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Voices: Michael Jonas columns

A shameful last act

Will Chuck Turner make the council’s young minority members pay for his crimes?

BY: Michael Jonas

For a guy who has long claimed the advancement of minority political power in Boston as his cause, Chuck Turner has a funny way of showing it.

Turner railed yesterday against his ouster by his city council colleagues, suggesting Hibernian hero of the poor James Michael Curley must be turning over in his grave at the willingness of Irish-American politicians to take down a man of the people.  But it is really Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, who should have been rolling over uncomfortably after Turner tried to connect his federal bribery conviction with yesterday’s 55th anniversary of her heroic stand against segregation. 

And not just because of how unseemly it was for the veteran black activist to liken the prosecution he faced for a $1,000 payoff captured on videotape with her history-making act of courage on a Montgomery bus. If there is any longer-term local fallout from Turner’s insistence on putting his colleagues through yesterday’s difficult ordeal, it may be to endanger the long march toward greater minority political representation that Parks helped set in motion.

It was not by coincidence that the only councilors to speak at yesterday’s hearing other than Turner and his lone defender, veteran black Dorchester pol Charles Yancey, were Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, the council’s only other minority members. The young first-term councilors represent the future of minority political leadership in the city, and Turner shamelessly seemed determined to make them pay for his misdeeds by putting them between a rock and a hard place.

How Arroyo, a Hispanic former member of Turner’s council staff, and Pressley, the council’s first black female member, would vote yesterday was the only matter of real suspense. And not because their votes would determine the outcome – the council had more than the eight votes needed to oust Turner without them. All eyes were on them because everyone knew they were torn between their regard for Turner and his leadership on issues of concern to the minority community and a recognition that he had been convicted of a serious crime.

Arroyo looked visibly pained throughout the hearing, seated directly across from Turner in the council horseshoe.  Pressley, seated directly next to Turner, exhibited all the body language of a juror returning to the courtroom with a guilty verdict, never looking toward Turner throughout the proceedings.  Until, that is, she rose to deliver her speech. She looked right at the Roxbury councilor, expressed the love and respect she has for him, and announced that she would be voting to remove him from office.

Arroyo, his voice breaking throughout, said it was hard to pass judgment of this kind on anyone, never mind someone who served as a beloved political mentor.  But “the facts are the facts,” he said. “Councilor Turner was indeed convicted of the worst crime a public official can be convicted of.”

Standing on City Hall Plaza just before the hearing, Turner told a gaggle of die-hard supporters that while his council colleagues were about to sit in judgment of him, the voters of Boston would have their chance to pass judgment on them next fall.  As a threat to those who would vote to unseat him, it seemed aimed clearly at Arroyo and Pressley, who were both elected last year to citywide seats, in contrast to the minority neighborhood-based districts seats held by Turner and Yancey.

Apart from the presumption that the two young officials were casting votes of conviction, it is also true that as at-large councilors they would have set themselves for a rough reelection bid next fall had they voted to retain a convicted felon in office. That said, Turner’s message that his supporters should be prepared to punish those who didn’t “stand with Chuck,” as the campaign on his behalf urged, can only be viewed as a threat to take these two turncoats down.

Turner and Yancey formed a two-man tag team against their 11 council colleagues, but they couldn’t exactly agree on their story. On City Hall Plaza, Turner explained why he could not possibly have considered resigning. “I couldn’t resign, because if I resign, I will in a sense be saying, ‘I’m guilty,’” he said. “I have done nothing wrong.  I am not ashamed.” But only minutes later when the hearing got underway, Yancey was trying a different approach. “We all know Chuck Turner is not perfect," Yancey said. "He has made mistakes.” 

Which is it? Turner could never explain the “minister’s handshake” in which a wad of cash wound up in his hand on a FBI surveillance videotape.  It’s true that there is nothing in his character or past history to suggest that the bomb-tossing sixties radical was ever driven by greed or money. But as Arroyo said in his emotional floor speech, “the facts are the facts.”

Had Turner really wanted to pay homage to Parks and the long march for civil rights and minority political power, he would have resigned and spared his one-time protégé yesterday’s painful exercise.

Will Arroyo and Pressley now pay a price next fall among minority voters?  Maybe it’s giving Turner and his ragtag band of aging acolytes more credit than they deserve, but if a misguided solidarity with Turner leads to an even mild falloff in minority support for the two freshmen councilors, it could make a difference in a close at-large race.

That would be quite a legacy for Turner to leave behind.

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