“Can I show you something?” John Connolly asked, antsy.
Within seconds, the city councilor and mayoral candidate was behind the wheel of an SUV, speeding away from three surprised aides standing on a Roxbury sidewalk.
The morning had begun the way many candidate ride-alongs do, with a canned event. Connolly stood on Woodrow Avenue, in Dorchester, with Mary Franklin and two other women who had lost loved ones to homicide. Connolly’s friendship with Franklin is real. Her pain and anger are heartbreaking. Yet most of the meeting felt artificial, designed to support a campaign narrative.
The next item on the schedule, a visit to a nearby housing development, was shaping up to be even more bereft of spontaneity. There were hardly any people about. Few candidates would go door-knocking in a near-deserted development at 11 on a Tuesday morning if there wasn’t a reporter around. Connolly, bless him, couldn’t fake it. And so we were off.
The councilor does not hold back. You might even call him brash. It’s a quality that has endeared Connolly to those seeking a very different Boston from the one we have now. And it has earned him the enmity of others, including Mayor Tom Menino, who is no fan of the man who launched his campaign before the mayor announced his retirement.
Connolly headed right for his wheelhouse — the Trotter School, on Humboldt Avenue , where his daughter Clare is in kindergarten. He peered through the cafeteria window, watching the dark-haired girl eat lunch with friends. When she finally spotted him, her eyes lit up and she bounced in her seat. He scooped her up, and a few of her little friends threw their arms around his neck.
Connolly is a fixture at the Trotter, not just because his child is here, but because the school embodies the rationale for his candidacy: improving the public schools.
“I just look at this place and it’s beaming,” he said.“The kids love being here. We’ve got this great space, but it’s really the people. Why can’t we do this for every kid?”
The Trotter was designated a turnaround school in 2009, which meant more autonomy for the principal, who replaced 65 percent of the teachers. Extra state funding and partnerships brought an army of extra aides, new equipment, and a longer day to the school. The stellar results are obvious in every classroom.
“Can you feel the calm?” Connolly said. “That’s how it always is.” He refuses to accept that this kind of transformation is not possible at every school in the city.
“I hate the way we’re always saying, ‘How are you going to pay for it,’ ” he said. “This place is built by will.” His viewpoint, and his forthrightness, have made him a pariah with the Boston Teachers Union, which rightly assumes that if he becomes mayor, they’ll have a far more combative relationship than they’ve had with Menino.
The candidate knows people think he talks only about schools. But he sees a direct line between the problems the Trotter is solving and those weeping women on Woodrow Avenue. “This is the link to safe and healthy neighborhoods,” he said. “This is the link to jobs. If we don’t do this, we’re going to pay for it on the streets.”
He’s absolutely right, but that easy line made me think again about Mary Franklin, whose husband, Melvin, died on Woodrow Avenue in 1996. She has the kind of pain that will not be salved by better schools. She wants her husband’s killers found. She wants solace of any kind.
“Do you see how crazy this is, what I’m doing?” Franklin said, taping flowers to the pole where her husband was gunned down. “It’s not all right, John, it’s not all right. . . . I still hurt, and I miss him so much. Help us, John, please help us.”
It is a plea that should ring in Connolly’s ears, and in those of all who want this impossible job.
Correction: An earlier version of this column gave the wrong location for Woodrow Avenue. The street is in Dorchester.