Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Albert 'Dapper' O'Neil, R.I.P.

Yours truly with at-large Boston City Councilor Albert 'Dapper' O'Neil campaigning in 1999 during his last, unsuccessful run for reelection.
While I was not totally surprised to hear that Dapper passed away this morning, I mean, the guy was 87, it was still sad to hear. As many have noted today, this is the end of an era in Boston politics. Dapper was one of a kind. And, frankly, the man got a bad rap.
I know that in the past he was considered a "hater," politically incorrect, a blowhard who backed the presidential campaigns of George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and Pat Buchanan. But I only knew him as a solid vote for what was right, standing up for Boston's neighborhoods and working folks. He would always - always - stand by the working class people of Boston, no matter what the color of their skin. Sure, he was conservative. But, when push came to shove, he was a stand up guy.
In 1997, when I ran for an at-large seat on the council on a lark, I got to know Dapper well [there weren't enough people running so they were going to cancel the preliminary election. I jumped in five days before the deadline to force the election]. Nine of us were vying for eight places in the prelim and Dapper was one of the four incumbents.
Right after getting on the ballot, I challenged all the candidates to meet for 10 debates - nine, one in each ward council districts, and one on cable access. All declined, except for Dapper, who called me on the phone accepting the debate challenge.
At the first event I was invited to speak at, a forum at St. Mark's Parish in Dorchester, I gave what would become my standard stump speech, a litany of complaints about how lazy the council was and a slew of ideas to improve the city.
"I find it shocking that while democracy is burgeoning all over the globe, in the birthplace of liberty, they are canceling elections due to lack of interest," I would say.
I took some potshots at at-large councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen [and I was wrong to do so because she is actually an alright person] and I asked voters for one of their four votes.
After the speech, I introduced myself to people and went over to Dapper to introduce myself.
"Great speech kid," he said with a snarl. "Where the hell did you come from?"
I laughed and we talked for a bit and later, he said, "You're alright."
A week later, at another event, Dapper and his driver, Frank, congratulated me again on another great speech. I thanked them and then turned to Dapper, "Hey Dap, can I have one of your four votes?"
He said, "Sure kid."
I said, "Thank you. Can I take that as an endorsement?"
Dap said, "You bet."
That Sunday, the "endorsement" made the Boston Herald but it didn't come without a crack. Because of my previous work with Ralph Nader, trying to get him on the ballot in 1996, they joked, It's the Green Party Dapper, not green beer!
The campaign was an interesting one. I got to meet a lot of people and I got to know and respect Dapper. A lot. At one forum in Roxbury at Grove Hall, Dapper gave his standard stump speech, with people in the audience nodding their heads in agreement. He then held up a stack of his bumperstickers.
"Do you see these?" he said, holding the stack up into the air, "They're in black and white. Black and white ... together ... that's what I'm about and you know it."
The crowd cheered and after he left the stage, he was swarmed by voters shaking his hand. I always thought this was amazing - the man who liberals said hated blacks was earning their votes and support. Why? Because when he was needed, he supported them. That was the man I knew and that's why he always got my votes and support.
Eighteen months later, the Boston Red Sox floated a massive megaplex proposal which would have required knocking down historic Fenway Park and taking a slew of private land, like the Boston Phoenix's entire building, for private use. The neighborhood was up in arms and baseball fans were shocked. Many of us kicked into gear and started working to preserve the ballpark and kill the megaplex proposal.
With my help, the Fenway Action Coalition put together a plan to stop the megaplex while Save Fenway Park, another group, raised awareness about how special the ballpark was. Essentially, we only had one real option to stop the megaplex: We needed five Boston city councilors to agree to vote against eminent domain [a two-thirds vote of the council would be needed to pass the land-taking]. So, we went to work.
Dapper, thankfully, was one of the first councilors to agree to vote against the land-taking, at my request. He did it ... no questions asked.
"I supported the Red Sox when they wanted to expand with that 600 Club and you know what?," he spat at me, "They never let me in there afterwards!"
Later, Mickey Roache and Stephen Murphy would also agree to vote against the land-taking, at my request, and Davis-Mullen and Ward 7 Councilor Gareth Saunders would soon follow.
This solidified the five votes needed to save historic Fenway Park. Everyone was in a tizzy because we effectively stopped Mayor Tom Menino from taking private land for private use.
[As an aside, Councilor Charles Yancey met the entire contingent of Fenway supporters and gave us positive remarks but he was ultimately non-committal. Councilor Tom Keane, the councilor representing the most effected areas, was obstinate and difficult which was not a surprise. He later openly endorsed the megaplex, horrifying residents while abandoning his supposed free market political principles, since the project was the most offensive example of corporate welfare ever proposed in the city's history].
In the 1999 preliminary, Dapper placed third, way below his usual turnout of first or second. Others were within striking distance. And since the final election tended to be the election with the most liberal turnout, the writing was on the wall: Dapper was in trouble and he asked everyone for help. I obliged, donating money to his campaign, putting a sign on my door in Mission Hill, and doing standouts for him and another candidate, challenger Joe Mulligan, another great guy who was the only registered Republican in the race.
Some of my liberal friends went wild.
"How can you support Dapper? How can you support Mulligan?" one young, yet connected, woman asked me, urging me to support Michael Flaherty, the guy who placed fifth that year but was sitting on scads of money.
"Dapper has always stood by regular folks. I have talked to Joe and he gets it," I said.
"But Flaherty's relatively liberal," she said. "He's more in line with us."
I had also decided to vote for Davis-Mullen and Murphy too, even though he was getting a little squeamish over his earlier position to vote against eminent domain. My friend didn't know I had already decided where my four votes would go so I asked her some questions, with the impression that I might be able to toss a vote to Flaherty.
"OK, let me ask you: What's Flaherty's position on the megaplex?"
She was mum. She knew: Flaherty would back it and as would she, since she took her marching orders from Menino.
"There you go," I said, smiling. "It's a billion dollar boondoggle. It's insanity. I won't support insanity."
Along the way, it was looking pretty grim and everyone knew it. But, we all plugged away, attempting to save Dapper. In mid-October, the Boston Herald did a piece on Dapper's campaign and I was interviewed for it.
What can explain his staying power? It's more than nostalgia, more than the entertainment value of a profane pol who recorded the novelty tune, "The Irish Belly Dancer,'' more than grizzled old white guys giving him bullet votes.
It's visibility. The long hours at the zoning board - so many hours that they named the hearing room after O'Neil. The countless community-group meetings. And, of course, the wakes.
"I differ on ideology with him on a lot of things but he's always there for us,'' says Anthony Schinella, a board member of the Community Alliance of Mission Hill.
Another supporter, Minister Don Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam's Mosque No. 11, says the conservative O'Neil is misunderstood: "He's very community- and people-oriented.''
Me and Minister Don Muhammad, quoted in the same article, supporting a guy that most people pigeonholed as a rightwing, lunatic, racist throwback to the old days.
But, in many ways, Dapper was a throwback: He was about hard work, sticking to your word, never giving up a principled fight, and standing by the little guy. And those are values you just don't see very often in politicians these days.
Rest in Peace, Dapper.


Anonymous said...

Tony, Great story. Good stuff. I love the line asking where you came from, "kid." Dapper was one of a kind.
Bill O'

Al said...

good job, Tony... my politics reflect yours but I always had a soft spot for Dapper. A total character...

Anonymous said...

Tony, thank you for your insightful and truthful comments about Dapper. He always stood up for veteran's issues (himself serving in WWII) and the needs of the little guy.

May Dapper rest in peace.