The first in a series of profiles of the historic field of candidates vying to be Boston’s next mayor. For more coverage of the race, please subscribe to On the Cusp, the Globe’s weekly newsletter covering all aspects of the contest and visit our Mayoral Race page for the latest developments.
Andrea Campbell’s middle name is Joy, but she was a preternaturally serious child — so intense and purpose-driven that she had to be reminded to play, said Lois Savage, a relative who helped raise Campbell after her mother died.
“She was one of those students who would get mad if she got an A minus,” Savage said.
“But I think she used it as fuel,” added Lois’s husband, Ron. “It’s how she stayed focused. Learning was something within her control.”
Not much else was, Campbell began learning at an early age.
Her father, Alvin R. Campbell Sr., spent half his life in prison. An associate of the Winter Hill Gang, he was dubbed the “leading Black organized crime figure in New England” by authorities who arrested him when Campbell and her twin brother were five months old. Her mother was killed in a car accident a few months later driving to visit him in jail.
The tragedy left the twins and their older brother, Alvin Campbell Jr., effectively orphaned, divvied up between relatives and foster parents for eight years. After their father returned and claimed custody, he preached the promise of education, but only his daughter soared; both boys followed his darker lessons.
A dazzling student, Campbell caught the eye of teachers who ushered her on a path to Boston Latin School, Princeton University, and UCLA School of Law. She became a lawyer on Beacon Hill and the first Black woman elected City Council president.
Her twin brother, Andre, who shared the same light-up-a-room smile and — she often says — was smarter than her, followed the school-to-prison pipeline and died in custody before the age of 30.
Now 39 and a candidate for mayor of Boston, Campbell is running a campaign based on that baffling inequity, driven by a child’s innate sense of fairness: Why didn’t her twin brother get the same education, the same second chances, the same guidance that she did? If he had, could more than one Campbell have made it?
As mayor, she says, she would offer all Bostonians truly equitable opportunities that could halt more families’ generational cycles of poverty and incarceration. Campbell believes she’s the candidate best equipped to guide Boston down that road, having traveled it herself.
“It’s bigger even than Andre. It’s bigger than my dad. It is truly about breaking these cycles,” Campbell said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “This is why I love this city. On the one hand, I experienced such tremendous pain, but on the flip side, this is the city that gave me everything. And so how do we make sure this city continues to give everyone else everything?”
Along the way, she found joy.
She and Ama Edzie, her best friend since age 11, were among the “Timilty Jumping Jacks” who won a state Double Dutch jumping rope championship in 1995. They organized a joint 16th birthday party with no adult assistance, even renting and decorating a neighborhood space and ordering the food and music on their own. In their senior year, they orchestrated the end-of-year fashion talent show, complete with choreography, costume designs, and a deejay.
Campbell was a kid who always had a plan — often a long-term plan, Edzie said. She pointed to a Globe photo of the duo in their youth, “studying like our lives depended on it — and they actually did.”
Campbell’s father, despite his own challenges, had been a standout student, admitted to Princeton before ending up in prison. When he was released, he tried to make up for lost time with the children, instilling lessons and emphasizing education, Campbell said.
By then, other adult mentors were noticing Campbell’s promise. At 9, a teacher invited her to join the city schools’ Advanced Work Classes, the accelerated academic program that put her on track to compete for entry into one of Boston’s elite exam schools. The following year, she was among the at-risk girls chosen for an inner-city Girl Scouts program that offered three years of self-esteem support, conflict resolution, and transporting experiences, such as camping in New Hampshire. Before seventh grade, Campbell tested into Boston Latin School, the city’s most competitive and prestigious exam school. It offered an education on par with a prep school and a professional network for life.
Her twin brother had none of this. Even as a child, Campbell couldn’t help but notice the gaping discrepancy in support. As a politician, she has targeted such systemic inequities; two years after her election, she secured in the city budget a dedicated line item, the Youth Development Fund, to provide grants to programs that handle violence prevention and mentoring.
“They are critical because they are providing our young people with the adults I had,” Campbell said in an interview.
“If Andre had these things, I’m confident his life trajectory would have been different,” Campbell later added.
When her brother began exhibiting behavior problems, he was sent to the McKinley School, which handles students with emotional issues, and later to the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, a huge school that had lost its accreditation.
“Clearly there’s a distinction in how we were treated when we were acting out,” said Campbell. She was disciplined for talking too much and being disruptive by having her seat moved, she recalled; her brother was removed from the school entirely. “I think it falls on the gender line and I think that affects how people see you and treat you.”
Then Andre Campbell got entangled in the criminal legal system, too. At 17, he was charged with stabbing a man he and Alvin Jr. clashed with in the Downtown Crossing T station. At 21, he was charged in the armed robbery of a Chelmsford jewelry store.
By then, Campbell was off at Princeton, finishing what her father had never started.
Campbell is a Christian with a deep faith. “When it gets hard, I pull out my gospel music. I pull out my Bible,” Campbell said. “It is what I go back to to remind myself why I do this work and to channel any frustration or bitterness.”
But at Princeton, Campbell took an unusual turn from math major to studying sociology and Judaic Studies. She had long been fascinated by her father’s stories about the changing demographics of Boston’s neighborhoods — Blue Hill Avenue was once a Jewish enclave — and she studied Black and Jewish relations in urban settings, while working at the university’s Center for Jewish Life.
After graduation, she worked for a few years in New York. Then she went to law school, citing her long experience with the criminal legal system as a child.
“It was traumatic in so many different ways,” she said. “And then when my brothers were intertangled with it, I was often the first person that got called as the sister, as the next of kin. It was me often feeling ill-equipped to talk to lawyers, to engage with lawyers, not knowing what they were talking about, feeling an incredible burden.”
She started off in education law, representing students as young as 6, and helping them gain a voice in the education system. Later, she worked for a Boston law firm, and served as a deputy counsel in then-Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.
By that time, her twin brother was facing charges again — this time for a home invasion — and his health was rapidly deteriorating while he awaited trial. Campbell began reaching out for help, demanding to see him before he died.
“He sat in custody for two years, even when one of his doctors insisted he needed to be in a hospital. That to me points to a system that has incredible flaws and does not treat everyone the same,” she said.
Campbell is not an apologist for her relatives’ criminal records — “I’m all for accountability,” she said — but she is also unflinching in demanding accountability from the law enforcement system, too.
“Everyone deserves equitable access to justice,” she said. “And we know in our criminal legal system that does not happen.”
Her brother’s death in 2012 from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, motivated her to take the leap into public service.
Her first election was a 2015 long-shot campaign for the district council seat held for 32 years by Charles Yancey. She trounced him.
The first measure she successfully sponsored on the council was the Community Preservation Act, a property tax surcharge that funds affordable housing, historic preservation, and green space. But she mostly focused on the justice and equity issues she knows firsthand. She expanded the scope of the Committee on Public Safety she chairs to include criminal justice and pressed the issue of body cameras for police. After the next election cycle, amid a wave of women’s political empowerment, she became Boston’s first Black woman City Council president and the standard-bearer of a panel newly transformed by women of color.
Since the national reckoning on police violence against Black people began last summer, she has been the City Council’s leading agitator for police transparency and proposed an independent civilian review board with subpoena power to investigate complaints against officers, a proposal that evolved into the city’s new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency. As a candidate for mayor, she issued a sweeping platform on police reform, proposing to reallocate 10 percent of the department’s budget to social services.
And she was unsparing in criticizing the department for covering up child molestation allegations against a union president. “The Boston Police Department simply cannot be trusted to police itself,” she declared in a statement at the time.
Her forcefulness on the issue drew a menacing warning from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which attacked her on social media. “When the topic of discussion turns to enabling criminals, you and your credibility would be best served by recusing yourself,” the police union tweeted.
Though no evidence has surfaced suggesting Campbell enabled relatives, it was a rare jab at a point of potential vulnerability: Her older brother, Alvin Campbell Jr., now stands accused of a string of horrific rapes, allegedly posing as a ride-share driver to pick up intoxicated women and filming his sexual assaults.
Until that tweet from the union, Campbell had seemed politically untouched by her proximity to violence. “Because she’s always been honest about who she is,” asserted a supporter, former state Representative Marie St. Fleur. “By all statistics, she should not be where she is. I find that an amazing American story.”
Campbell, while “devastated” by the charges against her older brother, said she has learned to not internalize criticism about her relatives.
“It’s not my story. It’s their story,” she said. “If anything, my job is to share my story, which is not only an example of breaking these cycles of criminalization and mediocrity and inequity, but then to say I’ve chosen a path and a profession to do this for other families because this work is purpose-driven for me.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.