Politics

Andrea Campbell: The Boston.com interview

The District 4 city councilor and candidate for mayor on reforming police, building better schools, and standing out in a competitive race.

Andrea Campbell chats with a woman at a Juneteenth commemoration and celebration in Hyde Park. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Andrea Campbell knows the tale of two Bostons quite well: She’s lived it.

Since she first ran to serve District 4 on the City Council in 2015 — a race that upset 32-year-incumbent Councilor Charles Yancey — Campbell, a Boston native, has been driven by the trajectories of two lives, hers and that of her twin brother, Andre.

In 2012, Andre died at 29 from an autoimmune disease while in state custody awaiting trial on home invasion and other charges.

Campbell has long said her brother grew up over-disciplined but under-supported by the adults in their lives. In contrast, Campbell, a student of Boston Public Schools, went on to study at Princeton University and UCLA School of Law and to serve as deputy legal counsel in Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration before running for office herself.

MAYORAL RACE:

The question of how twins born in Boston could have such different life outcomes propels Campbell, who says her lived experience spans “almost every inequity you can think of.”

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That, coupled with her track record on the council, sets her apart from the four other candidates in a diverse field, all vying to become Boston’s next mayor, she says.

“Whether it’s improving Boston Public Schools, addressing the issue of housing affordability, public safety, policing reform, and criminal legal reform, I have a record of accomplishment that is quite specific on all of those issues,” says Campbell, the first Black woman to serve as City Council president. “I’ve been tackling the hard stuff for a really long time.”

On a hot July afternoon, Campbell sat down with Boston.com over Zoom to talk about those issues and more. Here’s what she said.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Public safety & COVID-19

Boston.com: There was a recent Boston Globe poll showing about half of Boston residents have a generally positive view of the city’s police force. Would you count yourself among that group?

Campbell: Yes. And this is what I stress: We have city employees that are working hard every single day, whether they’re sworn police officers or civilians in our police department, or for example in our other public safety agencies.

What I’ve been pushing, though, is for the system as a whole, and really making that distinction between an individual in the system, that the system as a whole needs major work. And I think the Patrick Rose case is one horrific example that speaks to our police department needing work to become more transparent and more accountable. Folks are still looking for more records related to that case, clearly we need to be more transparent. Folks are still looking for more accountability for that case, clearly we still have work to do.

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And folks have been, for generations, talking about the racial disparities in our police department. And I have also been pushing for us to do more work on that. So we have a lot more work to do with when it comes to systemic reform of our police department, of our public safety agencies, and frankly, many other departments. And the job of a leader is to name that, and then to lead courageously and putting forth ideas to transform those systems, so they’re more accountable to the people we have the privilege of serving in the city.

You recently voted down the city’s operating budget for the second consecutive year, based in part on concerns the budget did not meet the public’s calls for reallocating the police budget. As mayor, what would your Boston Police Department budget look like?

Well in my plan, I call for, at a minimum, a $50 million cut. And I think that is beyond reasonable when you think about a budget that is $400 million (and) an overtime budget of course that is $70 million and rising as we sit on this Zoom. And I have been stressing that that is not only to make our department more fiscally sustainable, it is also to make sure that the response from the City of Boston is actually addressing the root causes of violence, because that’s the only way that we’re going to grapple with even the uptick in violence we saw this [July 4th] weekend.

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The police alone will never be able to eradicate violence in the city by themselves. Yes, we need them to show up for the tough calls, and to hold them accountable, of course, and support them in that work. But we also need to look at moving people out of poverty, providing folks with economic opportunity, mental health supports, jobs, you name it … and those programs, the initiatives, that are just ridiculously under-resourced; and then the individuals and the organizations in the community that have a track record of doing this work really well, are also under-resourced.

So (when) we say we’re serious about eradicating violence … not just sort of reducing it … it is really important that the city drive a comprehensive response, and that’s what I’m stressing as folks want to sort of pit safety against this sort of shifting in culture against one another. We’re talking about the same thing.

Your “100 Days of Action” plan recently talked about getting rid of the four-hour minimum for police overtime and implementing universal body cameras. These are issues the police union has pushed back on … How do you work with the department and the union to to implement those reforms without generating a backlash from the department?

It’s about, one, having conversation and working in collaboration.

Body cameras was one of the first initiatives that I was pushing to implement. Before I became a councilor and the chair of (the Committee on) Public Safety, the city had agreed to implement a pilot program. When I got there, of course I asked, when’s that happening? Got no real meaningful response — was actually shocked that it wasn’t really going anywhere, and I like to actually not just talk about an issue but really push for the implementation part, and to keep our commitment to the public. So I held a whole host of conversations, public hearings, informal conversations with folks at the administration, folks at BPD, all of the unions, took some of these conversations into public settings in various communities. And at the end of that, we were able to get this pilot off the ground. We were able to get a policy that the advocates at the time said, maybe, was 75 percent to 80 percent of what they asked for, which is huge when you think about how this was the first of its kind in the City of Boston.

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And that only happened because of that collaboration. Unions as well, were able to roll up their sleeves and say, ‘Okay, let’s get this done.’

But that being said … I’m not naive to the fact that there are many who may want to stand in the way of that progress, and at the time the patrolmen’s union was one of those unions. I had to show up in court with (then-police) Commissioner (William) Evans at the time, to fight against them in court to also make this happen. So I always do the work of collaborating. That’s where I start … but never letting it stand in the way of making meaningful and significant progress.

When you talk about about getting 70 to 80 percent of something, are you applying that to the $50 million police budget cut that you have in your plan? If you got 80 percent of that, would that be a win?

No. It would have to be 100 percent of that, because for me that is reasonable. This number that folks are requesting, I always say is beyond reasonable.

It sort of seems like the (COVID-19) pandemic is over for a lot of communities in the area, but we have this Delta variant circulating and I know there’s a lot of health experts who expect that there’s going to be some sort of uptick in cases when we get to the fall and maybe winter. (Editor’s note: This question was asked on July 6, when case counts were considerably lower in Massachusetts than they are now.) What do you think the city should be doing to prepare the community at large but also the school system?

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There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but as a mother of two young boys that are not vaccinated, aren’t eligible for vaccination, my husband and I think about this all the time when I’m going out. I usually go out masked up, especially if we’re inside. Occasionally I may take it off after we’ve confirmed that everyone in the group is vaccinated, and we trust that. But for the most part I’m still wearing a mask. I think we need to still encourage that.

I think we have to always proceed with caution … So I think it’s pushing everyone to get vaccinated, it’s pushing for us to continue to wear our masks. And I often hear people say, ‘Well, the CDC guidelines…’ and I say ‘Great, you still have to do what you think is smart.’ And I think we can still promote that, particularly for parents who have still somewhat of a fear around children who are not eligible for vaccinations yet.”

Is there anything specific when it comes to the education system?

I think it’s still making sure that our schools have the PPE they need. No one should be struggling to find that.

I think it’s also making sure, of course, the conversation right now is the infrastructure itself, the buildings themselves: HVAC, the very things we have been talking about, and I had been talking about, at the very beginning of COVID-19. We need to be accelerating some of these school projects and these school infrastructure projects. And one of the reasons I voted no on the (Boston Public Schools) budget is, I didn’t see a timeline for all of our schools to not just improve HVAC systems, (but also) the infrastructure itself. What are the maintenance plans going forward? What are the overall plans to create safe learning environments, and to maintain them going forward?

Education

You mentioned a moment ago about voting down the BPS budget. You voted against the school budget three years in a row, and you’ve made very clear your reasons for doing so. As mayor, how would you work with the district and the school committee to put forth a budget you could all be proud of?

A few things: One, it really starts with engaging families in a better way. I was recently on a Zoom meeting and some other in-person conversations around, whether it’s exam schools, infrastructure, just how poorly the district does family engagement. It is a continuing theme, which is unacceptable and there’s a defensiveness that often shows up from the district when it comes to family engagement. I think there needs to be some acknowledgement that the district just doesn’t do it well, and to really think about strategies and other ways to reach our families so that when we are rolling out a new initiative, it has actually been informed by our families. It is truly bottom up. And that means engaging communities in very different ways.

So that may mean hiring and bringing on board community-based organizations. In one of my plans — I call them my good governance plan and my equity plan, both of them go hand in hand — I say let’s start an office where we’re helping folks organize. We’re giving them the tools they need to organize their own communities, instead of us trying to do it for them — really being intentional around different languages, in cultural competency and the barriers to that type of engagement, and how we as a city can do better, not just in the context of our schools but also in the context of government.

I think once we do that well, then we get a budget that I think is responsive to what we’re hearing from community.

Your constituents must come to you frustrated that maybe you and your colleagues aren’t doing enough. What do you say to them when they feel that this is falling on deaf ears at this point? Do you have to tell them not to lose hope? What do you say?

The comments I’ve heard from constituents, not only in the context of BPS (but also) policing reform, Mass and Cass — these are the issues that can keep me up at night because I’m someone who likes to get things done. I don’t like wasting people’s time … people who are working, who are doing their best to civically engage but then do not get the response from their government, the sense of hopelessness that they feel.

I often have to say to them I feel that too. I’m in the system and I can’t effectuate change. That sense of powerlessness, and I don’t — no one wants to feel that….

So I lean into these conversations and I tell my constituents that’s one reason I’m running for mayor: because of the limitations on the council side. But that I will continue to fight.

You’re one of the only candidates in the race who supports expansion — both in Boston and Massachusetts — of charter schools. Why you think it is that you’re one of the few candidates in this Democratic field who supports expanding charter schools?

I supported that in the past, right. It was a (ballot) question that came up, and everything that I did in response to that question was grounded in the feedback I heard from my constituents in my district.

I have to remind folks, because many have never even set foot in my district, I tell folks come to this district, look at the infrastructure of some of these schools. I often tell folks they probably wouldn’t send their own children there. Have the conversations with the parents who absolutely want their child to go to Boston public schools….

But then there’s families who go through this process — this cumbersome long assignment process — and get a school that they know is not the best fit for their child, and they feel stuck. So they then of course go look for something else. They then look for either charter school or parochial school or private school … I have families that are signing up their kids before they’re even born, getting them on the METCO list because they’re such in fear that they will not get an adequate choice from Boston Public Schools.

So when I took my position in the past on that, it was just that: grounded in the feedback I was hearing from these desperate parents. Going forward though, my job, if I’m blessed to become the next elected mayor, is to improve Boston public schools so our families don’t have to go anywhere else.

Transportation

There’s a lot of candidates in this race who are pretty outspoken advocates for expanding transportation access in general. Is there anything that you feel separates you from your competitors or colleagues on the issue?

I think the thing that people say is distinct about my plan compared to everyone else’s is one, it’s … not only specific, it’s practical. It’s doable, and the layperson can connect with it … I didn’t want pie in the sky. I really wanted people to be able to wrap their head around what a mayor and an executive could do in this city, and that these plans are a way to build trust, particularly with residents and constituents that do trust the system.

I will add, the “15 Minute Neighborhood” got a lot of great feedback. People really love this concept. It wasn’t just looking at how you get across, to and from the city across neighborhoods, it was how do you get around in your own community that really resonated with folks in low-income communities and communities of color because it coupled it with the economic conversation, and to say that all of these issues are intersectional. So we’re talking about transportation, but for some neighborhoods, it must go hand-in-hand with economic opportunity.

Housing & Development

What do you think is the median price of a condo in Dorchester?

Campbell: Something around $400,000.

According to the Warren Group, the median sales price for a condo in Dorchester was $587,500 in June.

What role should the city play in balancing community concerns with the need to satisfy demand for new housing? We’re constantly hearing about the need to bring the community more into the process, to engage with the community, to have those voices be heard when projects are being discussed in their neighborhoods. But how do you balance those public concerns with the fact that we’re living in a housing crunch right here in Massachusetts?

I sometimes think about it a little differently.

Where I do see the need for more community input, and residents having a say in what goes up in their neighborhoods, or for some of the as-of-right projects [which don’t need zoning variances to proceed] that are changing the whole fabric of a community, with no community input. This is a rare occurrence but it does occur, and I’ll give you one example. In my current district, there are three development projects happening within the midst of single family homes on River Street, which is right around the corner from me in Mattapan — single family homes that had two projects go up as-of-right, that are five story, six story buildings … very little input. And now we just get word, maybe a week ago, that there is another as-of-right project — where the homeowner sold theirs, you know, for millions and left — that will likely turn into maybe another six-family building.

Talk about feeling powerless, and I feel there’s nothing I can do. Now I’m figuring out how do I help them get a lawyer, which is also a crazy dynamic to be in because I’m helping them, what, sue the city? But it just shows you and demonstrates how broken the process is and why we need zoning reform, yes, and that will not be a short-term endeavor but it’s necessary. And why we need more, I guess, tools in our toolkit for those types of projects…

I just stress that for some projects there really is no community input. For most others, there is. What the problem is is a lack of response from the government to what they’re hearing from those constituents…

I think what people want is the system to be more predictable, to be more consistent. What are the rules of engagement? You know, on the one hand you go to the board and a project gets approved. A week later, another project doesn’t, and it’s looked similar in size and scope. So people are just confused.

So I think, it’s establishing greater processes, it’s establishing greater transparency, and of course accountability to build in response, and expanding the resources available to us in the city to make sure that we can indeed build housing that is affordable and meeting the needs of our constituents.

Speed Round

On a normal week, how often do you take the T?

On a normal week in COVID, a few times during the week, not when I’m being driven around by my team.

What about before COVID?

I would maybe a couple of times during the week. Usually I’m driven by my team, or because I live in Mattapan, (which) some say is a transportation desert — and good luck trying to get there quickly — it’s not as frequently as I would like.

What’s your typical Dunkin’ order?

An iced, almond milk latte.

Favorite Boston movie?

This came up the other day. I did say I like “Good Will Hunting.” My husband I were just talking about this. But I often remind folks that Boston is not just “Good Will Hunting,” that there are other stories that need to be told, other constituencies, other cultures that exist in the City of Boston. So clearly we have more work to do there.

Favorite Boston band or musician?

It has to be Ron Savage.

One of Campbell’s aides prompts her to elaborate.

Ron Savage is my uncle, but he’s like my father. My aunt and uncle are my parent figures. They live across the street in Mattapan. He’s at Berklee College of Music, plays jazz. He’s a drummer. Anything he does is remarkable.

Would you rather go to a game at Fenway or a game at TD Garden?

Fenway, where I used to also work.

What did you do at Fenway?

When I was in high school I worked at a concession stand. Then I was promoted and was managing the then-Bob the Chef’s food stand at Fenway.

What is your opinion of Boston City Hall — the building, not the people?

Oh, it’s a hot mess … Some offices don’t have windows (out). It doesn’t do it for me.

I like some of the renovations that are taking place now to make it more accessible and and to beautify particularly the outside and make it more welcoming.

But for our city employees, it can be tough.

How do you plan to vote in Boston’s at-large City Council race this fall?

Someone just asked me this question and I remarked to one candidate, who will remain nameless, I don’t know yet.

I will be honest it took me a while to figure out all who was running, right, because it took some time for the Elections Department to certify (them). But I’m participating in all the candidates and so I’ll make my choice before election day for sure, including in my own district.

Questions submitted by Boston.com readers

Our first question is from Rían, who is from Southie, and they asked, “What do you plan to do about gentrification in Boston? There’s not one neighborhood left in the city that is majority working class, and Boston is slowly losing its culture.

Thank you, Rían, for the question.

This is something that comes up, whether it’s gentrification or displacement in different forms, and one, I think intentionality is key. The type of housing we’re building — I keep reminding folks that we in the City of Boston have the power, even as we’re advocating for the federal government to change the (area median income) to build housing that is at affordable pricing points and homeownership opportunities, which of course is the number one way to keep people housed permanently.

I brought in a program into the Boston Housing Authority, and this was folks who had very little income, moving them out of Boston Housing Authority and into homeownership opportunities as a way for those folks to stay in their community. So there are a lot of similar programs and initiatives out there that we can be bringing into the City of Boston. That program took me two years as a councilor. I often say if I were mayor, it would have taken me 30 days, and so there are more programs out there with greater investment and intentionality, so folks are not displaced.

But I have to also add economics. It is about making sure workers have increased wages and benefits, and that they’re not remaining stagnant. Over the course of five, 10, or 15 years, it goes hand in hand with our housing conversation as well. And there’s a lot the City of Boston can do to push for more wages, increased wages, not just minimum wage, but increased wages and benefits for employees and residents.

Our next question is on climate, which is an issue that’s obviously important on the global stage but also here in Boston. So this question from Richard Schultz is, “In a recent poll of likely voters, climate change and sea level rise did not rank as a major issue. What will you do to raise public awareness on this issue?”

One, name it as it is, a major issue. We were at a (Boston) Globe forum and someone said 1 to 10 (where does climate and the environment rank as a priority) and I said 10 because people are dying. And I think we have to speak about it in those terms. It’s not just of course because we see flood rising, we’re a coastal city so the city itself is at risk, but when you actually couple the climate justice conversation with the environmental injustice conversation, you look at these issues in a broader scope and way.

We’re seeing higher asthma rates, we’re seeing the health effects because of climate and climate issues in various neighborhoods, and then we’re seeing of course that being exacerbated by COVID-19. So I think it’s really speaking to it in those, they may not sound pleasant, but very matter-of-fact terms, and then saying that all of us are in this together to solve for this, particularly for the City of Boston, a place we love.

Bringing it back to education … this question from Ward McCarthy: “Rather than changing the admissions for the high quality Boston exam schools, why not improve the quality of the schools in the sections of the city that are underrepresented at the exam schools?”

I think we can do both. And I’ve been stressing, I’m a product of Boston Latin School. My twin brother who died and (is the reason) why I do this work, he didn’t go to Boston Latin School. He went to the Burke High School, and for a period of time he was at Madison Park, and those schools are still struggling for the resources, the partnerships, the human capital they would need to adequately serve their students, and their teachers end up working really hard. There is an inequity in terms of resources, access to resources, human capital.

There’s also lack of diversity at Latin School. So this conversation is just that: how do we create more equity, not only at the exam schools but namely Latin School? And I’ll continue to follow that conversation because I’ve been saying (before we make) any permanent changes, we need to take this on the road to engage every family so they can weigh in on this issue, but also saying yes there is a way to improve all of our high schools. There is a way to make Madison Park the hub of a vo-tech program in the City of Boston that includes Madison Park and expands upon what that could be. There is a way ….to make sure all of our young people and students have access to pathways to their dreams. (It’s) something I’ve always been pushing and yes, that’s a conversation that’s much bigger than exam schools, but doesn’t get the attention it often deserves. So keep fighting that fight, and I appreciate the framing of the question from Ward.

Our last reader question, this one is from Brian, who’s from East Boston: “Food injustice is driving obesity and mental health crisis in our Black and brown communities. Junk food is cheap and easy to access while nutrient dense, quality food is hard to find in our neighborhoods. Would you consider a soda or junk food tax to help invest in neighborhood farms, fitness and mental health facilities, and outdoor playgrounds?”

I would consider it. And I think it’s, again, a conversation that we would take and engage with every resident to take part in.

I already know that in certain parts of the city, it’s been a topic of discussion… I’m going blank on the name (an aide later confirmed Campbell was referring to the Mattapan Food & Fitness Coalition‘s Neighborhood Health Champions)… but the Health Champions who are going around to our local bodegas actually and working in partnership with our local bodegas and convenience stores to get them to place the unhealthy food in the back, to put the healthier food in the front, to work on changing prices. So I think you can actually get a lot done even before pushing for some of the taxes.

It’s how does the city of Boston invest in those types of organizations, and these champions, that are in community already doing the work, who are expanding access to farmers markets so they’re all year round, or turning lots into community gardens — creating jobs in the process — creating food co-ops (I’m a member of the Dorchester one). So this is already happening, it’s just a struggle to get resources from the city, and there’s resources there. We just need to be intentional.

And if we need further resources, this could be one tool that we absolutely should explore.

Our last question, it’s kind of an open ended oneIf there’s one change you could make tomorrow, what would it be?

I often stress that whether it’s policing reform, access to healthy food, access to parks, clean streets, neighborhoods that are clean, we are an international, world class city, and yet we all know — I think coming out of COVID and the murder of George Floyd that affected all of us, and not just people of color, not just low income residents — that these inequities also exist in the City of Boston.

And I think there’s a commitment by all of us to change that — to make sure that every young person, every resident in the City of Boston, regardless of their neighborhood, their zip code, whether they’re native born or they got here this morning, that they have access to the same opportunity. They have an excellent school. They have access to healthy food, good housing, a good job, good transit, good parks, a safe community, streets that are clean — the list is long, all the things we on this Zoom have.

But the underlying reason as to why those inequities exist has to do with a history of division, segregation, race, and racism. Until we talk about that truth, good luck trying to solve the others. Good luck trying to reconcile and close those inequities.

So I put forth a hearing order as a counselor to really explore setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We can call it something different. That’s what it’s named now. If we do that right, it will create a space for residents of every demographic to come together, not just to have a conversation, but to really speak about that truth that most folks are so uncomfortable with they don’t want to talk about, and then to do the real hard work of putting forth policies, name changes to different things, correcting the history books to close those inequities that exists on every issue.

And the best thing about the City of Boston is we have everything you would take to close those gaps. We just have to do it as a city, as a larger community, and I think this is one tool and one vehicle to do that, and so that it’s sustainable, it’s not just a Band-Aid approach, it’s really comprehensive. And I always stressed that, even as council president. And that’s something I would push to create immediately.

And then I think the policy, all of that, those changes, (we) absolutely can do that. But the harder work is looking at the root causes, so that we’re not back here in five, 10 years talking about the same inequities, or the fact that they got worse.

Editor’s note: Candidates for mayor of Boston will compete in a preliminary election Tuesday, Sept. 14, with the top two finishers facing off in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2. To keep track of the news of the race as it happens, follow along with Boston.com’s election live blog and make sure to visit our candidate information page regularly for candidate Q&As, along with additional coverage of the race as the preliminary election approaches.

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