[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
June 25 - July 2, 1999


Head of the class

First-term Councilor Stacey Luster defines what it means to be a leader, particularly when it comes to taking tough political stances. But could it end her career?

by Joe O'Brien

Stacey DeBoise Another Friday morning, and the scene at the Broadway Restaurant on Water Street buzzes. First-term Worcester city councilor Stacey Luster glides through the crowd, greeting familiar faces. A young African-American man introduces himself, and then reminds her they had just met at a jobs-program commencement. Luster praises the man's efforts, gently inquiring if he has found work. No, he replies. Luster then ticks off several of the area unions now hiring, telling the man to call her if he needs help. He walks away smiling.

To the casual restaurant diner, Luster might appear just another politician. Yet she has proven to be anything but. Indeed, it's been a remarkable 18 months for Luster, who shocked Worcester residents in 1997 when she became the first minority councilor in more than 50 years. She has since been somewhat of a maverick, championing a host of politically dangerous issues like needle exchange and affirmative action. Her latest, repeated attempts to set up a citizens review panel to better ensure police accountability have developed into quite the crusade. So while prospective politicians talk a lot about shaking up City Hall, Luster has turned out to be one of the few to actually do it.

The 1997 election of three new city councilors inspired great expectations for radical change. But so far, it seems, Luster is the only one who has managed not to blend into the normally staid council. Instead, she's been a vocal "freshman," discussing with candor controversial issues while earning praise for her noncontroversial style. Political insiders might have assumed that Luster would steer clear of racial issues, if only to avoid the "minority councilor" label. Luster, though, has embraced the role, saying, "I am proud to be the first black woman on the city council."

Now that she's approaching re-election, political observers wonder if her willingness to take on challenges will jeopardize her chances, especially among average Worcester voters. And they question if she can hold on to the unique coalition of business leaders, neighborhood activists, and minority groups, which ushered her into public office. But if her supporters are worried, Luster remains unapologetic.

"I did not run for office just so I could get re-elected," she proclaims. "I ran for office so I could get things done."

EVEN IF YOU'RE not a Luster backer, you have to admire the hard work and perseverance that have helped to make her the city's first black, female councilor. After all, Luster is a Worcester success story. The only child of Carolyn Rutherford Foster, she grew up in the hard, stark streets of Plumley Village and of Great Brook Valley. At South Community High School, she was such an outstanding student that she skipped 11th grade, graduating at age 16. Luster attended St. John's University in New York City, earning her public-administration degree in 1986. That same year, she got married and soon gave birth to twin boys, Lance and Lee. She later went on to law school at Boston University. And it was while working as an attorney that Luster got involved in the community. She asked former school superintendent John Durkin to appoint her to a new committee, which was drafting a strategic plan for the local school system. Luster served on a diversity subcommittee and, in this capacity, she met William Densmore, a renowned community and business leader. Although she did not know it then, her work with Densmore would have a major influence on her life.

Densmore soon invited Luster to join Accord, a nonprofit organization focusing on race relations in Worcester. "Stacey struck me as a very bright person with the right kind of passion to deal with the issues of discrimination," Densmore recalls. In 1995, Luster would become board president, guiding the group through a merger with the National Conference of Christians and Jews to form what's now called National Conference/ Accord.

At the same time, Luster was hired by Durkin as the school department's affirmative-action officer, a position enabling her to oversee the start of the school system's first, deliberate attempt to recruit minority teachers. Today, she fills a similar role at Quinsigamond Community College.

Luster herself points to people like Linda Cavaioli, the YMCA director, James Bonds, a Minority Business Council leader, and Densmore as people who pushed her to run for council. At first, she was hesitant. "I was not on a political track," she says. Yet she knew, she adds, "There were needs in the community that were not getting met." Not only was the city lacking minority councilors, she explains, but many political leaders had never left Worcester and, therefore, lacked "broader vision." The timing was also good, Luster's children were finally in school; and so, she felt prepared for the grind of public life.

FOR NEARLY ALL POLITICAL insiders, Luster's victory was an enormous shock. Despite her community work, she was virtually unknown within political circles. Today, observers agree that Luster's success is rooted in the very community, business, and minority leaders who backed her. Influential activists like Cavaioli helped draw neighborhood support. Minority leaders like Bonds organized in Worcester's minority precincts. And perhaps most important, Luster's friendship with Densmore led her to powerful, West Side business leaders like Fairman Cowan and John Nelson. It was this group that boosted Luster's base in the voter-rich West Side, as well as aided in vital campaign contributions. They brought on Kathy Robertson, a seasoned, political consultant who had managed Congressman Jim McGovern's winning campaign against Peter Blute. Luster ended up raising more than $27,000, which is an incredible amount for a first-time candidate. She actually out-raised all incumbent councilors except Mayor Raymond Mariano.

She put it to good use too, getting her name out to the more than 60,000 registered voters, most of whom had never heard of her before. Supporters were impressed by her platform of such issues as public safety, neighborhoods, and economic development. With this agenda, Luster could speak to the needs of the whole community, thereby preventing people from labeling her a "minority issues" candidate.

ALTHOUGH MOST NEWLY elected councilors spend their first terms at ribbon cuttings, Luster's been outspoken on a host of contentious issues. During the needle-exchange debate, for instance, Luster was a vocal supporter of what she describes as "a common sense public-health issue.

"You don't need to be a reformed addict to support this measure," she says.

Luster also did not shy away when asked to chair the council's education committee, which meant that she had to oversee emotional hearings on the merger of the public schools and the Voke school.

Perhaps because it's so unusual for freshman councilors to take strong stances, the media have largely focused on her more radical endeavors, a fact she finds frustrating, especially since she's accomplished other things. For example, she notes her successful push for a better review of the city's capital spending. And this year, councilors are scrutinizing purchases like trucks and office equipment in each department's budget. Although hardly a sexy effort, it is saving taxpayers money, she says.

But what thrust Luster into the spotlight is her crusade to deal with police misconduct and, moreover, how the police department weeds out and investigates citizen complaints. It's been a beleaguered department, for sure, dating back to the 1994 beating death of Cristino Hernandez by two officers who were exonerated after an internal investigation -- despite the fact the police were captured on videotape hitting a defenseless Hernandez. Citizens have since accused police of illegal searches and of regularly harassing kids. They say police indulge in racial profiling and use improper language; and then there's the time police maced a group of teenagers hanging out in front of the Main Street Youth Center.

Conventional wisdom may dictate that politicians avoid confrontations with the politically powerful police department (especially since little has come of accusations against officers), yet Luster's taken on the issue of police misconduct with zeal. She's quick to explain that her efforts to reform the department's operations do not make her anti-police; actually, she claims, "Being a police officer is a noble profession." For the most part, she adds, cops do a good job. In fact, her uncle Detective Lt. Loman Rutherford is the only minority commanding officer on the force.

But she also believes that many Worcester residents have lost faith in the department. "The internal-affairs process is flawed and, as a result, there are no checks and balances on police conduct," she says. In the community, Luster adds, people feel something needs to be done to restore accountability, particularly those people in the inner-city neighborhoods, which have higher crime rates and more police interactions.

So far, Luster has received little support from her fellow councilors. But she has found a powerful ally in the T&G, which has joined her in the attempt to restore accountability. Numerous articles have exposed the failure of the internal-affairs department. The paper's parent company, Chronicle Publishing, has even taken the department to court to force the disclosure of internal-affairs records, which police have refused to do.

While the rest of the council seems unwilling to acknowledge there are serious issues with police conduct, recent hearings, held by the city's Human Rights Commission, have revealed volumes of complaints.

The hearings have not only helped Luster push the issue on the council floor but have forced the city administration to start responding. On May 12, local officials -- including City Manager Tom Hoover, Police Chief Edward Gardella, and Human Rights Director Shirley Wright -- met with US Justice Department representatives to discuss setting up a civilian review board. On June 7, Hoover and Gardella appeared before the Human Rights Commission, where Hoover said he would consider expanding the commission's authority to include investigating complaints filed against municipal employees. (The commission does not have such authority now, but members are expected to release, on Thursday, a set of recommendations for Hoover based on residents' complaints.)

Even though city officials continue to fight the release of internal-affairs records, they recently announced a revamping of the way citizen complaints will be investigated. As part of the improvements, Gardella appointed the highly regarded Lt. Rutherford to head the overhaul (Rutherford accepted the post but said he was "heartbroken" to be reassigned from the detective squad). Some have speculated that the move is intended to get back at Luster because Gardella's announcement was made just days after she was critical of his department.

Luster, while optimistic about prospective change, is somewhat more reticent when it comes to the current chief. "I will reserve judgment on the chief until he is able to support and improve internal affairs," she says.

Even if she ends up being the only councilor willing to push the issue, she's not going to back down. "I have the opportunity to ask the city manager and the police chief to make changes," she explains.

Besides, Luster maintains, there is widespread support of her efforts in the community. "People stop and tell me all the time that I should stick to my guns and that this is important," she says -- not just for minorities, but rather the entire community.

AS HER RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN nears, some political observers speculate that Luster's focus on the police department will turn off her followers. But in talking with Luster's key supporters, this doesn't seem so. As Fairman Cowan says, "Stacey has done extremely well on the council. It's not easy being the only minority person. She has properly raised questions about the police department. And she has done this in a rational way."

Cowan then contends that Luster has "done what she said she would do and what we thought she would do." Luster's been a solid councilor who has worked well with others to pass important initiatives, he says, so the people who supported her will continue to do so.

Luster, too, maintains that she hasn't lost any of her core backers. "My supporters respect that I have not shied away from what needs to be addressed."

Still, it will be interesting to see how the average voter responds to Luster this campaign season. It seems likely that her actions will not hurt her in the progressive West Side and in mostly minority precincts, where she did well last time. What may complicate this is the entrance of two other minority at-large candidates, Juan Gomez and Al Toney Jr. Both of them have high name recognition and could cut into Luster's West Side constituency. These candidates could also woo some of the minority activists previously backing Luster.

And there's the issue of name changes. (Luster has married Charles Luster, her second husband, since the last election.) Because name identification is critical in at-large elections, Luster could suffer if supporters still think of her as Stacey DeBoise. And, considering the clear role that ethnicity plays in Worcester politics, there are those who speculate that DeBoise, a well-known French surname, might have helped her gather votes the first time.

Finally, unlike many of her fellow councilors, Luster has been slow to raise money in the off year. She has collected only $1815 so far (compared to Mariano's $109,689 and to first-term Councilor Tim Murray's $6311), which means she must work much harder this year to compete for campaign contributions in the growing field of at-large councilors.

Luster, though, is prepared to work hard to hold her seat. Yet she's open to whatever happens come fall. "Voters put me in office to make a difference and they only promised me two years," she says. "If they see fit to elect me for another two, I will serve."

Joe O'Brien can be reached at joescastle@aol.com.

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