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Round 1 tomorrow for Turner’s seat

Despite crowded field, low turnout expected in special council election

Tito Jackson, one of the candidates to fill the District 7 seat in the Boston City Council, looks to be the favorite in tomorrow's election. (Handout) Tito Jackson, one of the candidates to fill the District 7 seat in the Boston City Council, looks to be the favorite in tomorrow's election.
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / February 14, 2011

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On paper, Tito Jackson looks like the runaway favorite to take the top spot in tomorrow’s special preliminary election for the City Council seat held for a decade by Chuck Turner.

Of the six names on the ballot, Jackson has won the high-profile endorsements, secured the overwhelming support of labor unions, and dominated the fund-raising battle, amassing $40,000 compared to his nearest rival’s $3,500.

But this is an unusual election in the dead of winter when turnout is expected to be extremely low. That means just a handful of votes may decide which two candidates will face off in the final election March 15.

“It’s not so much your endorsements that count,’’ said Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a longtime political watcher from District 7 whose husband, Bruce Bolling, held the seat for a decade. “What it will be is how you count your votes and how you bring those people to the polls.’’

Each of Jackson’s five competitors has strong ties to a household political name in the district, which includes Roxbury and parts of the Fenway, the South End, and Dorchester. Even the two perennial names on the ballot, Althea Garrison and Roy Owens, have a corps of supporters who will tromp through the snow to vote.

A seventh candidate, local television talk show host Haywood Fennell, will not appear on the ballot but has launched a write-in campaign.

“This is an extremely unique race . . . [because] the candidates are new to the voters,’’ said candidate Danielle Renee Williams, who worked for Turner as well as for former councilor at large Felix D. Arroyo and state Representative Gloria Fox.

All the candidates on the ballot have deep roots in the district. Two of them, Jackson and Natalie E. Carithers, live in the homes where they grew up.

Another candidate, Cornell Mills, spent his youth knocking on doors for his mother, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who, days before the final election in March, will begin a 3 1/2-year prison term for pocketing $23,500 in bribes.

The same corruption sting snared Turner, who was thrown off the council on Dec. 1 by his colleagues after a federal jury convicted him of four felonies for accepting a $1,000 bribe and lying about it to the FBI.

The challenges the district faces are the same that have plagued its neighborhoods for decades: public safety, improving education, economic development, and — especially since the recession — job creation.

Unemployment is significantly higher here than it is in the rest of the city, according to Bruce Bolling, who not only held the seat for a decade but served as council president for a time.

Garrison and Owens did not respond to the Globe’s request for interviews, but others shared their views about why they are running.

“I feel that my 20 years experience working in city and state government would be an asset to the community,’’ said Williams, 49, a divorced mother of two grown children whose childhood home was off of Humboldt Avenue.

She acknowledged that Jackson is a formidable front-runner but said, “I’m an optimist. You never know what’s going to happen until the last vote is counted.’’

Williams, who has also worked as a housing advocate and a union organizer for SEIU 1199, has a personal perspective on the violent crime that afflicts the district. In 2006 her son survived a gunshot wound to the face, she said. Raising money has been difficult, however; she said she has collected only about $1,500 in donations.

Carithers, 56, a radio personality who also has two grown children, said the district needs someone who understands its unique challenges.

“District 7 is in dire need of a strong, vocal, knowledgeable representative,’’ Carithers said. “The community wants a councilor who is going to stand up and fight for them and not someone who is beholden to others.’’

Carithers has worked for former state representative Willie Mae Allen, she said, and as an area manager for the tax firm H&R Block. She has taken a leave of absence from her job at Touch 106.1 FM to avoid any conflict of interest with her campaign. She said she has raised about $3,500.

Mills, 36, owns a real estate firm that he said specializes in foreclosure prevention. He is a father of four whose work experience includes operating a coffee and sandwich shop in the Jones Hill section of Dorchester from 2003 to 2005.

He also worked for two years as a civilian homicide investigator for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, and started a mentoring program at his alma mater, Boston College High School. He said he has raised about $3,000 for the race.

“It’s a short-term race with long-term consequences,’’ said Mills, who worked on his first political campaign in the district at age 10. “The reason I’m running is because all of my volunteer work, all of my community work, all of my work with youth. . . . The City Council will give me a bigger platform to help more people.’’

Despite his mother’s high-profile political corruption case, Mills has not shied away from her name. He described himself as a “Wilkerson son’’ in the press release announcing his candidacy because, he said, “it’s no secret. It’s not anything I’m ashamed of.’’

The Globe reported in 2005 that Mills was hired at the district attorney’s office despite having been arrested four times on charges that included assaulting a police officer and possession of marijuana. At the time, District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said Mills was a “nice young kid who certainly got himself in some squabbles, but was never convicted of anything.’’

Mills worked for the district attorney from January 2005 until his employment was terminated in early September 2006, said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the office. Wark declined to discuss specifics, characterizing it as a personnel matter.

“That’s definitely not the case. It was a mutually agreed-upon split,’’ Mills said recently when asked why he left the district attorney’s office. He declined to discuss the Globe story about his arrest record, which dated from 1991 to 2000.

Each of these candidates will face a formidable challenge from Jackson.

Jackson, 35, has appeared to lead the race since Turner told the media that he spoke to Jackson about running for the seat immediately after the councilor’s October conviction.

At the time, Jackson was the political director for Governor Deval Patrick’s campaign and declined to discuss a possible run for Turner’s seat.

But last month, Diane Patrick, the governor’s wife, headlined Jackson’s campaign kickoff, describing him as “the person that everybody knows you can go to to get your problems solved.’’

“To be honest, many people see obstacles in District 7,’’ Jackson said in a recent interview. “When I look at District 7, all I see is hope and opportunity.’’

Jackson is not new to politics. In November 2009, he ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the council, drawing almost as many votes in District 7 as did Turner, who won his sixth term despite a pending federal indictment.

Earlier this month, Jackson downplayed his status as front-runner.

“We’re not taking anything for granted. We know it’s cold,’’ Jackson said, referring to the winter weather. “I think it’s going to be a very competitive race. It’s good that we have a well-qualified group of candidates who all have strong ideas. I think folks may be surprised by the turnout.’’

Globe correspondent Stewart Bishop contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.