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Being Chuck Turner (continued)

This account is only partly accurate. A tape of the press conference shows that Turner was, in fact, referring to the photos recently reviewed by Congress when he made the remark quoted by the Globe. Moments later, however, Turner made a similar comment about the photos he and Kambon had introduced: "Once they’re authenticated, we think you have a responsibility to display them in whatever ways are deemed appropriate ... the American people need to see these, because our soldiers are involved."

At the conference, Turner also said he realized the press could not "move these pictures forward" until they were authenticated. But he was hardly neutral on the question. "I believe they are authentic," Turner said at one point. "I think the pictures themselves support their authenticity. I believe the person from whom we received them is a very legitimate person." (Turner and Kambon have said they obtained the photographs via e-mail from Akbar Muhammad, a representative of the Nation of Islam.)

Kambon — who heads the Black Community Information Center and held a press conference in January charging that his unsolicited bid to work for the Democratic National Convention had been rejected due to "racism" — expressed even greater certitude. "No, we cannot pinpoint the exact time and location of these war crimes," Kambon said. "But we are convinced of the legitimacy of the photographs, and we have complete confidence in our source of information."

The contrast between Turner’s letter and the substance of the press conference provides some insights into the councilor’s frame of mind. Powerful, white-dominated institutions — in this case, the Globe — are working to take him down. Criticism directed at him is attributable to these efforts or to basic misunderstandings. Turner’s own words and deeds are beyond reproach. And any information that doesn’t fit into this interpretive framework is altered or discarded.

DESPITE HIS periodic bouts of bad publicity, Turner’s political base remains extremely strong. In 2001, the last time Turner faced an opponent, he received 83 percent of the vote and crushed challenger Roy Owens. Owens was not a strong candidate. But Turner enjoys several significant advantages. He’s an iconic figure in his district. He’s an incumbent. And the demographics are on his side. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos are likely to dominate the next half-century of politics in Boston, which recently became a "majority-minority" city, and African-Americans make up almost half the population in District Seven. "They love him here," one political observer says. "He provides services, he feels their pain, and he takes care of their problems. And he is their visible symbol — ‘God, I wish I could tell those white folks this kind of stuff.’ He is their voice."

In fact, the more embattled Turner is, the more his die-hard supporters will think he’s doing things right. As a 50-year-old Roxbury man put it at last week’s District Seven Roundtable, "Chuck’s only doing his job. If the Globe fucked up, that’s on them." Then the man took up Turner’s removal as Education Committee chairman. "Sometimes, if you do a good job, that adds a threat toward the traditional way of how things are supposed to be maintained — and the system has a way of becoming discouraged," he said of Turner. "There’s a saying, ‘Some men seek change while other men fear it.’"

The press is another story. Given the inherent structural weakness of the Boston City Council, one of the few powers councilors do have is use of the office as a bully pulpit. Turner has a longstanding fascination with what might be called the superstructures of domination — entrenched institutions and habits that oppress the poor, the gay, the disabled, the non-white. This isn’t exactly the Herald’s cup of tea; it’s the Globe’s. And now, with Turner lashing out at the folks at Morrissey Boulevard, what are the chances they’ll work to cover him thoroughly or favorably the next time he proposes a resolution or sponsors an ordinance?

Then, of course, there are Turner’s fellow councilors, who are growing weary of his combative approach. "He’s a very articulate, passionate, and intelligent man," says McDermott. "But every Wednesday [at the weekly council meeting], without fail, it seems that somehow — whatever the dialogue is on the floor, whatever the issue — Councilor Turner can find a way to alienate the rest of his colleagues. He likes to be divisive." "It just continues to get worse and worse," another councilor says. "This is a national story. There are only 13 of us, and if someone does something crazy and stupid, no matter who it is, it reflects badly on the council. It’s just so bizarre and out there." (Through a spokesman, Flaherty declined to comment on last week’s events.)

Charles Yancey of Mattapan, the council’s only other African-American and a frequent Turner ally, downplays the rape-photo flap. "Chuck is very committed, and he’s one of the hardest-working members of the council, bar none," Yancey says. "I think it’s going to have only a marginal impact on the willingness of his colleagues to work with him. Those who were willing to before will likely continue, and vice versa."

Yancey may be too optimistic. Contacted for this story, at-large councilor Felix Arroyo — who often votes with Turner, but distanced himself from the "institutional racism" charge last year — e-mailed some characteristically guarded statements of support through an aide, including, "All of my colleagues and I on the City Council understand that you don’t have to agree with someone 100 percent of the time in order to work effectively with them." But Maura Hennigan, an at-large councilor who’s also a frequent Turner ally, was more candid. "Chuck is always out there on issues that are important to his neighborhood, and he works very hard for his constituents," she says. "But his credibility has just been dealt a really severe blow. And I don’t know if he realizes that."

If he does, he may not care. Talk to Turner, and it’s clear he sees his frayed relations with several councilors as a kind of badge of political honor. "Whether they feel they work well with me or not is not the issue," he argues. "The issue is how well organized you are, how persuasive the arguments you present are, how many people you can mobilize. My ability to be effective stems from my organizing, not my ability to trade favors or barter or to be part of the club."

Coming from an extremely smart man — a description used by Turner’s friends and foes alike — this declaration is strikingly naive. With frustration with Turner at unprecedented levels, will the District Seven councilor get quick results if he presses the Public Works Department to fix a lighting problem in his district? Has he sacrificed his clout to push for legislation dealing with the advent of gay marriage? Turner is working to prevent construction of a new maximum-security biocontainment lab at the Boston University Medical Center, a project backed by Menino and Governor Romney. Will his colleagues on the council — which might have the legal authority to stop the project — listen seriously to his safety concerns, or will they hesitate to associate themselves with Turner even if they find his arguments compelling?

Whether the councilor’s recent actions have compromised his effectiveness should become clear over the next few months. Whatever happens, count on this: Turner will be sure he did the right thing.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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