Never in recent city history has a municipal candidate won a write-in campaign for office, but don’t tell that to Jamarhl Crawford.
On a warm afternoon last month, he ran up and down Washington Street in Roxbury, popping his head into storefronts and dropping off thick batches of literature explaining his platform, before dashing back to his worn blue car to get more.
“Our district has the least jobs, the least services; we have the most violence,” Crawford stopped to tell a mother walking with her child, “and the way I see it, the worst representation.”
The 42-year-old community activist has spent the past 3½ months mounting a sticker campaign against well-liked City Council incumbent Tito Jackson for the District 7 seat.
“I’ve been in office about 2½ years, and we have many accomplishments,” Jackson said during his opening statement at a candidates forum in Hibernian Hall earlier this week, before going on to highlight his work to improve Madison Park High School, cut down on gun violence, and make sure residents are getting jobs connected to high-profile development projects in the district. “There’s a great deal of work that we need to continue to do to make sure that as District 7 changes and arises that the people of District 7 get the benefit of that.”
But despite being widely lauded in City Hall, Jackson has come under consistent fire from Crawford and a handful of other community activists who do not think he has been confrontational enough when advocating for the district, which includes parts of the South End, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and the Fenway, as well as all of Roxbury.
Political observers overwhelmingly expect Jackson to win comfortably when voters hit the polls Tuesday, but say the race brings to the surface two divergent strands of political thought among voters in the historically black areas of Roxbury.
In a district that has long been underserved, many voters long for an activist councilor whose style more closely mirrors that of former councilor Chuck Turner, who remains beloved by some, despite his removal from the council after being indicted on bribery charges.
Turner, who was released from federal prison in August to a halfway house in Boston, was known for his impassioned crusades and bomb-throwing nature. Some critics who remember that fondly say Jackson, who replaced Turner in 2011, has not been vocal enough.
“No, no, no, no chance.” said David Eastmond, 56, of Roxbury, who says he has voted for Jackson, when asked if Crawford has a shot. “Tito will win this. But if Jamarhl gets 500 votes or 1,000 votes, those are all votes against Tito.”
The son of Herb Jackson, a well-known Roxbury activist who worked to open doors for people of color to gain access to Boston’s union-controlled construction jobs, Tito Jackson was raised in Grove Hall, one of seven children.
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, Jackson ran unsuccessfully for one of the council’s four at-large seats in 2009 before serving as political director for Governor Deval Patrick’s 2010 reelection campaign.
“I’ve worked to make sure our community has representation relative to jobs and economic development,” Jackson said. “I’ve also worked very hard around issues of public safety, hosting many peace rallies around the community and a subcommittee at the City Council on gun violence, to make our community safer.”
Jackson, 38, was widely rumored to be considering a mayoral or citywide council run this election cycle, but in April announced he would seek reelection to the District 7 seat, citing the need for an experienced leader to continue advocacy for capital projects and a reduction in violence.
His announcement cleared the field of several council hopefuls who had said they would run if Jackson did not. The only person who gathered signatures to run against him was Roy Owens, a perennial council candidate known for his socially conservative stances.
Crawford was a late entry into the race at the end of the summer when he announced a sticker campaign, a write-in effort in which a candidate provides stickers bearing his or her name for supporters to place on the ballot.
“I’m not running against the current councilor,” Crawford told the dozen or so supporters who gathered at Frugal Bookstore in Grove Hall on Aug. 14, for the official launch of his write-in campaign. “I’m running for District 7.”
Raised in Boston, Crawford has been known throughout the city as a hip-hop artist, one-time spokesman for the New Black Panther Party, founder of Blackstonian.com, and a community activist.
Although admittedly nontraditional and at times unpolished in style, Crawford’s list of accomplishments includes organizing a long list of town halls, community programs, and political rallies.
Even so, most watching the race believe that Jackson’s accomplishments and popularity, in contrast to Crawford’s unconventional style and the fact that his name is not on the ballot, will make the race relatively noncompetitive.
“Tito has a big advantage over these other two candidates,” said Gareth Saunders, who held the District 7 council seat for six years before stepping down in 1999 and was the last challenger to beat a sitting council incumbent for a district seat when he ousted Anthony Crayton in 1993.
“The incumbent always has the advantage and is the big favorite,” Saunders said. “And, from what I can see, Tito is popular and has been working hard on behalf of his constituents.”
Still, even without his name on the ballot, Crawford has a growing list of supporters, including names well known in local political circles, such as former state senators Dianne Wilkerson and Bill Owens and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who gave a $250 check to the effort.
“For Jamarhl, this isn’t about a job,” said Cornell Mills, who ran unsuccessfully against Jackson in 2011 and is advising Crawford’s campaign. “This is about a continued mission. Everything he does is from the heart.”