Candidate Chat: Martin Keogh

This is the eighth in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. This time I speak with Martin Keogh, an attorney running for an at-large seat.

David S. Bernstein: Why are you running this year for an at-large seat on the City Council?

Martin Keogh: I want safer neighborhoods, and I want neighborhood schools. My little boy is almost two years old. He’s going to be ready to go into the public schools in the next two years. Unless I’m extremely lucky, I’m not going to get him into my neighborhood school. That was the first reason I got into politics 20 years ago. Not just neighborhood schools, but good schools. I’m talking about schools that have arts programs and after-school sports. But not just the schools. We need more police in the streets. We don’t have murders every day, but there are all kinds of other things that go on that we need police there for. Marathon Monday was certainly a wake-up call. People say Boston police, EMS, and firefighters are our first responders; they are, but they are now our first line of defense. We need to support our emergency response. We need more police; we need money for better technology. People who want to move into the city of Boston, and people who want to stay in the city of Boston, they want safer neighborhoods for their kids and they want neighborhood schools, and without them, they are gone. It happens every single day.

You grew up in the city, in Mission Hill and elsewhere. What’s the difference between then and now in terms of those issues: public safety and schools? Is it better but not good enough? Is it not better?

I was born in the Mission Hill projects—now they’re called Mission Main. We moved to Hyde Park, and I grew up there. Not the best part of town, but I have great childhood memories from growing up in Hyde Park. And currently I live in West Roxbury with my wife and little boy, and my wife is pregnant with baby number two coming in November. Back then, you could leave your door unlocked. Everybody knew everybody. You didn’t really need neighborhood policing then because you had neighborhood policing by mom. Now, people are leaving the city every day, so you don’t have that. It’s a disconnect in the social fabric of the city. People just don’t know each other. And I attribute that directly to the Boston Public Schools—people don’t send their kids to the neighborhood school. The police, back when I was growing up, they’d say hi to you. They would drive you home if you got into trouble. Nowadays, it’s not the same kind of trouble, and I think it’s directly to do with the internet, and the violence you see on TV. Things that kids are subjected to that I wasn’t subjected to when I was younger. It’s made our world different. It’s made our world much wider.

I know you worked for former city councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen. Was she a major influence on your approach to politics and policy?

Yes, absolutely. I ran six city-wide campaigns for Peggy Davis-Mullin: 1991, ’93, ’95, ’97, ’99, and of course in 2001 when she ran unsuccessfully against Mayor [Tom] Menino. When Peggy ran in 2001, it was a long-shot, uphill battle, but she had some things she wanted to get accomplished. I would like to think that the schools are heading in the right direction because of things she did. That’s why I got involved in her campaign initially. I’m a lawyer, but I’m also a Boston Public School kid who dropped out of high school. After working for Peggy, for the last 12 years, I’ve been a criminal defense lawyer, for juveniles and people who don’t have a lot of money. I feel like I’ve been doing a public service. I’ve represented elderly people who were scammed by contractors. I recently won a $4.4 million judgment against a man in West Roxbury who had been running a Ponzi scheme. They might never recover the money, but we won the judgment.

Some public defenders I know feel that they learn a lot about the city by interacting with people, clients, who they wouldn’t otherwise interact with. Do you find that happens with you?

The people I represent, I’ve got everything in common with them. I’ve represented white kids, black kids, Asian kids—every nationality out there. I represent people who are poor. I got a taste of being poor myself growing up, but I have the greatest memories of growing up. Aside from my parents getting divorced, I have the greatest memories. The kids I represent now, for the most part, they don’t have money, they drop out of schools, they’re all coming from single parents. But the number one thing is drugs. It can be marijuana, cocaine, or pills, but they all seem to be drug-related. Sometimes it’s domestic violence, sometimes it’s stealing. I ask them why, and that’s the reason. And I can tell them what it was like for me growing up.

We have a number of people campaigning in the city this year who had difficult periods earlier in their life, and are openly talking about it. Marty Walsh, running for mayor, has talked about his trouble with alcohol. Do you think that people who have gone through tough times add a perspective that’s needed in elected office?

That’s a hard question to answer. I would say there’s no doubt that everybody in the city of Boston has known somebody who has had a substance-abuse problem, whether it’s alcohol or drugs. In my case, the problem was substance abuse with my father. I rarely drink; I think that’s directly related to seeing my parents have fights that were alcohol-fueled, by my father.

I wasn’t necessarily talking just about substance abuse, but any kind of tough period that they’re willing to talk about.

I think every family has something. You know, I don’t know any rich people. I see them on TV and see them around, but I don’t have any friends who are well-off. Most of my friends are working middle-class. I don’t make a lot of money. I’m happy to work for the personal satisfaction out of helping people. It seems to be a commonality that we all have—I don’t know about you, David, but everybody I know has somebody who has had some kind of turmoil in their lives. I consider my generation almost lost souls. That might be something you’re seeing in politics; a lot of the candidates now are people who came out of the 80’s or 90’s.

How old are you?

I am 47 years old. I grew up in the ’80s. People say I seem like I’m 30. I have a lot of energy. I play hockey every Monday. I stay young and fit.

Well, I imagine having a two-year-old keeps you active.

Oh yeah. I wish I had a kid 20 years ago. He’s the greatest thing in the world.

And you’ve got another one coming in November. You know, John Connolly had one of his on the night before one of his elections.

When we were trying to get pregnant, I hadn’t thought about running. But then the mayor said he wasn’t running, and there were open seats, so I thought this was my chance. My wife is due November 2, so I’m going to have a good November either way.


Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.