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Being Chuck Turner
The District Seven councilor’s intransigence takes its toll

LAST WEEK DID not go well for Boston city councilor Chuck Turner. On Tuesday, Turner and black activist Sadiki Kambon held a press conference to reveal photos purportedly showing US soldiers raping Iraqi women. The pictures were eventually identified as fakes, but only after four of the alleged rape shots appeared in a Boston Globe photo of Turner and Kambon — and the councilor from Roxbury soon found himself at the center of a political and media maelstrom. Right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh gleefully milked the story. The Globe condemned him. And six councilors — James Kelly, Jerry McDermott, Maureen Feeney, Paul Scapicchio, John Tobin, and council president Michael Flaherty — signed a letter excoriating his actions.

But on Saturday morning, a few minutes before his monthly District Seven Roundtable at the First Church in Roxbury, Turner was unrepentant. He noted that he’d urged the media to confirm the photos’ authenticity before disseminating them. And, more surprisingly, he suggested that he and Kambon deserve credit for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s surprise visit to Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. "I believe that what that shows is that what we were trying to bring out, in terms of the situation of women in Abu Ghraib, was such a hot-button issue in Boston that Rumsfeld flew over to Iraq," Turner said.

At one of the low points of his volatile political career, Turner wasn’t chagrined — instead, he felt vindicated. Welcome to Chuck Turner’s world, where defeats turn into victories, city councilors shape international diplomacy, and controversy signals accomplishment.

TURNER’S FAKE-rape-photo allegations are the latest in a growing list of inflammatory accusations and statements by the councilor. In April, the Boston Herald quoted Turner saying that Condoleezza Rice working for George W. Bush was "similar in my mind to a Jewish person working for Hitler in the 1930s." In February, Turner — irate that Flaherty had removed him as chairman of the council’s Education Committee — likened the South Boston resident to Louise Day Hicks, one of the most polarizing figures in the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s. And last September, during an ongoing debate about whether the council should focus on local concerns or grapple with national and global issues, Turner linked Flaherty’s use of Rule 19, which allows the council president to limit debate, to "institutional racism" (see "Local Color," News and Features, October 17, 2003).

Turner, whose prodigious goatee lends him a more than passing resemblance to Ho Chi Minh, was pissing people off long before he joined the council. But he used to get better results. Over the course of almost four decades, Turner — a Cincinnati native who settled in Boston after graduating from Harvard — has established himself as one of the city’s best-known agitators. In the early ’70s, he helped stave off construction of a stretch of I-95 slated to run through the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain, at one point lying across Columbus Avenue to prevent construction. From the end of the ’70s through the early ’90s, he pressed Mayors Kevin White and Ray Flynn for increased hiring of minorities and blacks on city construction projects. In 1991, unsatisfied with Flynn’s enforcement of existing guidelines, Turner led a dozen protesters who occupied Flynn’s office for four hours and forced him to make key concessions. More recently, he’s railed against educational inequity in the city, the onset of gentrification, and the wars in Iraq. In leftist political circles, Turner is legendary.

But in 1999, when Turner first won a seat on the council — eking out a 693-vote victory over Tracy Litthcut, Boston’s director of youth services and the preferred candidate of Mayor Tom Menino — there were signs his style might change. It was tempting to view the race as a study in political contrasts: Turner, the battle-scarred radical, against Litthcut, the moderate young African-American pol more interested in working with the establishment than in taking it down. But Turner made a point of reassuring voters he’d be comfortable in the corridors of power. "You have to know when to confront and when to negotiate," he told one reporter in the run-up to the election. Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief was convinced, writing that "Turner is no firebrand now. With his long gray beard and pleasant manner, he seems more like a bald Santa Claus."

The transformation didn’t take. To be fair, Turner, the council’s only Green-Rainbow Party member, has enjoyed some substantive successes. In 2002, for example, he authored an ordinance protecting transgender persons from discrimination that was overwhelmingly approved by the council and signed into law by Menino. And last year, when Governor Mitt Romney used a little-noticed executive order to dismantle the state’s affirmative-action guidelines, Turner emerged as one of Romney’s most aggressive critics; after sustained public pressure, the governor put the change on hold.

But after five years on the council, Turner is best known for his ability to antagonize his colleagues. "I think the reason he tried to sell himself that way in 1999 was that he was running against a candidate who could get things done in City Hall," one City Hall insider says. "Litthcut was likable, he was young, he was kind of the New Boston, and Turner had to try to sway people at least for the purposes of that election. But once he got in, I don’t think he’s ever been different. Chuck is Chuck.

"As Chuck sees it, he doesn’t need to have good relationships in the building because he’s a black man," this commentator continues. "If he doesn’t get things done, it’s no reflection on him — it’s that people don’t want him to succeed. Chuck is the political equivalent of a suicide bomber. He doesn’t care if he blows himself up."

ON MONDAY, Turner sent a two-page letter to his colleagues. In it, he said he was "shocked" by the Globe’s decision to accompany a skeptical story with a photo that included the alleged rape pictures. The Globe ran the photo in order discredit him, Turner wrote. ("There is no campaign to discredit Chuck Turner," Globe senior vice-president Al Larkin says of Turner’s charge. "Our editorial page endorsed Turner’s candidacy for the city council, backed him in his bid to remain chairman of the council’s Education Committee, and agreed with him that council president Flaherty had improperly invoked the Rule 19 provision. This is not the picture of a newspaper that is out to get him.")

Turner also claimed that the Globe had taken one of his remarks — "the American people have a right and a responsibility to see the pictures" — out of context. These words, Turner said, referred to the photos shown to members of Congress last week, not to the photos he and Kambon displayed. And he insisted he and Kambon had presented their photos tentatively; as he put it, "We both thought the pictures we had might be part of the cache of pictures Secretary Rumsfeld said were yet to come." (The emphasis is Turner’s, and was included in a similar letter he sent to constituents and the media.)

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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