BOSTON — Disco hit “I’m Every Woman” blared as Charlotte Golar Richie, candidate for mayor, took the stage at a “Women for Charlotte” event at the Bell in Hand Tavern behind City Hall.
A parade of “firsts” had preceded her on stage — among them the Rev. Liz Walker, who was the city’s first black, female television news anchor and former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, the first woman to win statewide office in Massachusetts.
But Golar Richie, who would be the city’s first woman and first person of color in the corner office, made only glancing reference to the historical implications of her own run.
Her campaign, cresting in the polls amid rising support from black and women voters, is about more than race or gender, she insisted.
“Now some folks have said, ‘OK, Charlotte, you’re a woman, you’ll be the first woman mayor, of course women are going to be with you’ and I say, ‘uh-uh, it doesn’t work like that,’” she told the crowd. “It [also] doesn’t work like that for people of color.”
“We are,” she continued later, “more sophisticated than just going along with a sort of identity politics. There’s more to us than that.”
Golar Richie says her candidacy is about her time abroad in the Peace Corps, her deep experience in city and state government and her ideas for moving Boston forward.
But amid a steady drumbeat of criticism in the press — that those ideas are too pat or too thin — it’s been a challenge to move the conversation beyond one of identity politics.
Golar Richie, though, is determined.
‘I Was Recruited’
Golar Richie grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, one of two sisters.
She was just 7 when her parents got divorced. And the split was hard on the family, Golar Richie says. But they made it through.
Her mother was a public school teacher who later worked on affordable housing for the city. Her father was a lawyer who became a prominent figure in New York law and politics, serving as a justice on the state’s Supreme Court.
Golar Richie, in the early part of the campaign, made several trips to New York to see him before his death last month.
Golar Richie spent a year at New York University before transferring to Rutgers University in New Jersey. She returned to New York City after college and worked in retail for a time. But she didn’t take to her position in the Bloomingdale’s bath shop, selling Superman and Spiderman toilet paper.
When she got something in the mail from the Peace Corps, she decided to apply and wound up with postings in two remote villages in Kenya. She taught English and, in one of the villages, started a girls track team.
Her future husband Winston Richie, a Peace Corps alumnus, trained her for her time abroad. And the pair married in 1984.
Winston took a job at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. And Charlotte finished up a journalism degree at Columbia University before heading north to join him.
She was working for Dorchester Community News and Boston Neighborhood Network when she set aside an evening to moderate a debate for a City Council race.
Two local Democratic activists approached afterward and asked if she’d ever considered running for office. She hadn’t. But her interest was piqued.
“I have to give it to my neighbors,” she said. “I was recruited.”
Golar Richie ran for state representative and won, taking a plum seat atop the Housing and Urban Development Committee after backing Tom Finneran for speaker of the House.
And in 1999, she went to work for Mayor Thomas Menino, heading the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development. It’s a job she held for eight years and she’s put the experience near the center of her campaign.
The numbers roll off her tongue — more than 200 employees, a $100 million budget and 18,000 housing units approved during her tenure.
Golar Richie, as her campaign points out, is one of a handful of candidates who have managed a large organization.
After her time with the city, she served briefly in Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration before moving on to YouthBuild USA, an organization that provides job training to young people from low-income families.
By the time Menino announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Golar Richie had been out of electoral politics for some time. But her phone blew up immediately.
There was something enduring supporters saw in her.
‘She’s A Listener’
The “Women for Charlotte” event was just getting started. Golar Richie’s speech was still an hour or so away and the warm-up acts had not yet taken the stage.
But the Rev. Barbara Simmons had already made her way to the front of the crowd. And when a reporter asked her why she was supporting Golar Richie, she beamed.
“She’s well-qualified,” Simmons said, “and she’s compassionate — the kind of person I want to entrust my grandson’s future to.”
It was, in a way, a perfect distillation of Golar Richie’s message.
The candidate has run a campaign centered on biography: she argues that she is the hopeful best prepared to run City Hall and best suited to tend to the parts of Boston that have not shared in its growing prosperity.
At her most florid, she talks of a “tale of two cities”: schools of uneven quality and violence that, if down citywide, persists in certain neighborhoods — including her own in the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester.
Her supporters see in her a convener — a graceful, seasoned figure who can pull people together to solve problems.
“She’s a listener,” said Armindo Goncalves, deputy director for economic development planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “That’s very important. It’s not a weakness.”
But in a mayoral race that has been defined, in some respects, by ideas — her opponents have called for everything from rubberized sidewalks to a major overhaul of the school system — Golar Richie has tended toward generalities.
And that has left commentators writing of a campaign that lacks energy and substance.
The critique clearly rankles the Golar Richie camp. At the “Women for Charlotte” event, there were several on-stage references to what supporters deemed unfair media coverage. Golar Richie made one herself.
She also spoke, more directly, to charges that she lacks a message. “Of course I have a message or else you would not be here,” she said.
What followed, though, was not a fresh recitation of policy proposals but a return to her bread-and-butter — talk of “uniting our city around shared goals” and a broad discussion of her priorities: better schools, more economic opportunity, less gun violence.
It was a message that was well received at the Bell in Hand.
For the assembled, many wearing “Make History” buttons, it isn’t about a specific policy prescription. It’s about the candidate: her experience, her values and — Golar Richie’s protestations notwithstanding — her gender.
“It’s a world-class city, we need a world-class leader,” Simmons said. “We’re ready for a woman!”
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