Bruce Bolling, who was the first African-American elected president of the Boston City Council and whose conciliatory approach to politics drew praise when the violent reaction to school desegregation was still a fresh memory, died of prostate cancer Tuesday in his Roxbury home. He was 67.
During his 12-year tenure on the council, Mr. Bolling championed fair housing and increasing job opportunities for businesses run by minorities and women. He also voiced support for the gay and lesbian community when doing so could be a political liability.
“His commitment to public service was unquestioned,” said Councilor Charles C. Yancey, a former council president. “He certainly enjoyed politics in Boston . . . but he believed in inclusion. I think he helped move the city forward.”
Mr. Bolling was part of a political family that at one point accomplished an unheard-of trifecta in Massachusetts and Boston politics. While he served on the City Council, his father, Royal Bolling Sr., was a state senator, and his brother, Royal Bolling Jr., was a state representative.
“We used to call them the royal family,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former city councilor who is now with the law firm Nixon Peabody. “It was extraordinary.”
Often staking out the political center as his turf, Mr. Bolling regularly secured support from recalcitrant colleagues by asking: “What would make this better for you?”
He used his powers of persuasion to push through a fair housing commission and the so-called linkage ordinance requiring downtown developers to contribute money for economic development and housing programs in the city’s neighborhoods. Mr. Bolling also sponsored the ordinance that had developers set aside a portion of construction jobs for city residents, including percentages for minorities and women.
‘Bruce Bolling was a true advocate for the social justice issues in our city.’
“Bruce Bolling was a true advocate for the social justice issues in our city,” said a statement from Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “He never stopped working to help small businesses and was especially influential in helping minority- and women-owned businesses thrive.”
Mr. Bolling’s presence alone was important when, in 1981, he became the first African-American elected to the City Council in a decade. He became council president in 1986, little more than a decade after school desegregation began, and held the post two years.
“Having Bruce become the first African-American president of the City Council, a step away from being mayor of Boston, sent a very important, positive message helping us demonstrate that Boston was one city, coming together,” said Raymond L. Flynn, who was mayor when Mr. Bolling was council president.
Stephen Murphy, the current council president, said in a statement that Mr. Bolling “was a man of great vision, integrity, and courage.”
“Bruce worked every day on behalf of others,” Murphy said. “. . . Oftentimes, people in this world work for their own benefit, but Bruce never did that. He was a role model and a champion for many in our city.”
One of 12 children, Bruce Carlton Bolling grew up in Roxbury, graduated from Boston English High School, and attended Northeastern University before joining the Coast Guard.
Returning home in 1969, he worked for the administration of Mayor Kevin H. White, holding a variety of jobs. In 1980, he received a master’s degree in education from what is now Cambridge College.
Mr. Bolling’s first marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Bolling was introduced to politics some two decades earlier when his father first ran for office and lost by a few dozen votes. Young Bruce sat in campaign headquarters, teary-eyed. He fell short in his own first campaign, finishing 16th in a 1977 City Council race, but found his calling.
“The turning point came after a candidates’ forum at a school on Mission Hill,” he told the Globe in 1991. “An elderly woman — I can’t remember her name — came up to me and said that people felt I was genuine and sincere. She said, ‘Don’t ever lose that quality.’ And I’ve tried to keep to that.”
Mr. Bolling was elected his next time out, when he was the only successful candidate among the so-called Kevin Seven, a slate of candidates backed by White. Two years later, with the advent of district representation, Mr. Bolling became the first councilor elected from District 7 in Roxbury and held the seat for four terms.
In 1991, as Flynn sought a third term as mayor, Mr. Bolling ran for an at-large council seat to lay a citywide foundation for an anticipated 1993 mayoral bid. Instead, he finished fifth and out of the running, despite a Boston appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who told an overflow crowd at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury that “Bruce represents some of the best leadership America has to offer.”
His absence from City Hall lasted only until September 1992, when Mr. Bolling was appointed to the council after the death of Councilor Christopher Iannella.
A few months later, Mr. Bolling tried to take a cab from Quincy Market to his Roxbury home. The cab driver refused to take him there and called another cabbie, who yanked Mr. Bolling out of the car and repeatedly called him a racial epithet. The case lingered in the news for months until the following summer, when the cab driver received a suspended sentence, was ordered to apologize to Mr. Bolling, and paid restitution to cover the cost of the councilor’s torn coat.
Mr. Bolling’s political career ended in September 1993 when he finished a distant fifth in the preliminary mayoral election.
He went on to serve as executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Small Contractors, and was a mentor to many in and out of government.
“Besides being my best friend and a wonderful and caring husband and father, Bruce always found time to help and to guide and support anyone who called him,” said his wife, Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, who married Mr. Bolling in 1993.
“He has always been a friend and mentor to me, but most importantly, he was a great leader, husband, and father,” Councilor Felix G. Arroyo said in a statement. “He will be missed.”
Mr. Bolling was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, and his doctors cautioned that he might not live to see his son, Bruce Jr., graduate from high school. “He beat those odds,” his son said, who added that when he left to attend the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, his father said, “I love you, I’m proud of you that you’re going to college. You’re on your way to becoming a dynamic black man.”
In addition to his wife, son, and brother Royal Jr. of Mattapan, Mr. Bolling leaves two daughters, Tanya Tucker of Washington, D.C., and Leslie Tucker-Gant of Boston; two other brothers, Blair of Falmouth and Yom of Martha’s Vineyard; six sisters, Awra of Las Cruces, N.M., Carolyn Bolling-Hayes of Laurel, Md., Charlene Bolling Holloway of Colville, Wash., and Deborah, Andrea, and Lorraine, all of Boston; and a grandson.
A service will be announced.
“He was cut from the cloth of a public servant, not a politician,” his wife said. “He felt that the essence of politics was service, and that’s what marked true greatness, how you served people.”
In January 1992, a few months after losing his bid for an at-large council seat, Mr. Bolling told the Globe that looking back at his years of service, “there weren’t very many lows for me. I loved what I was doing, and I did it effectively, in my view.”
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