Dual bid shows Charles Yancey going his own way
Hundreds of people are lined up, waiting to pour into charter buses queuing in the sprawling parking lot of Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan. Councilor Charles C. Yancey is right there with them.
He is in his element here, mingling with his core constituency as they head for an event tailored to senior citizens. His campaign fliers — those for his mayoral bid, not for his reelection to the City Council — are swatted away at the suggestion that these folks do not know who he is or what he stands for.
Many of them have histories with Yancey that stretch nearly the length of his 30-year tenure representing parts of Dorchester and Mattapan on the council. They do not want campaign literature. They want hugs. They want to swap stories about the kids (he’s got four) and the grandkids (he’s got five).
“I don’t need one of those,” said Janie Gibbs as Yancey went to hand her a leaflet with his family’s picture at the top.
“But you can give it to somebody else,” Yancey told her after a quick embrace.
Gibbs said the two go way back. He helped her when she lived in the Franklin Field public housing development. “And if he can do that,” she said, “make sure Boston Housing put things in place where we get our housing up to par, he’s great.”
Other mayoral candidates have field canvassers here, too, holding signs, passing out literature, even distributing campaign granola bars. But it’s clear: This is Yancey territory.
He is, after all, the first and the only person to represent City Council District 4. He has been in the job since district council seats were created in 1983. He and Mayor Thomas M. Menino were first elected to public office at the same time, with Menino taking the city’s top job.
Now, Yancey is running for two jobs at once, mayor and councilor. He is the only officeholder whose name will appear twice on the Sept. 24 ballot.
“The people in District 4,” he likes to quip, “get to vote for me twice. The rest of the city only gets to vote for me once.” If he wins the mayor’s race, he will resign from the council.
And many, though certainly not all, encourage him in his quixotic quest.
Yancey’s run for mayor is against the grain, like so much else in his political career. He prides himself on being an agitator who can, at times, prove vexing in his fight to end disparities in city services — facilities, hiring, education, public safety — between the communities of color he represents and the rest of Boston.
Some political observers have demonized his decision to stump for mayor while running to keep his City Council seat, saying he should have picked one. Other elected officials did.
But Yancey rebuffs the criticism, oscillating between shoulder-shrugging dismissal and righteous indignation.
“We survived and prospered against tremendous odds and not by accepting the status quo,” he railed at a constituent coffee that doubled as a campaign meet-and-greet at Franklin Field in July. “It makes a difference who represents you in government. Do you just want someone who just goes along to get along, or do you want someone who is going to fight for you? Step on a few toes?”
Two weeks before the primary election, Yancey explains away a bit more simply the criticism over his decision to run for both seats at once: “If it wasn’t that, it would be something else. If I was just running for mayor, they would find some other excuse; why hasn’t he raised as much money as someone else?”
So far, he has run an unconventional campaign, having raised just $30,551 from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31. It was only in August that he hired a handful of campaign staff members, who have been paid a total of about $2,000. He does not list a schedule of events on his campaign website or Facebook page.
“It’s almost a subterranean campaign,” he said, “but that’s fine with me.”
Still, he acknowledges that if he had raised more money, “I’d be running a lot of ads, as well. But it’s more about people than it is about money. But I understand you need money to reach the people.”
Raising money, he said, is one of the few things 30 years in office has not taught him to do well.
Yancey said he has harbored mayoral aspirations since the second of his 15 City Council terms. But, he said, this was the year “for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I’m getting along in years.”
So he said he made up his mind to run in November, long before Menino announced he would not seek a sixth term. He held a series of meetings with “key people.”
Then, he had to persuade his family; that took some work.
“It’s a financial sacrifice to stay in public office,” he said. “We have to pay student loans for our children, like everyone else.
His wife of 43 years, Marzetta Morrissette Yancey, can often be seen on the campaign trail, even filling in for him on occasion. Her husband was one of nine children and the first to go to college.
“Charles was born right here in Roxbury, 64 years ago,” she said at a recent Franklin Field Elderly Task Force meeting. “If he can help, he’s right here. Always been. He’s out front. He’s outspoken. He takes a stand.”
Residents in the room remember when Yancey, as a Tufts student with a full head of hair, mentored their children, taking them on college tours. “He wanted the young people to know their future was unlimited,” Ruby Perry said.
But Yancey’s time on the stump is not always so much of a homecoming. There is more than a little cynicism about his run for mayor. He champions his work fighting for the disenfranchised. But he also relentlessly advocates for something else when no one else does: a high school for Mattapan.
Answers to most campaign questions circle back to the project, which Yancey has pushed for years, proposing as recently as this year a $115 million loan order to build a state-of-the-art high school on the former grounds of the Boston State Hospital. The proposal, which has been on the table since 1999 when Yancey first requested the funds, was defeated in an 8-to-5 council vote in July.
A 1996 blue-ribbon commission called for the school, saying the district put students in formerly “condemned” facilities, basements, and storefronts. Yancey asserts that nearly 4,000 Boston high school students still attend classes in similar conditions. City officials, while acknowledging that some buildings need work, say there are 3,000 empty seats in high schools — too many to justify a new school.
But Yancey keeps pushing, bringing up the high school whenever and wherever he can. It is his drumbeat on the stump, a tactic employed to make sure it stays in the forefront. “And I make no apologies for it,” he says.
He has faced opposition before, turning nos into yeses, he said, pointing to the Dorchester/Mattapan police station, the Mildred Avenue Community Center, the new Mattapan library.
“I haven’t just been sitting on my hands all these years,” he said. “We’ve made a difference against the odds.”