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The compulsive candidate, continued

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Vote Althea Garrison

Althea Garrison’s campaign home page.

2003 Bay Windows city-council interviews

Scroll down for Garrison’s, in which she seems poised to discuss her transgender status, only to shift direction at the last moment.

Walking down Bowdoin Street, Garrison was stopped — somewhat serendipitously — by an excited fan. "Althea!" he exclaimed by way of greeting. "I love your shirt!" This man, Boston resident Jay LaCroix, went on to sing Garrison’s praises, touting her responsiveness as a legislator and offering her as an antidote to the political drabness of present-day Boston. "We need a few more Altheas!" LaCroix insisted. "Boston politics are getting too dull. We have one clone after another."

He’s got a point. And Garrison, if she wanted to, could easily turn her flamboyance into a campaign asset. (Remember, this is a transgender African-American Republican.) Unfortunately, though, Garrison has an ingrained skittishness that makes this a non-starter — and can make even mundane interactions complicated. One example: upon noticing my tape recorder, Garrison announced that I would have to take notes by hand, because she didn’t have a recorder of her own. Later, when I asked to join her on the stump — a standard request for any candidate — she declined my request, hinting that I would get in the way. She also balked at offering a quick biographical summary, and directed me instead to her listing with the American Biographical Institute. (Among other things, the ABI’s Great Minds of the 21st Century notes that Garrison was educated at Suffolk University, Lesley College, and Harvard University; is vice-president of the Uphams Corner Health Center; was appointed to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council by former governor William Weld; and is a notary public. Her childhood and young adulthood remained unexplored.)

Over the course of an hour, though, Garrison did drop her guard on a few occasions. What emerged from these moments of candor was a picture of a puzzling, deeply contradictory candidate and human being: a Republican who scorns talk of party affiliation; a social conservative who laments the decline of union power (and just happens to be transgender); a 13-time loser who still chafes at being dismissed. Here are a few of Garrison’s more memorable remarks:

On why she keeps running: "I’m promoting democracy. If I wasn’t running, that means less people would vote."

On whether she minds the "perennial candidate" label: "No — it makes me more determined. Patricia White has run at least five times; I don’t see them calling her ‘perennial.’ " [In fact, White — the at-large candidate and daughter of former mayor Kevin White — is currently making her third run for office.]

On her constituency: "Working-class whites and blacks that work like I do. They usually don’t seek, like, special privileges or whatever. They work hard, they play by the rules, they’re fair. And they get screwed."

On her improbable friendship with Dapper O’Neil, the former city councilor and voluble right-winger: "I observed him on the council, and I used to go and talk with him. He wasn’t racist, like the bigots say he was."

On her age: "I’m a proud 64. And old enough to get the job done right! The ‘Young Turks’ [several councilors elected in the 1990s] gave us much too high property taxes, and they voted themselves salaries. Most of ’em don’t know what it is to work for a living anyway. They depend on their parents."

On being a Republican: "The election’s nonpartisan. It shouldn’t even be mentioned. This is why I don’t do many interviews, because most reporters inject irrelevancies."

On why she’s not a liberal: "I am conservative, and I love that I am a conservative person. And shall I say, an independent conservative. Nobody tells me what to do or how to do it!"


Garrison doesn’t fit the classic definition of a fringe candidate. In the 2003 at-large election, for example, she received 10,524 votes, or 5.3 percent of the total cast — just 2400 votes behind Matt O’Malley, who’s considered a serious challenger this time around. (O’Malley, it should be noted, was running for the first time.) "She’s a nice person, and she works extremely hard," says political consultant Joyce Ferriabough, who’s worked with several Garrison opponents over the years. "And she’s got her base of people who’ll turn out and vote for her no matter what."

But if Garrison shouldn’t be taken too lightly, it would also be a mistake to take her seriously. Garrison has clear ideas about the causes she’d champion if she were elected, like cutting the city’s property taxes and implementing merit-based raises for public-school teachers. But given this year’s stocked at-large field, Garrison will be lucky just to make it to the final, as she did two years ago. (The top eight finishers in the preliminary advance to the next stage.) Garrison has no money. And she has almost no visibility.

Count on this, however: as long as she’s in the race, Garrison will work at least as hard as any of her rivals. At the very end of our interview, as we stood on Bowdoin Street again, I broached the subject of her gender switch. "You can write whatever you want," Garrison said, shaking her head sadly. "I don’t care." She paused. "Sex always seems to be fascinating to people."

Then, after we shook hands, Garrison trudged up the street, stopping to chat with two potential voters and heading toward the building where, for a fleeting moment, she was once a legitimate politician. Garrison will lose another election soon, maybe next week, maybe come November. And if history is any guide, it won’t be her last.

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Issue Date: September 23 - 28, 2005
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