When Charles Clemons was born, he had Coats disease, a rare disorder that afflicts the eye. At age 3, he lost his right eye to the ailment.
At school, he said, students picked on him. They would tackle him to the ground, pluck out his artificial right eye, and throw it in the grass, laughing. Clemons said the bullying continued until he was 10, after his parents divorced and his mother, Virginia, moved her five children to the Grove Hall area of Dorchester.
“It’s painful thinking about it,’’ he recalled. “I never told my mother.”
Clemons, now 52 and a candidate for mayor of Boston, tells this story on the campaign trail, hoping to drive home a message to the people of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan that he knows what it is like to be picked on and counted out. He has been spreading the message that he would lead the city by creating better schools, improving public safety, and encouraging more men to be surrogate fathers to troubled youths.
“I know he has passion, because he wears it on his sleeves,’’ said Roosevelt St. Louis, a former Mattapan businessman who has known Clemons for three decades. “You can count on him.”
While Clemons has been a dynamic voice on the campaign trail, speaking out particularly on issues of diversity, he does not have a strong political organization and had little more than $2,000 in cash on Sept. 10. He is one of the candidates that some minority leaders have said should drop out of the race so that voters can coalesce behind the strongest candidates of color.
On the campaign trail, Clemons wears a a broad smile and a bright disposition at community forums and other campaign stops. He hails the fact that his name is “number one on the ballot.” And he uses catch phrases such as “Isn’t that great’’ or “Isn’t that wonderful.” It’s a trick he said he learned years ago to always look on the bright side.
“I feel like he talks from the heart,’’ said Alma Harris, a retired public school teacher who has warmed to Clemons despite initial skepticism.
Clemons seems to relish the spotlight. At the first televised forum this week, he did not hold back or appear nervous. At a curbside forum a day later, he boomed like a preacher in front of a largely black crowd in Grove Hall. On TOUCH 106.1 FM, the unlicensed radio station he cofounded seven years ago, he keeps the conversation and music focused on the campaign, so much so that he has come under fire for using the station to promote his candidacy.
Clemons’s tactics have also been criticized as racially divisive and ineffective. He called a private breakfast meeting for only the black and Latino candidates in July, but only one other candidate came. And then, a group of activists championed by Clemons scheduled a minority-only forum this week, but were forced to change course after Freedom House, where it had been scheduled to take place, refused to host it. Undeterred, the forum’s organizers pitched a tent on a grassy strip in Grove Hall and held a church revival-style meeting, complete with a collection bag passed around to help cover the cost.
Before the event, as Clemons sat near the site, a megaphone affixed atop a black sedan across the street kept blaring slogans for rival Charlotte Golar Richie.
Clearly annoyed, Clemons kept a strained smile on his face and walked to a nearby restaurant to finish an interview. There he waxed nostalgic about how he overcame bullying as a child, how even at age 10 he became the man of his house when his parents divorced, and how he grew up in Grove Hall gaining strength and guidance from the brothers at the Nation of Islam, a black religious group his mother joined and to which Brother Charles, as he is known, became a convert.
“My self-esteem was built up – and my confidence,’’ he said. “Growing up in the Nation of Islam you were taught to accomplish what you will.”
Clemons said he started a disc jockey and sound business when he was 16 and is still running it. He later attended Boston University, he said, but quit in the first year for an internship at WILD radio station, at the time the city’s only African-American radio station. He stayed on as the program director for three years, but left to put on concerts and nightclub events.
At 20, he became a father. At about the same time, he said he started using cocaine and heroin. Three years later, after getting married, he decided he had to change his life.
“I told my mother that I was using, and she said ‘Seek refuge in Allah – God,’ ” he recalled. “There is a point in a young man’s life when you feel like you are invincible. But I had a conscience. I knew right from wrong.”
He returned to the mosque, stopped hanging out with the nightclub crowd, and started working as a disc jockey, mostly at weddings and family gatherings. He served as a corrections officer for six years and as a police officer from Jan. 14, 1991, through July 8, 1999, according to the Boston Police Department.
While Clemons freely talks about that part of his past, he leaves out details about his family.
“My family life is my personal life, off limits,’’ he had told the Globe in previous discussions. “Let’s stick to the campaign.”
In an interview this week, he would not tell a Globe reporter the name of his wife of 25 years, with whom he is in divorce proceedings, or answer questions about his seven children. He said he wanted his story to be positive, and ended the interview when a reporter would offer no such assurances.
Clemons’s record is packed with financial and legal troubles. In August, Judge Jeremy A. Stahlin found that Clemons had violated a previous order to pay arrears in child support owed to his wife for their 17-year-old son. He had missed 15 weeks and owed $3,585, court records show. Clemons and his wife returned to court Sept. 4, and they worked out an agreement for him to pay the arrears.
Clemons has had his driver’s license suspended five times since 1987, three of which were for nonpayment of child support, in 2004, 2006, and 2011. The state Department of Revenue filed two liens against his property in 2000 and 2001 because he owed $6,757 and $5,269 in child support. He eventually paid the fines.
He still has not paid his state motor vehicle excise tax for 2011 and 2012, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicle.
In court records, Phyllis Clemons said she filed for divorce February 2012, citing an “irretrievable breakdown.’’ They married Aug. 11, 1990, and had three children, according to court documents. In the documents, Phyllis Clemons said she kicked Clemons out of their Dorchester house in January 2012.
But at TOUCH 106.1 FM, the low-power station he cofounded, Brother Charles is beloved by his audience. Clemons is viewed as a hero by advocates for low-power stations. In 2009, he walked to Washington, D.C., joining the grass-roots effort to bring their plight to light. Two years later, the Local Community Radio Act was signed into law, making it possible for more low-power stations to operate. Next month, the FCC will begin accepting applications.
Clemons plans to apply and finally get his license.Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.