would do a good job if he did.’’

A pugilistic campaign
McCrea lacks the polish of some candidates and struggles to filter himself when he speaks. “I have Joe Biden’s disease,’’ he said.

Speaking to a reporter about dismantling the BRA, he was interrupted by a phone call. “Where were we?’’ he asked, resuming the interview.

“OK - BRA, evil, killers, throw them in jail,’’ he said, deadpan.

McCrea campaigns with enthusiasm, if not before large audiences. A meet-and-greet with educators in Jamaica Plain, held on a sweltering August afternoon, drew four Boston teachers, two of whom did not even live in the city.

Still, McCrea held court for nearly two hours, peppering the teachers with questions while detailing his plans to emphasize well-rounded education over test prep and move toward a future where equal opportunities might bring an end to busing.

“I don’t even like to think about possibly becoming mayor, because it gets me so excited about actually working in the schools,’’ he said.

It was late afternoon, on a day in which he had already rooted around in a crawl space at a South End job site, received a haircut, met his wife for a Thai lunch, gone knocking on doors, and been shadowed by a television crew. He also attended to a balky cooling system a subcontractor had installed at a luxury unit McCrea remodeled on Commonwealth Avenue.

Driving over to the Back Bay, McCrea spotted a group holding Menino signs and began identifying city employees by name. “Hmm,’’ he said. “Now, are they on city time, or their own free time? What do you think?’’

Arriving at the condo, he moved jauntily, cracking jokes with the homeowners as he toiled for half an hour with their HVAC system. Alas, the work required a specialist, who would not arrive until morning.

“Drink lots of ice water,’’ McCrea advised, inviting the homeowners to bunk with him at “Chez Kevin.’’

The couple thanked him but opted for a hotel. Stepping out into the still-humid night, he shifted back to campaign talk and proposed a boxing match with Flaherty, who had been photographed hitting the heavy bag.

“Who’s your money on? He’s bigger. He weighs more,’’ McCrea said. “But I was undefeated in college. I knocked out the running back on the football team.’’

He jabbed at the air, striking an imagined opponent.