Horace Small has a Very Big Mouth

Hang around with Horace Small long enough, and there are certain phrases you'll hear over and over. The first rule of politics, he is fond of saying, is that there are no rules. The second is, learn how to count. And his personal mantra: Social change is a lifestyle.

So even on a sweltering day in August two years ago, he had politics on the brain. Small and some fellow activists were polishing off barbecued ribs in the kitchen of his house in Jamaica Plain. White wine flowing, guests started telling stories about Governor Mitt Romney. One had the clincher: “Did you hear Mitt canceled affirmative action?” You may as well have told Small, who has fought for minority rights for three decades, that Romney had canceled Christmas.

Sure enough, Romney had scrapped the state office of affirmative action, Small learned, quietly announcing the order on an obscure Suffolk County holiday, when state and city offices in Boston were closed. “As we looked into the process, we found more enforcement in a crack house,” Small says in a speaking style that might charitably be described as blunt. “As much as I love white people, I don't trust them worth a fuck. If it ain't on the books, it's not real.”

That's when Small set out to make some numbers. Within two weeks, a new group he organized had lobbied politicians and held demonstrations. In response, Romney did what most politicians in Boston do when faced with a problem in the minority community: He called the ministers.

Flanked by his aides, the governor arrived at the New Covenant Christian Church (now called Jubilee Christian) in Mattapan to explain the new rules. Unbeknownst to Romney, however, Small had packed the room with his supporters, who blindsided the governor with a clamor to reverse the changes. As one attendee said, “Governor, you are going to have to take a whipping.”

By then, though, Romney had already seen the writing on the wall and reinstated the old guidelines, relegating the issue to a committee. It remains there two years later. “Shit, he did what was expedient,” Small says with a shrug. “Mitt knows how to count.”

Sometimes, fate has a sense of humor with names. A former football player, Small has the hulking physique of a linebacker — and the aggressive personality to match. But as his success over affirmative action shows, he also has the subtlety to play the political game. A native of Philadelphia, Small brings an outsider's perspective to Boston, with plenty of criticism to go around.

“Who the fuck is Tom Menino?” Small says of the mayor, who he challenged a year ago over the hiring of minority contractors for the Democratic National Convention. “You can't critique this guy.” The problem with Boston politics, he continues, is that it's not geared toward openly airing issues. “You have elected officials who can't be critiqued, you have a mayor with very thin skin, nonprofits afraid to piss people off, foundations who piss over all the people they are supposed to be helping. You ain't gotta like each other to do business. But it's all personal here.”

If Small has been effective, it's because his politics are rarely personal. It's all about getting the numbers to back up his big mouth. In the process, he's rewriting the rules of black politics in Boston, which has been traditionally divided between genteel national lobbying organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League and local ministers, who reflect the conservative makeup of their churches. Small represents a third way, mobilizing some of the state's poorest citizens to push for their share of the pie.

“He's one of these guys organizing the community who also understands how politics work,” says Congressman Barney Frank, who consulted Small last year while considering a run for the Senate. “He helps people connect the dots.” City councilor Mike Ross worked with Small last spring to expose unsavory housing conditions to Ross's fellow council members. The so-called “tour through hell” Small gave them led to an increase in the number of housing inspectors and a series of meetings with public housing officials. “He's the real deal,” says Ross. “He's an activist, but he's strategic in his actions. He doesn't believe in wasting people's time.”

Small didn't grow up poor himself. He came out of a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia and attributes his affinity for the underdog to his mother, a nurse who brought home patients so they wouldn't die alone. One elderly white woman made a particular impression. “She always had the runs, and it was my job to clean up after her,” Small says. “I would give attitude like you wouldn't believe, and my mother would say, 'This is what compassion is.'” Small's father was a die-hard conservative who fought with his son across the dinner table. In college at St. John's in Minnesota, Small played football, earning a tryout with the Chicago Bears. When he didn't make the team, he returned to Philadelphia and became a social worker.

Growing tension with his father and the death of his first wife sent Small into a period of drug use and recklessness. “There are things I did in my twenties that I'm ashamed of,” he says. It was years before he was able to get himself together. Finally, he took a job coaching football and got involved in the Carter-Mondale presidential campaign. He then helped an obscure candidate, Ed Rendell (now Pennsylvania's governor), get elected district attorney and served as campaign manager for the first Hispanic city councilor. But Small would conclude that all the deal-trading and backslapping wasn't to his liking. “Government is slow,” he says. “To move anything takes forever.”

He left City Hall to return to community organizing. A folder full of newspaper clippings showcases the alphabet soup of groups he worked with: the Philadelphia Unemployment Project; Philadelphia Anti-Drug, Anti-Violence Network; Bread and Roses; and finally, the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, which he would later export to Boston. His work eventually captured the attention of the Democratic Socialists of America, a national leftist group that asked Small to be its director. “I had these fantasies that the problem with the left was that they needed a leader, and I would be that leader,” he says. What he found as he commuted back and forth to New York was a financially strapped organization mired in bureaucracy. When his current wife told him she was moving back to her native Boston, he resigned to return to where he'd always had the most success: the neighborhoods.

Since arriving here four years ago, Small has made his presence felt. One of his first public acts was to help draw 3,000 people of all colors to the State House to lobby for more neighborhood services, leading to the reinstatement of hundreds of thousands of dollars for social programs. The following year, Small helped draw more than 5,000 people to the same event, in part by reaching out to unions, which have been at odds with blacks in Boston since the fight over school desegregation in the 1970s.

Unlike other major cities in the Northeast, Boston has a small black population that has had difficulty forming alliances with other minority groups. With nonwhites now a majority for the first time, that strategy becomes crucial. “We have people in the black community who call themselves leaders, but don't reach out to make alliances, so they can only try and curry favor with those in power,” says city councilor Chuck Turner. “Horace believes you don't have to curry favor if you mobilize people.”

If Small has a weakness, it's that his brashness and impatience could hurt him. During a meeting with the prestigious Boston Foundation, he barely listens to the project director's debriefing, interrupting several times to criticize the foundation for supposedly not supporting small community organizations like his. “I've not harbored any fantasies of getting a dime from the Boston Foundation,” Small says after the meeting. “But we'll talk to Lottie, Dottie, and any-damn-body. That's what makes us different.”

Indeed, more than a year after sabotaging Romney's affirmative action plan, Small helped secure the governor's assistance in a successful campaign to save a Fenway High School teacher threatened with deportation. This month, he will host the first-ever Roxbury Peace Games, an initiative to deal with street violence in the inner city and to highlight neighborhood sports programs. To help him, he enlisted Don Stirling, head of the state Sports and Entertainment Commission, who worked with Romney when the governor oversaw marketing for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“It's not going to solve the problem,” Small says, “but I assure you that it's going to be a lot more effective than the mayor and the preachers sitting around in another meeting.” In the next breath, though, he offers Menino an olive branch, saying he'd love for the city to take over the Peace Games. “If he is smart, he'll own it,” Small says of the mayor. “It's fine if they get pissed off by the messenger. That's all right. I can take it.”