District 7 contenders have like objectives
Yet Council rivals differ on who can best deliver
South End’s Rutland Square Association raises thousands of dollars each year to hire contractors to clear trash-strewn streets and snow-blocked alleyways and replace dead trees in nearby public parks.
Those are jobs the city is supposed to do, but neighbors in this affluent section of the mostly low-income City Council District 7 have taken on the tasks themselves. As they prepare to select either Tito Jackson or Cornell Mills as their new city councilor in a special election tomorrow, residents are hoping for an effective fighter to take on their cause.
“We need a forceful voice’’ in City Hall, said Stephen Fox, who chairs the Rutland Square board. “We need a councilor who recognizes that there are common sets of interests [across the district]. But we need to be able to have him fight for the things that are important to us.’’
District 7 encompasses a large swath of Boston, including Roxbury and parts of the Fenway, Dorchester, and the South End, each with its own set of problems. And after the federal corruption probe that took down their former councilor Chuck Turner, residents are hungry for change.
“We need someone to shake things up,’’ said Elisabeth Owens, a 75-year-old former nurse. “This is a multicultural, ethnic area, and it needs to be represented that way.’’
In Roxbury, despite pockets of affluence, many residents have struggled to overcome government neglect, poverty, and crime. But the neighborhood got a boost recently when Mayor Thomas M. Menino pledged anew to rebuild the abandoned Ferdinand Building, stirring hope of a revitalized Dudley Square.
Mills and Jackson both champion issues such as social justice, job creation, crime prevention, and economic development. But they differ, community observers say, on who can best deliver.
They are close in age — Mills is 36 and Jackson is 35 — but Mills paints himself as a mature, married father of four and homeowner in contrast to Jackson’s single, laid-back style. Mills favors dress shirts and slacks to Jackson’s business suits. Mills is described as edgy; Jackson, amicable. Jackson says he is a man with connections; Mills says he has a better grasp on the issues.
It is Jackson, though, who has wide support, having garnered more than 1,944 votes to Mills’s 271 in the preliminary election, when only 7 percent of the more than 41,000 registered voters turned out.
Jackson has big-name backers from unions, state officials, and business leaders — support he said he has earned after a failed bid for an at-large seat on the City Council and a period serving as Governor Deval Patrick’s political director.
As of Feb. 28, Jackson raised more than $72,000 — much of it from outside the district — since the start of the year, compared with Mills’s more than $4,500, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Adopted when he was 2 months old, Jackson was raised in Grove Hall by his mother, Rosa, and activist father, Herb Kwaku Zulu Jackson. He highlights his stint in the state’s economic development office, saying he has a proven record in creating jobs and economic investment.
And he uses charm to disarm his critics.
When two elderly men at a senior center asked how he got the name Tito, he was quick with a story.
“I asked my mother what my name would be if I wasn’t adopted,’’ he said. “And you know what she said? Bill.’’
His easy style warms hearts but has drawn criticism from some advocates, who say Roxbury needs a tough councilor
“He’s too naive; he’s too nice,’’ said Jamarhl Crawford, a Mills supporter, whose blog, Blackstonian, has taken Jackson to task. “In terms of a fighter, he’s not the guy.’’
Jackson brushed off the criticism, saying that he is the only one in the race who can get results for District 7.
“Understand that Chuck Turner’s and my father’s fight was not about fighting for the sake of fighting. The objective is to make sure that we get the resources that we need,’’ Jackson said.
Mills casts himself as the common man and “a son of Roxbury’’ who cares deeply about his community and understands its plight. He recounts his background as a small-business man, community advocate, and a former homicide investigator in the Suffolk district attorney’s office.
He promises to mentor youths, fight foreclosures, and bridge the divide between residents and police.
At a late-night debate both men scheduled in a Grove Hall nightclub, Mills pledged to be a staunch advocate in City Hall who will “go after the governor, the mayor, the School Committee, or whoever is keeping our community back.’’
Mills welcomes the challenge of being the underdog, and said the walloping he took at the polls last month only taught him that he had to work harder to reach unaware voters.
Mills’s campaign is targeting Cape Verdeans and residents in , subsidized housing developments, hoping those who voice support for him will follow through.
As he knocked on doors in Orchard Gardens housing development last week, he got a sample of what he is facing. Only 12 of the development’s 400 registered voters showed up last month, he said. Some he visited said they would vote for him, but many didn’t know the date of the election.
“A large part of my base will come from people who don’t participate in the election cycle,’’ Mills said. “But we have some here that we’ve been able to reach.’’
Mills also talks about his mother, Dianne Wilkerson, the former state senator who began serving her federal corruption sentence on Friday. He doesn’t mention her case or say in public how he feels about her conviction, but he does talk about the belief she instilled in him and his brother to put their community first.
That approach does not sit well with some in the district who were deeply hurt by the conviction and disappointed by Mills’s reticence.
“That is in the past,’’ said Jayne Simon, a South End resident and Jackson supporter. “We just need to let that go and move on.’’
Mills, who said he and his wife contemplated leaving the state after the Wilkerson controversy erupted, defended his mother. He pointed to gains she achieved for people of the district during her long tenure — a record he said should not be forgotten.
“I’m proud of her courage and her ability to continue to stay proud and stay positive even in the face of the most difficult obstacles,’’ said Mills, who accompanied his mother to a Connecticut prison, where she will serve her time.
In the final week before tomorrow’s vote, the candidates have been taking their case to the public. On Thursday, both were debating senior issues inside a Roxbury church, an event monitored by a strict time manager with a ticking clock. By evening, the two men were side by side in the South End Library, where members of a predominantly white audience were taking notes.
Not every answer won approval from the crowd, but it seemed clear that both candidates were listening.
“Both candidates expressed an understanding of the key issues here,’’ said Fox. “They seem to be used to the idea that there are different priorities depending on what part of the district you are going to. And that’s encouraging.’’
Meghan Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.