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
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
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
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
"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
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
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'
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.