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The compulsive candidate
What makes Althea Garrison run?

Persistence is an admirable quality — but only to a point. When the failures come often enough, the inability to admit defeat can get irritating. Or pitiful. Or just plain bizarre.

Althea Garrison may have entered this realm. When Garrison made her first bid for elected office — nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1981 — the Cold War was raging and Joanie Loves Chachi was must-see TV. Since then, by Garrison’s own calculation, she’s run for office 13 more times, including this year’s at-large Boston City Council bid and previous campaigns for state representative, state senator, and mayor of Boston.

The political high point for Garrison came in 1992, two years after the Globe dismissed her as a "perennial loser." As a Republican candidate for the Fifth Suffolk seat in the Massachusetts House, Garrison successfully challenged several signatures that the Democratic incumbent, Nelson Merced, had obtained as part of the candidate-certification process. Merced was booted from the Democratic primary ballot, and Garrison went on to a close general-election victory.

Sadly, though, Garrison didn’t have much time to savor her long-awaited win. Just two days later, the Herald reported that Garrison was once a man: according to Suffolk County Probate Court records, she had formerly been known as A.C. Garson, but was granted a name change in 1976, "consistent with [her] appearance and medical condition." (Credit for this scoop goes to Eric Fehrnstrom, then a Herald reporter and now communications director for Governor Mitt Romney.)

This public disclosure effectively guaranteed that, rather than being evaluated as a freshman legislator, Garrison would be treated as an oddity. And sure enough, subsequent references to Garrison frequently invoked her gender switch — whether it was in trend spotting stories on transgenderism (to make matters worse, this was the year of The Crying Game) or mocking political columns (Howie Carr on Garrison: "I’ve always liked Althea. She has a big heart. Not to mention big feet. And very, very big hands").

In the confines of the State House, meanwhile, no one was comfortable talking about Garrison’s gender identity. And Garrison wasn’t much help, studiously avoiding the issue rather than embracing it. "No one talked about it," recalls Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "No one even broached the subject." To this day, Garrison won’t discuss the topic, and the precise nature of the aforementioned "medical condition" remains a mystery.

The revelation didn’t stop Garrison from impressing her colleagues, at least on a personal level. "She’s a transvestite or transsexual black woman, with an Adam’s Apple, who’s a Republican, who you run into in the members’ ladies’ room," recalls one former colleague. "That being said, when you get past all those obvious things, I always found her to be very pleasant and very kind." And it didn’t keep her from winning the endorsement of several labor unions when she ran for re-election in 1994. But in hindsight, it probably doomed her political career. In the general election, Charlotte Golar Richie — a younger, more attractive, better-spoken challenger — edged out Garrison by a relatively slim margin, pulling in 2108 votes to Garrison’s 1718.

Over the next five years, Golar Richie became something of a star on Beacon Hill; today, after four years as Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s director of neighborhood development, she’s often mentioned as a contender to become Boston’s first African-American mayor. And Garrison? The 1994 loss relegated her, yet again, to the political margins. And that’s where she remains.


Given this history, it’s no surprise that Garrison views the press with deep mistrust. In fact, this mistrust is a staple of her current campaign: as Garrison puts it on the cover of her campaign fliers, YOU CAN NOT RELY OR DEPEND ON THE NEWS MEDIA TO KEEP YOU INFORMED OR TELL YOU THE TRUTH. (The same line shows up on the inside, and the back cover offers this twist: YOU CAN NOT RELY OR DEPEND ON THE BOSTON GLOBE OR BOSTON HERALD TO KEEP YOU INFORMED BECAUSE THEY ARE BUSY LOBBYING AND SUPPORTING THEIR FAVORITE CANDIDATES WHO GO ALONG TO GET ALONG.)

Recently, however, Garrison — who lives in Dorchester and works as a mail clerk in the state comptroller’s office — agreed to sit down with the Phoenix to discuss her latest run. Last Friday at noon, the candidate met with this reporter at the intersection of Beacon and Bowdoin Streets, just south of the State House. Garrison, who planned to door-knock in West Roxbury later that afternoon, was dressed to campaign, and impossible to miss. The bottom half of her outfit was monochromatic: red skirt, red sandals, red toenails. On her torso, meanwhile, Garrison wore what looked to be a homemade piece of campaign gear: a white T-shift urging voters to elect althea garrison. AT LARGE CITY COUNCILOR. REAL GRASS ROOTS. THE PEOPLE'S COUNCILOR. THANK YOU! As she walked, Garrison was dragging a rolling suitcase stuffed with campaign papers and a leopard-print umbrella; she moved effortfully, and her head was crowned with a thick helmet of motionless black hair.


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Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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