The recent contretemps pitting City Councilor and mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell against the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association generated more heat than light.
But it did raise an intriguing question: Is a public official accountable for the behavior of their closest relatives?
Like everything in life, that depends.
First, a stipulation: The Twitter fight between Campbell and the BPPA was ill advised, on both fronts, not just the union’s, as has been the conventional take. Both sides could have defended their positions and interests without casting aspersions on the integrity of the other.
Unless conclusive evidence surfaces suggesting either side enabled or assisted in the criminality of others, assigning collective guilt — to her for her brother Alvin, who faces charges that he is a serial rapist; to the union for its former leader who is charged with raping children and kept his job despite some department members believing allegations against him that surfaced in 1995 — is unfair and, like most social media wars, achieves nothing but some headlines.
But the larger question raised by the dispute deserves attention.
The most obvious example by way of comparison is former Senate and UMass president Bill Bulger and his gangster, serial-murderer brother Whitey.
I’m guessing that some people who think it was out of line for the union to troll Campbell about her brother had no problem with Bill Bulger being pushed out of UMass over his refusal to publicly repudiate his brother or assist in his capture.
And, in fairness, there were key differences. Campbell has not used her high profile to argue her brother’s innocence. Rather, she has praised the courage of his alleged victims in coming forward.
Throughout his public life, Bill Bulger was largely in denial about his brother’s criminality, especially about the more murderous side of it. On more than one occasion, Bill Bulger told me and others that the allegations against his brother, especially those about his involvement in drugs, were a politically motivated smear, pushed by people who didn’t like him, his family, or the FBI.
That claim was revealed for the nonsense it was at the opening of Whitey Bulger’s trial in federal court in 2013, when his own lawyers acknowledged their client had raked in millions in tribute by allowing drugs to flow freely through South Boston. Whitey Bulger did this, of course, while his politician brother was insisting privately to anyone who would listen that Whitey was a benevolent, well-read gangster but certainly not a malevolent, drug-dealing killer.
As if there’s some huge difference.
From all I’ve seen of her record, Campbell uses her life story as an inspirational one, not ducking the uncomfortable parts involving her family members who have been involved in criminality.
In a campaign video, she says her father was incarcerated while she was growing up, that her brother Andre died in prison awaiting trial. Her candor stands in stark contrast to Bill Bulger’s.
Raised in Roxbury and the South End, her educational path from Boston Latin to Princeton to UCLA Law is every bit as impressive as Bill Bulger’s rise from a South Boston housing project to Boston College High School, BC, and BC Law.
There are some who might question Campbell’s suitability as mayor, given her family’s history. I don’t. I didn’t question Bill Bulger’s suitability as a senator and voted for him regularly when I lived in South Boston, until I realized the extent to which he was defending his brother and denying Whitey’s murderous exploits. Beyond the protection offered him by the FBI, Whitey could not have survived all those years without the succor of his family, especially that provided by Bill.
Just about all is fair game in love and politics. But attacking Campbell for the criminality of her family members is not. If anything, her experience may make her a more empathetic politician, and we could use some more of them.
When all is said and done, and Alvin Campbell’s trial is over, the state of Massachusetts may be her brother’s keeper, but she is not.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.