Joan Vennochi

A Boston minister challenges Brown, Warren to focus on poverty

Globe staff illustration; iStock; file, and AP photos

THE REV. EUGENE Rivers is at it again. He’s trying to shine a spotlight on the poor and black — and, on himself.

This time, the catalyst is the high-profile showdown between Republican Senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. On June 6, Rivers and six co-signers delivered letters to both candidates, asking each to meet privately with the letter writers, and also to participate together in a public forum, hosted by a black church in Boston, to discuss how, if elected, “you would measurably improve the quality of life for poor black and brown citizens.”

The letter is blunt about the ultimate endgame: “. . . we propose a revolutionary idea that, on principle, both candidates vying to fill the seat held for so many years by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a champion of the poor, should compete to earn the black vote.”


So far, Brown has agreed to a July 2 private meeting at the Jubilee Christian Center on Blue Hill Avenue, said senior adviser Peter Flaherty.

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Warren has also agreed to meet privately. Harvard professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. has been tapped to facilitate the discussion. A date is still being worked out.

Label this a gimmick, if you wish, promoted by a man who is periodically mocked as a publicity hound. But unlike most Boston publicity hounds, Rivers is not generating items about hobnobbing with the powerful. He tries to get the media to focus on the powerless and himself as their voice.

Rivers champions poor kids beaten down by poverty and each other, who live in Boston neighborhoods that are trying to stay cool, as in violence-free, rather than be cool, as in hip. When enough blood spills, the kids and the streets they die on make headlines.

He’s right about this: the issues raised about the violence and economic hardship in these neighborhoods are routinely left out of a political debate that is fixated, nationally and locally, on the middle class.


As Rivers sees it, “a bipartisan conspiracy of silence about race and poverty” permeates American politics. Or, as stated in letters to both candidates, “With very rare exceptions, the needs of the poorest members of the black and brown communities have not been the focus of the local or national leadership of either the Democratic or Republican parties, notwithstanding the fact that we in the Commonwealth have both a black president and a black governor.”

Rivers’s co-signers include his wife, Jacqueline C. Rivers, the Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown, the Rev. Mark V. Scott, the Rev. Robert Washington, the Rev. Vernard Coulter, and the Rev. Bruce H. Wall. Rivers previously expressed skepticism about Warren, saying the controversy over her Cherokee roots raised legitimate questions about “whether or not a white woman used the minority card for her professional advantage.” He now says he believes her heritage played no role in her Harvard Law School appointment.

The June 6 letters are tough on both candidates.

The letter to Brown expresses appreciation for his willingness to meet with black clergy immediately after his election: “It was a meaningful gesture to us.” However, the letter asks “what concrete results have you produced for the poor in Massachusetts towns and cities that you can draw our attention to? In our view this is not primarily a contest between you and your Democratic challenger. This is ultimately a referendum on your track record. Based on what you have produced, why should black people vote for you?”

Warren is applauded for challenging banks and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “This has earned you a well-deserved reputation as an effective and courageous advocate for the middle class taxpayer,” the letter states.


However, it also notes: “. . . frankly, we are mystified by the fact that you, a Native American, have failed to address the key policy issues related to race, class, and poverty . . . We would like to hear you outline in detail the specific policy and programmatic initiatives that you will establish to address the issues of public safety, education, public health, and economic development in black and brown low-income communities across the state.”

How would the Senate candidates ‘improve the quality of life for poor black and brown citizens?’

Brown and Warren are still debating where they will debate. What they debate is even more important.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.