With an ex-priest as her top aide, Althea Garrison seeks to challenge council from the right

Boston City Councilor Althea Garrison and chief of staff Mark Murphy’s partnership has at times rankled her council colleagues. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
Boston City Councilor Althea Garrison and chief of staff Mark Murphy’s partnership has at times rankled her council colleagues. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

They are an unlikely pair, even in politics, brought together under equally unlikely circumstances.

Althea Garrison was a perennial candidate for three decades until a vacancy led to her appointment to the City Council in January. Mark Murphy served in the Massachusetts National Guard for 10 years and was an ordained Roman Catholic priest until he left the ministry in 2018.

Last fall, amid a changeover on the council that elevated Garrison to the seat, Murphy sent her a letter praising her tenacity and advocacy, specifically for veterans. She sent him a Christmas card. They met for the first time over coffee at Caffè Nero in Downtown Crossing.


And when Garrison was sworn in as a councilor at large, she named Murphy her chief of staff — kicking off a partnership that’s been pushing issues ranging from housing to veterans’ services. And with her unorthodox top aide at her side, Garrison has become a rare conservative voice on the left-leaning panel (she was previously a registered Republican), often unafraid to go against the crowd, even if it means rankling her colleagues.

“We are a team,” Garrison, 78, said in an interview in her newly painted City Hall office, a patriotic combination of red and blue. Murphy, 34, sat by her side, dressed in a charcoal suit and tie, a City Council pin attached to his jacket.

Together, they have sought to navigate the intricacies of City Council life, from proposing policy to glad-handing at events. Garrison has sat in on community hearings in East Boston to challenge development, and she recently shared a stage with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Harvard’s commencement. (As a councilor, Garrison was invited.) A framed picture of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis hangs on the wall in Garrison’s office.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said, leaning over her desk. “You have to pick people you can work together with. Mark knows his job, and I do my job.”


“Councilor Garrison is the boss; it’s her office,” Murphy said. “It’s my job as the chief of staff to implement her vision — which I agree with.”

A Dorchester resident for decades, Garrison won office once before, in 1992, serving a single term as a Republican state representative after her opponent failed to complete his nomination papers. During this time, she was outed as transgender by the Boston Herald, which disclosed a birth certificate that listed her sex as male. (Garrison has declined to discuss her personal life, before and after her election to the council.)

For 34 years, she worked as a clerk in the state comptroller’s office, while running in election after election for offices ranging from city councilor to state representative and mayor.

Garrison ticked off the policy areas she wanted to focus on as councilor, including housing, services for seniors, and cutting taxes.

In the past, she has said she opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But she would not comment on the recent push in some states to restrict access to abortion or the recent controversy over a proposed Straight Pride parade in Boston.

She raised heads in March when she invited Roy Owens, another political gadfly and perennial election candidate who has preached an antigay and antisame-sex-marriage agenda, to give the traditional City Council invocation at a meeting. She has no opinion on those matters, she says.


Her council proposals have mostly focused on the local: noise levels in the city and a controversy over a hotel project in Roxbury. Her first speech was about the need for more civics education in schools.

On environmental matters, she’s against the Green New Deal, she said, saying the use of green in the phrase makes her think about money, as in corporate interests. She was against the city’s ban on plastic bags, too. (“I would like to repeal it,” she said.)

She came out against Councilor Michelle Wu’s call to charge fees for residential parking stickers. Garrison said residents are already burdened by fees and was critical of Wu, whom Garrison called her greatest competition. They are both running for four at-large spots on the council this fall.

“If I’m not doing my job, she’s got nothing to worry about,” she said.

She has also pressed for conversations the council has been reluctant to have, such as her call for a hearing on rent control, which exposed divisions and triggered debate among her colleagues.

Her focus on veterans’ affairs led to her partnership with Murphy, who comes from a military family, and was based at different times at National Guard quarters in Brockton and Camp Edwards. For much of that time, he served in the priesthood, a calling he has said he began contemplating in high school. He was ordained in 2011.

Murphy voluntarily left the ministry last year, in what he called a personal decision he didn’t want to discuss. But, he said, he has long held an interest in politics and tracked Garrison. He said she brings a new voice to a council that celebrates its racial and gender diversity, but not always its political.


“The councilor brings some diversity to the council, in its own way,” he said.

City councilors are paid $99,500 a year. Murphy’s salary, which Garrison sets, was recently increased to $95,000.

Now, with a few months of incumbency on her resume, Garrison said they will continue to make their mark – straight through the fall elections, when the councilor will seek a full term.

The race for the four at-large seats has drawn heavy interest since US Representative Ayanna Pressley left the council, creating an opening for Garrison, who placed a distant fifth in the 2017 race.

Now, at least 15 candidates are slated to be on the ballot, with a preliminary contest in September followed by an election in November.

Garrison said not to count her out.

“People call me, because they feel they haven’t been heard,” she said. “I’m going to do quite well [in the election], believe me. I’ve done the work.”

Milton Valencia can be reached MValencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.