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District Six councilor John Tobin cleans up

BOSTON CITY COUNCILOR John Tobinís campaign trail is paved with trash. Cigarette butts. Burger King wrappers. Juice boxes. Broken shards of glass.

At least, thatís what decorates the trail on this day, a bright and balmy Monday morning, in Jamaica Plainís Hyde Square. Less than a week after trouncing his two challengers in the September 23 preliminary election for District Six, which spans West Roxbury and JP, Tobin has forgone the rather unpleasant task of stumping for votes for something downright dirty: sweeping streets. September 29, in fact, marks the kickoff date for Tobinís Hyde Square Litter Posse, which, as it stands, consists of him, two of his aides, and one neighborhood activist. Yet the meager numbers donít faze Tobin, who dons running shoes, shorts, a baseball cap, and grabs a substantial broom.

"Nothing drives me more crazy than seeing a person litter. Itís like, ĎWhere are your manners?í" says Tobin, a 34-year-old West Roxbury native with bold blue eyes and a bolder smile. When the one-term councilor spots garbage strewn about his district, he says, "I feel responsible for it." So last June, he launched a similar posse in West Roxbury. In July, he joined the trash-collection crew of Centre/South Main Streets. Now, heís breaking into Hyde Square, one of JPís busiest commercial areas. Judging by the amount of crap clogging up the sewers, itís one of the dirtiest, too.

"This is about education," Tobin explains. "If I was a shop owner and saw people sweeping in front of my store, Iíd feel pretty embarrassed."

These days, at the height of the campaign season, Tobin may seem more preoccupied with making his district, not himself, attractive to constituents. Then again, he can afford to. On September 23, he cruised to victory with 5463 votes ó or 70 percent of the districtís turnout ó over challengers Francesca Fordiani and Wayne Sallale. In the general election, on November 4, he will face off against Fordiani, who won an unexpected 1544 votes last week and whom Tobin credits with reinvigorating his sleepy campaign organization. Indeed, before the JP resident declared her candidacy in August, Tobin hadnít held one organizational meeting.

Still, his district seat looks safe, which is a far cry from his council run in 2001. At that time, district-councilor hopeful Mike Rush, now a state representative, had bested Tobin by as much as 800 votes in the preliminary election. Tobin ended up the victor, of course, but he learned a lot about the unpredictable nature of the electorate as a result. "Election Day," he says, "is a test. If you havenít done the work, youíre gone."

At Hyde Square, Tobin is clearly doing the work. He is heaving shovelfuls of rubble into brown plastic bags. He is picking up errant papers and beer bottles from underneath cars. He is raking dead leaves away from uninspiring street trees. He keeps a swift, determined pace, interrupted only by the Mornings and How are yous that he extends to passers-by. As the dust swirls about his head, a slight, middle-aged man wearing a long, bloodied apron walks out from a storefront named Meatland. Tobin promptly drops his broom. "Hi. John Tobin. Boston City Council."

"Steve," the man replies, pumping Tobinís arm up and down. He expresses his gratitude to Tobin for the clean-up effort, offering to buy the councilor a cup of coffee.

"Let me buy you a cup," Tobin responds.

"Naw," the man objects, "Iíll buy it." Within seconds, he returns and hands Tobin a styrofoam cup from Dunkiní Donuts.

Minutes later, Tobin is shaking hands with Rafael, who owns a quaint eatery known as the Latino Restaurant. Rafael, a short, slight man, wears white pants, a red polo shirt, and sunglasses. He has a broad, almost uncomfortable grin. Tobin cuts the ice. "We need to get you another tree," he says, pointing to a dead stump in the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

"Oh yes," Rafael says, nodding vigorously. "The one here died."

Tobin whips out his cell phone, dials his office at Boston City Hall, and asks an aide to put in a request to replant a street tree. Sheepish, Rafael apologizes for his request. "I donít mean to ask for so much," he says.

"Thatís what weíre here for," Tobin says, as Rafael beams.

The exchange hints at why Tobin enjoys such support among his constituents. But if heís seen as a friend and ally in the neighborhoods of District Six, heís viewed as something of a savior to the local arts community. Over the past two years, he has done more to promote the arts than any other city councilor in recent history. He has filed legislation on Beacon Hill that would provide funding for the arts by selling a distinctive license plate, whose proceeds would go toward the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He has pushed to display artwork from students at Boston Arts Academy and the Massachusetts College of Art in the council chamber at City Hall. He has established an artist network in West Roxbury and has worked to boost JPís already-vibrant arts scene. And earlier this month, at a campaign fundraiser dubbed "Arts for Tobin," the incumbent promised to fight for arts funding in the cityís upcoming budget cycle. He even pledged to veto the budget of Mayor Tom Menino if it did not include a funding increase for arts.

"Iím tired of the arts getting shortchanged," says Tobin, who spent the early 1990s working in the cityís comedy clubs ó an experience that left him with "a whole new level of appreciation" for artists of every variety. Though Tobin hopes he can convince his fellow councilors to funnel more money into the arts in the next fiscal year, he doesnít especially care if his stance turns out to be purely symbolic. As he says, "Itís time that someone in elected office stood up and said, ĎThis is important. The arts make for a more beautiful, more balanced city.í"

Back in Hyde Square, meanwhile, Tobin is pushing for a different kind of beauty. After two hours of sweeping up junk, he surveys the five-block stretch that he and his new Litter Posse have just cleaned. It looks good ó for now. The neighborhood, observes Tobin, a flicker of pride flashing across his face, "is not going to become Mayberry" ó the idyllic town of TVís Andy Griffith Show ó "but it will become better. Itís all about laying the foundation for success."

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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