Alex Gray Hopes To Become Boston's First Blind City CouncilorPlay
Campaigning last week outside Forest Hills Station in Jamaica Plain, Boston City Council candidate Alex Gray paused at a granite curb with no cutout.
Holding a red-and-white cane, Gray took the elbow of his communications adviser, and carefully stepped down.
"I'm hopeful," he said, "that we have an opportunity to talk about infrastructure investment."
Infrastructure, to most politicians, means roads and bridges. Sidewalks don't always make the list, but they do for Gray, a senior policy manager in the mayor's Office of Workforce Development. If elected this fall, Gray would become the first blind councilor in Boston history.
"After one second, seeing the experience he has walking through a bus station, you understand that he would bring something different to the table," said Francy Wade, the aide who accompanied Gray while campaigning last week. "And I think it's really important."
As much as Gray's law degree or his work in state and municipal government, his disability is part of his pitch to voters. Being blind, Gray contends, helps him notice needs and concerns that others might miss.
"We haven't really seen a lot of people with disabilities in elected office and, so, I think I could bring the lived experience to that position," he said.
Some people with disabilities have succeeded in politics. Former New York Gov. David Paterson is blind. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is a double amputee. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina use wheelchairs.
But they are exceptions.
Overall, people with disabilities remain underrepresented in elected office, said Colleen Flanagan, executive director of Disability Action for America, a political advocacy group based in Boston.
"So much stigma and shame makes it so a lot of people don't identify [as disabled] with pride, so we're often overlooked," she said. "But I think we're seeing more and more people with disabilities running for office — and not hiding that."
Gray is one of them, making a bid to join the Boston City Council as an at-large member, representing the whole city.
The crowded field of contenders for the four at-large seats also includes Erin Murphy, a special education coordinator in the Boston Public Schools and the mother of a child with a physical disability. Murphy views this year's election as an opportunity for Bostonians with disabilities to be heard.
"I listened to Alex for the first time the other night at a community meeting, and he mentioned how his mom and teachers always spoke up for him," Murphy said. "And if they hadn't, he knows he wouldn't be where he is today. There are people who need someone to be that voice. I would definitely be that voice."
Murphy ran unsuccessfully for City Council two years ago and said experience will make her a better campaigner in her second race.
Gray, 37, is a first-time candidate, and his ground game is a little different. Instead of approaching voters directly, he sends Wade, his communications advisor, a few paces ahead. A former TV news producer who used to love on-the-street interviews, she is a natural conversation starter.
At Forest Hills, Wade cheerfully greeted people waiting for buses: "How are you? Can I introduce you to Alex? He's running for Boston City Council."
Gray took it from there, asking voters how life in Boston could be better.
Kailyne Paredes, 21, gave him a blunt assessment.
"The bus transportation sucks," she said.
Paredes was headed to her mom's house to do laundry. Meeting Gray broke up the drudgery of her MBTA-delayed chore.
"God puts people in people's path for a reason," she said, and pledged to vote for him in Boston's preliminary election on Sept. 21.
Some other voters said they were impressed by Gray but want to learn more about him.
As part of Mayor Marty Walsh's administration, Gray helped launch Boston's Tuition Free Community College program. He said he is proud that more than 500 students have started community college through the program since 2016.
Less than a quarter of students in the first two classes actually graduated, however — a rate no better than the national average for public community colleges, despite the city's financial assistance.
Gray acknowledged students may need additional support from the city to graduate.
"As a councilor, I would certainly be someone that's supportive of fighting for the resources, within a budget," he said.
Gray knows the budget is likely to be tight, as Boston recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. And if he does make history by winning a spot on the council, Gray also knows tough decisions will follow.
This segment aired on March 18, 2021.