The Boston Phoenix
February 4 - 11, 1999

[City Hall]

Outside game

Gareth Saunders puts principle over politics

City Hall by Ben Geman

When Boston city councilor at large Albert "Dapper" O'Neil launched into a tirade last week in city-council chambers , denouncing the press and lashing out at fellow councilor Gareth Saunders, it was a telling incident for both men.

Saunders had called O'Neil to ask him about his relationship with the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, which O'Neil had reportedly praised shortly after voting against erecting a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on City Hall Plaza. After declaring that he was not a racist, O'Neil said, "I wish I could get up out of this goddamned [wheel] chair -- I'll show you what you are."

It was a perfect snapshot of today's Dapper: offensive and not terribly relevant. Coming from any other councilor, the remarks -- and the vote against the statue -- would have been bigger news. But at 78 and in fragile health, Dapper's no longer taken as seriously as he was when he was the council's top vote-getter. A Boston institution whose support at the ballot box is fading, O'Neil is being pushed to the political margin.

But if O'Neil's actions speak to his diminished role, the incident and its aftermath also offer insight into Saunders's status as a councilor. After five years -- a fraction as long as Dapper has served -- Saunders, too, finds himself on the city council's periphery. One of just two blacks on the council, Saunders is a progressive voice in a rather conservative gang of 13. Not surprisingly, he and conservative council president James Kelly have been at odds -- and looking at the leadership positions, which are controlled by Kelly, it shows. Saunders heads no major committees and wasn't named at all to arguably the most important ones, including ways and means, housing, and education.

For his part, Saunders offers a scathing critique of Kelly's leadership and has launched two bold yet unsuccessful efforts to unseat him, most recently last month. Clearly, he's set his sights high. But from the council's wilderness -- and from Roxbury, a district whose 1997 voter turnout was just 20 percent -- can Saunders build the clout to become a strong leader?

With the deck stacked against him, some observers wonder whether the 39-year-old is even putting his best cards on the table. Saunders has been criticized for not being enough of an "inside" player, fighting high-profile and symbolic battles but not doing the nuts-and-bolts work to help bring more jobs, economic development, and housing to his district. Take his latest bid for the council presidency. Saunders appealed to the press more than he did to colleagues, ripping Kelly's leadership in a letter to the Boston Globe days before the vote but, according to other councilors, waiting until the 11th hour before seeking their support.

Such criticism comes at a time when Saunders's district stands to gain from a wave of city development, yet could also suffer from draconian state and federal welfare reform. "Is he picking the right battles? No," says long-time Roxbury activist and political consultant Boyce Slayman. "His style is very unorthodox, and he seems to relish being a loner at a time when the city economy is percolating and there are myriad projects in the pipeline. It seems to me that a more advantageous posture to strike would be one that gets his constituents jobs and job training and homeownership opportunities." Slayman points to Saunders's opposition to Kelly and his battle with O'Neil as evidence that Saunders favors ideology over tangible results.

This critique of the councilor's style is ironic. In 1993, Saunders, then a political newcomer, was able to oust one-term councilor Tony Crayton in part because Crayton had drawn just the opposite complaint. "The knock on Tony Crayton was that all he did was play inside politics," says Back Bay councilor Tom Keane. "Gareth ran against that."

Today, Saunders stands by his philosophy. On matters such as his run for the council presidency, he says, he has so little chance of victory that inside politicking is irrelevant and the most important thing is for him to make his point. "I might as well have an empty chair if I am not going to challenge what is unjust or not right," said Saunders last week from his City Hall office. "There are enough people who go along to get along, but that is not who I am."

"The bottom line is that it is based on principle. I see disparate treatment in city government or on the city council and I feel obligated to speak out against it," he adds. "That's who I am and that's what I am going to do. If people would rather you bow down and kowtow to whoever is in power, than I am the wrong type of city councilor."

Saunders has heard the knock that he doesn't play the game, and he rejects it. "My faith and my grandparents always taught me that there would be times when you would have to stand for what is right and what you believe is true," he says. If anything, he says, council watchers can expect to see more of the same from him in the coming year.

And Saunders disputes the notion that he must choose between challenging Kelly and being an effective councilor. He argues, for example, that a 1998 deal awarding at least half the "linkage" money from the planned Seaport development to South Boston would have been tipped even more heavily in favor of Southie if he hadn't raised a stink. "The dialogue was headed that way until I raised a red flag," he says. "You must understand that the tool in that was my voice, repeatedly bringing up the facts, asking questions, reminding people that we are talking about the whole city."

At least one of Saunders's colleagues welcomes the councilor's willingness to challenge Kelly. Tom Keane, who also voted to oust Kelly, praises such moves as Saunders's efforts to pack the council president's hearings on affirmative action in the city's police and fire departments with residents from his district. "I think that over the last five years he has really grown into his position," says Keane. "Gareth understands that it is critically important to have an alternative voice out there. Over the last couple of years he has become more effective as a leader."

Yet whether from circumstance or style, Saunders continues to operate from the council's outer edge. Just look at the reaction to his Globe letter attacking what he called "Kellyism." In a city that prides itself on politics raw and personal, the letter was powerful: Saunders blasted the South Boston councilor's "myopic" views on race, education, and other issues. Strong stuff, but by most accounts, it landed with a thud in City Hall, hardly generating a buzz commensurate with its tone.

In a way, it was not unlike the shrug that O'Neil inspires today.

Ben Geman can be reached at bgeman[a]

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