City Council Candidate Chat: Catherine O’Neill

This is the 30th in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. This time, it's at-large candidate Catherine O'Neill of Dorchester.

David S. Bernstein: I know you have considered running for office before. Why are you running now, for an at-large seat on the City Council?

Catherine O’Neill: With two vacancies, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to run, and not have to run against anybody. I have been attracted to the workings of the city council since I was the neighborhood liaison for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. I understand that the job of Boston City Council at-large is the worker bee job in municipal government, and I am particularly good at working with people to get things done. It marries all my skill sets. So that’s why I’m running—to represent and work for the residents of the city of Boston again.

It’s an interesting description: a “worker bee job.” Most of us—including the media—reflexively assess candidates by asking about issues, but it’s much harder to evaluate whether someone is good at, as you put it, getting things done. Since that’s your vision of the office, do you find it difficult to explain why people should pick you?

No. If you know me, you know I can get things done. I’ve had that ability my whole life. I am not running for Boston City Council at-large because I want to tell residents the policy issues that I think are important. I am running so I can work for the residents for their issues that they feel are important. If you live in Dorchester, the day we had a shootout in the middle of Dorchester Avenue, if I had asked you what the most important issue facing Boston is, you probably would have told me public safety. I went to a community meeting in West Roxbury last night; they have a problem property, and their biggest problem, at that moment, was that problem property. When I worked at Kit Clark Senior Center, I administered a grant from the Obama administration to help elderly folks remain in their homes. I worked with this lovely woman, almost out on the street. She needed her birth certificate. This 83-year-old woman, who’s eating free lunches at Kit Clark; I was amazed, there is no program to get her a free birth certificate. I know that education issues are huge, and we need to do something to turn around our schools. I know that. Does it seem as important as a free birth certificate for an elderly woman? No. I know how to work with the policy issues, and the little issues. That’s what the Boston City Council is about.

A lot of people know you as the host of the “Boston Connection,” which used to air on Boston Neighborhood Network. I imagine that allowed you to learn a lot about different issues, and different people in the city.

Oh, absolutely. Every time I had a show, I had a guest, I would do all kinds of research on my guest, what issues they wanted to come on my show and talk about. I totally loved hosting the “Boston Connection” for lots of reasons. And you’re right—it gave me an entire overview of the entire city of Boston. It was a delight to meet some people, just a sheer delight. And yes, it taught me so much. And the reason my show was so successful, and the reason I’m going to be a successful Boston City Councilor, is because I listen. The show wasn’t about me, and running for Boston City Council at-large isn’t about me. The show was about my audience, and this run is about the residents of the city of Boston.

You worked for a number of years for Corcoran Jennison, which has developed large projects in Boston as well as elsewhere. Did you learn anything about what the city needs to do in terms of development and planning?

I was laid off from Corcoran Jennison in 2009 because we lost the Bayside Expo property that we were redeveloping. We were going to redevelop an entire neighborhood, and the process took us so long to get where we should have been. Boston would have missed the financial crisis, I think, if we had a BRA and a planning department that worked the way it should. So yeah, I have a lot of experience and ideas about how to make the planning process and the development process in the city of Boston more streamlined.

It was before your time there, but my association with Corcoran Jennison is always with the Crosstown Megaplex, which Menino prevented from happening in favor of the waterfront convention center.

I know that. It was before my time at the Corcoran Jennison companies, but I think that may have been one of the greatest misses in Boston.

In a very different aspect of your experience: you wrote a play about politics in the city of Boston, called Murph, and it’s been staged here in Boston. What was the genesis of it, and was it in any way an outlet for you to write about your observations of the city?

I’ve written several plays. That play was part of my master’s thesis. Representative Kevin Fitzgerald, God rest his soul, was a dear friend of mine. There was something about that story that I always wanted to write. I wrote the first draft, and my mentor-professor told me, “this is not drama.” So I ditched the Kevin Fitzgerald story, but I still had this state representative character, very well drawn, so I just put him in a different circumstance. It’s totally fictional, but it uses all of the wonderful people I have met and worked with.

A lot of the city’s new potential political leaders are coming out of Dorchester—which hasn’t been the case in the past. I see several strong candidates for City Council and for mayor from Dorchester. Has something changed about Dorchester or about the city to make that possible?

In 2005, when I was Linda Dorcena Forry’s field director for her first campaign, we were running in an Irish-American enclave held by Speaker Tom Finneran. We won that seat. Before there was Barack Obama, before there was Deval Patrick, there was Linda Dorcena Forry, in my neighborhood. We have been ahead of this curve. My neighborhood does not look at racial barriers when they are electing politicians. I love my neighborhood for that. I’m delighted that we have four candidates for mayor from Dorchester. I’m heartbroken that I have to pick one of them.

Citywide candidates end up spending time in parts of the city they haven’t previously been as familiar with; is there anything you’ve learned about a particular neighborhood or area of the city during this campaign?

I’m very lucky; I have been throughout each neighborhood of our city my whole life. I remember when I was on my first political campaign when I was 19 years old. I didn’t think Brighton was part of Boston. Well, that changed. [Laughs] One thing I have tried to master is the driving short-cuts from one place to the next. Senator Forry taught me so many short-cuts from Roxbury to Dorchester that are really serving me well right now. Also, I now know where to find people at five in the morning, a bunch of people who are registered voters. I never knew that before, and it was because of my signature hunt that I now know. They are at school bus depots. For each bus in the city of Boston, there must be a monitor, and the monitors must be residents of Boston.

That first campaign, when you were 19—who were you campaigning for?

[Joe] Timilty for mayor.

So what I’ve learned today is that you’ve had experience working for people who were not favorites of the mayor of Boston.

Totally. I think it’s pretty clear that I will be an independent voice in the Boston City Council. Although I’m looking forward to working with the new mayor, I will not be working for the new mayor. I will be working for the residents of the city of Boston.


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