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Charlotte Golar Richie takes measure of opportunity

Charlotte Golar Richie had stepped out of politics.

MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

Charlotte Golar Richie had stepped out of politics.

Seventh in a series of profiles of Boston’s 12 mayoral candidates.

Charlotte Golar Richie was almost 3,000 miles from Boston, and had just navigated a dark mountain road near Los Angeles, when the news broke: Mayor Thomas M. Menino was not seeking a sixth term.

“My phone blew up,” Golar Richie recalled. “Lots of text messages. People calling, saying, ‘What are you going to do? What’re you going to do?’ ”

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Golar Richie’s supporters and some pundits have for more than a decade predicted she would become Boston’s first black and first female mayor. She had the pedigree (Peace Corps alumna with two master’s degrees) and experience (former state representative, neighborhood development chief in Menino’s Cabinet, top aide to Governor Deval Patrick).

She had stature and grace — almost an air of celebrity — that set her apart from other politicians, they said.

But when the big moment arrived and Menino announced he would retire, she was a long way from elected politics. Her fund-raising account was dormant. Her political network had been in hibernation — and the preliminary election was just six months away.

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Other candidates immediately jumped in with large war chests and active armies of volunteers.

Charlotte Golar Richie headed Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Department of Neighborhood Development for eight years.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Charlotte Golar Richie headed Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Department of Neighborhood Development for eight years.

Golar Richie waited. She met with supporters and weighed whether she had enough time. When she formally announced May 1, she was one of the last candidates to join the race.

The fledgling campaign got an immediate boost from a small coalition of progressive lawmakers and political activists that offered her entree to historically white political power bases in Brighton, Charlestown, and the North End. Another endorsement came from the women’s political committee Emily’s List. She packed Hibernian Hall for a spirited rally that borrowed themes and music from the campaign of President Obama.

But Golar Richie has also faced challenges. In the midst of piecing together a campaign, her 84-year-old father was in hospice care and died. After long days on the trail, she would drive to New York to see him.

In the campaign, she has struggled to raise money and has been criticized for lacking a cohesive message, giving rise to a key question: Will her campaign take off?

“I wouldn’t be in this race if I didn’t think I could win,” Golar Richie said. “I feel like I have something to give this city.”

She said her message is clear: She has the background and experience to unite Boston. She is the only candidate who spent eight years in Menino’s Cabinet helping run the city. If elected, she has vowed to establish an office of youth affairs and create a jobs council. Most important, Golar Richie said she has proved she has the audacity to live her convictions, from serving in the Peace Corps in Kenya to diving back into politics.

She said the mere fact that she had the courage to put her name on the ballot shows she has the backbone for the job. “There is no other woman running. And there is no other black woman running.”

On the campaign trail, the appetite for her is palpable. In a city where about 56 percent of registered voters are female, her gender — and that air of celebrity — makes her stand out.

“I can’t believe it’s you,” said a middle-age women charging toward a turnstile to greet Golar Richie at the Massachusetts Avenue T stop one morning. “Fight like a tiger! Fight like a tiger!”

Outside Back Bay Station another morning, Maura Greene beamed as she approached Golar Richie. “I’ve been wanting to meet you,” said Greene, a 52-year-old lawyer.

Golar Richie stands at 5 feet 9½ inches — taller in heels — and commanded attention as commuters rushed out of the station onto Dartmouth Street.

Golar Richie campaigned with her daughter Kara and husband, Winston Richie, last week.

MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

Golar Richie campaigned with her daughter Kara and husband, Winston Richie, last week.

“I’m the candidate!” Golar Richie bellowed with authority. “I’m the candidate running for mayor in the city of Boston.”

Jim Smith stopped, clutching a helmet for his motor scooter.

“You’re Charlotte,” said Smith, a 49-year-old from the South End. “I’ve been very intrigued by you. You’ve got an interesting history.”

“Here I am,” said Golar Richie, putting her hands on her hips and flashing a coy smile. “In the flesh.”

Golar Richie kept working the flood of commuters.

“I know you’re running, but I’m running too,” she said, pumping her arms as if she were jogging. “I’m running to be mayor of the city of Boston.”

Golar Richie grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her mother’s parents emigrated from Barbados. Her father hailed from South Carolina, but moved to New York.

Her mother was a public school teacher and later worked for a city agency that promoted affordable housing. Her father was a lawyer who became a political figure, serving as a justice on the New York Supreme Court and chairman of the New York City Housing Authority.

After college, Golar Richie worked at Bloomingdale’s, took dance, and dabbled in acting, landing roles as an extra in two soap operas. Then she took a plunge that changed the trajectory of her life: Golar Richie volunteered for the Peace Corps, where she taught English, founded a library and girls track team, and helped plan construction of a water tank in her Kenyan village.

She met her husband, Winston Richie, a Peace Corps alumni from Ohio who trained her as a volunteer. They married in 1984.

Winston accepted a job in Boston at John Hancock Financial Services, where he now works in the international group. After completing a journalism degree at Columbia University, Golar Richie followed him to Boston. The newlyweds lived in the South End before buying a house on Meetinghouse Hill in Dorchester.

It wasn’t Golar Richie’s idea to run for office. She was working for the Dorchester Community News and moderated a debate among City Council candidates. She impressed several of her neighbors, who asked her to run for state representative. The seat was held by Althea Garrison, a Republican in a Democratic stronghold who slipped into office when the incumbent failed to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Golar Richie won. She formed an unlikely alliance with Thomas M. Finneran in his successful fight to become House speaker. He made her chairwoman of the Housing and Urban Development Committee, a significant feat for a freshman legislator.

Menino lured her to City Hall in 1999 and made her chief of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. Early in her tenure, Golar Richie faced some criticism, including a report from a city watchdog agency that blasted her for long delays in selling tax-claimed properties. But she found her footing and held the post for eight years.

She later joined the Patrick administration and worked for YouthBuild USA, a national nonprofit that builds affordable housing and works with young people who have limited prospects. (YouthBuild had sent her to California to show off a charter school in March.)

But Golar Richie has made her experience as Boston’s housing chief the foundation of her mayoral run. On the stump, she talks about managing a 200-person city agency with $100 million budget. She boasts that the city issued permits for 18,000 houses and apartments during her tenure.

“You can trust that she is going to do the right thing for the city,” said Joanne Massaro, a supporter who served as her deputy in neighborhood development and is now public works commissioner. “She’s a hard worker. She’s compassionate. She cares. And she’s very committed.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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