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A little over a year ago, Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly taking a $1,000 bribe and then lying about it to the FBI. Newspapers and television stations displayed photos of Turner holding what looked like a wad of cash.
Turner goes to trial next spring, but Tuesday he is poised to win another seat on the Boston City Council.
To understand the cult of Chuck Turner — and, it's a bit of a cult — you have to understand the neighborhood that has elected him for the past 10 years. Roxbury is an area that's considered the economic, political and geographic hub of Black Boston. In the 1980s, the neighborhood — with Turner's help — tried to secede from Boston.
That's right, secede, and become its own city called "Mandela," where black people and Latinos would have had control of their schools and police department. Obviously that didn't work, but there's still an activist spirit of black unity here.
If you go to the heart of Roxbury in Dudley Square and ask about Chuck Turner, you get an outpouring of support.
Talib Wali is a member of the Nation of Islam in Roxbury and said he respects Turner's independence. "I think he's doing an excellent job, yes ma'am," he said.
Around the corner, Melva Hector, is waiting in line to use an ATM. She's lived in Roxbury all her life and said about Turner, "To me, he's been there for our community."
But what about the charges against Turner?
"Well, you know something," Hector said. "He's innocent until he's proven guilty and that's just how I really feel."
For some, the indictment has even enhanced Turner's rebel status, and confirmed that he is the subversive activist that Roxbury elected. That's true for John Lee, a painting contractor, who was heading into Turner's office for legal help.
"Anytime you find a representative, a person that's willing to vote and fight for black folks and black people's rights, etcetera, they become a target for the opposition," Lee said. "They're going to try everything they can to bring him down and knock him off his feet and so forth."
Hundreds of supporters rallied around Turner after he was arrested at City Hall last November. After a minor challenge to his office, the council let him stay. It's surprised people how aggressively and publicly he has fought to clear his name.
"The reason I've been so comfortable talking about things publicly," Turner said, "is that I didn't do anything wrong, and if you read the affidavit you can see that I didn't do anything wrong. This is just a trumped-up case. I'm anxious to get to trial. I can't wait."
But it's clear the indictment has hurt Turner. He only won about half the vote in the preliminary instead of winning an all-out landslide as he has in previous elections. But what seems surprising to many is that his opponent isn't capitalizing on the indictment.
The 32-year-old Carlos Henriquez portrays himself as a new, more pragmatic and collaborative black politician. But Henriquez is not talking about Turner's legal troubles.
"His indictment is a personal issue," Henriquez said. "It's something that, for me, as an individual voter, it weighs on me, it causes concern. I'm running for City Council based on the issues. I'm running against Councilor Turner because I feel he has not been active on these issues in the way I'd like to see him."
Henriquez focuses on clean streets and the quality of neighborhood schools.
"My city councilor cannot get trash cans in a commerce hub of Roxbury!," Henriquez complained. "Something as simple as trash cans is as simple as a phone call if you have the right relationship ... If we cannot get trash cans, what can we get from a district councilor? What does him being an outsider — or whatever they deem him as — what does that deliver to the district?"
Some of Henriquez's neighbors feel the same way about Turner.
Phil Barros, 24, complains that Upham's Corner is dirty and there's no economic development.
"Old guys aren't getting it done," Barros said, standing on a street corner. "I don't mean that disrespectfully. I just feel like we're living in a different generation now."
The good news for Chuck Turner is that many residents haven't heard of Carlos Henriquez. And many voters still prefer Turner's style, according to Yawu Miller. He covers city politics for the Bay State Banner, a weekly paper that focuses on Roxbury.
He said Roxbury voters have historically voted for activists over insiders.
"Often times," Miller said, "it seems like the electorate in Roxbury would rather see somebody go into City Hall and make protest votes than somebody who is going to cut deals to get things done."
But, Miller said Tuesday's election has the potential to bring out voters who don't typically come out and who might want something different from their city councilor.
This program aired on November 2, 2009.
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