King, as in mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  July 13, 2009

So considerable, in fact, that many of his admirers regard King's real persona as something of a political liability. "He's so extraordinarily diffident," moaned one supporter. Said Barney Frank, whose Back Bay district in the House borders King's and who often sides with him on issues, "There's a clearly personal problem Mel has which gets in his way: a lack of ego."

Often, his backers claim, this trait has prevented King from getting the credit he deserves for originating or advancing ideas. "I used to kid him," said Martin Gopen, "about all the people getting rich on his ideas." As a legislator, he has undoubtedly been an extremely effective advocate for his constituents, and he has a record of varied and imaginative accomplishments. In addition to serving as one of the guiding forces behind the legislative black caucus, and playing a leading role in the fight for a black senate seat (later occupied, ironically, by Bill Owens, whose relationship with King can only be described as chilly), King helped create a first-of-its-kind agency to assist local community-development corporations and drafted a bill that gave the state the authority to snatch up farm land before it gets developed into something else. Matters of food supply, including the Commonwealth's reliance on outside sources for 90 percent of its foodstuffs, have long intrigued him, and he's been a strong backer of urban-gardening programs and the farmers' markets that came to several city neighborhoods last year. Asked to explain how such a confirmed city dweller has sponsored so much farm-related activity, King replied, in his low-key way, "It comes out of liking to eat."

His South End constituents already knew as much: every Sunday when he's in town, he hosts a noontime brunch at his home, a pleasant three-story building on a side street parallel to Dartmouth Street, between Columbus Avenue and the Boston and Maine tracks. Moreover, for several years he has served as the chef for the Wednesday Morning Breakfast Group, a collection of students and community activists who gather together weekly at MIT (with which he has been associated since 1971), most often to chat informally with politicians imported by King. On a recent Wednesday morning, we found the group deep in crisis: King, its guiding light, had just threatened to quit because he sensed an insufficient commitment to affirmative action among some of its members. "You're saying you're going to do business like (Jimmy) Kelly does," he chided at one point. "Do you hear that? Do you hear that?" There were several nods, followed by much discussion. At last report, it appears that he will remain with the group, the importance of affirmative action having been brought home.

King seemed very much at home in the classroom setting, which should come as no surprise to many of his adherents, who see in him a teacher at heart. "Mel's approach to politics and issues has always been as an instructor," said Kay Gibbs, "At meetings, Mel would always whip out his easel and parse issues. He was extremely effective at cutting things short." Echoes Martin Gopen: "His training, his discipline, is that of a teacher. He's always involving people in an education experience, whether it be a gardening program or a community-development thing."

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