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District council race

Embattled Turner calls easy reelection victory ‘significant’

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 4, 2009

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Councilor Chuck Turner has said for months that voters would look past his federal indictment and grant him another term, and last night the five-term Roxbury councilor got his vindication: a 20-point blowout over challenger Carlos “Tony’’ Henriquez.

“It’s significant that I was reelected, but the real significance is that our community did not fall for the hype,’’ Turner, standing on a chair, told a crowd of about 50 campaign supporters who gathered at his district office in Dudley Square and chanted “Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!’’

He then ticked off a series of news media endorsements for Henriquez - from the Globe, the Herald, the Phoenix, and the South End News - as he proclaimed, to broad applause, “The people of Roxbury said, ‘The hell with you!’ ’’

The victory stands out even in a state that has seen its share of indicted politicians win reelection, a remarkable illustration of both the power of incumbency and Turner’s enduring popularity in his district. He defeated Henriquez in nearly every precinct, with an overall margin of 59.8 percent to 39.5 percent.

Turner, 69, was indicted last year on charges that he accepted $1,000 in cash in exchange for helping a nightclub win a liquor license. Turner has strongly denied the charges, pointing to his beat-up Mazda and his modest home as evidence that he does not live a high-end lifestyle.

He is scheduled to appear in a federal courtroom in March, and some voters who did not vote for Turner said the unresolved case factored in their decisions. Former senator Dianne Wilkerson, who was indicted on related charges, lost her reelection bid last year and was forced to resign her seat.

To Turner, the results proved that voters were on his side.

“I think we can see in the community’s reaction to the attempt of [former] US attorney [Michael] Sullivan and others to drive me out of office . . . that the community not only says no to that, but at the same time gives unprecedented votes for at-large candidates of color.’’

Henriquez expressed disappointment that the district’s voters felt content with Turner.

“We need to continue to raise the level of expectations of residents in Roxbury,’’ Henriquez, a 32-year-old community activist who also lost to Turner in 2007, said in a telephone interview. “I’m a little disappointed by the fact that 60 percent of our residents think the level of services are adequate.’’

“This is not something they should accept,’’ he added. “Eventually they’re going to have to hold him accountable.’’

Henriquez refrained from making an issue of Turner’s indictment during the campaign, instead focusing on a critique of issues in the district, including public safety, schools, and clean streets.

Turner, a longtime activist who was first elected to the City Council in 1999, easily won a four-way preliminary election in September, with nearly 53 percent of the vote. Despite his indictment, Turner garnered more than twice the votes of his nearest challenger, a victory that he called “a resounding mandate.’’

Following his speech last night, Turner and several dozen supporters went to Slades Grill in Roxbury.

“The people spoke tonight,’’ said Kevin Donalds, a 33-year-old community organizer from Roxbury. “We all came out to prove all of the propaganda against Mr. Turner wrong.’’

A dozen voters interviewed yesterday afternoon at the Orchard Gardens Community Center in Roxbury were almost evenly divided between Turner and Henriquez. Those who supported Turner either did not believe the charges against him, did not care about them, or thought they should be overlooked.

“Innocent until proven guilty,’’ said James Thomas, a 65-year-old retired Roxbury resident.

Those who voted against Turner said they were ready for a change, even if they did not know much about his opponent.

“New blood,’’ said Antonio Ortiz, a 60-year-old Roxbury resident who voted for Henriquez. “I don’t like any politicians who take dirty money. If people clamor for change, you’ve got to give a chance to new people.’’

Winning an election while under a legal cloud has a strong precedent in Massachusetts political history. Former Boston mayor James Michael Curley was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1904 while in prison. In 1945, he was elected mayor while under federal indictment for mail fraud. Thomas J. Lane of Lawrence successfully ran for reelection to the US House in 1956 after pleading guilty to federal income tax evasion.

In his speech at his district office, Turner cited the victories of other City Council candidates of color as an indication of a new direction in Boston. “Martin [Luther King Jr.] said I’m not going to be there with you, but I know you’re going to get to the mountaintop,’’ he said. “I don’t think this is arrogant, but I think we’re on the mountaintop.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.