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Waiting for the Light to Change

Chelan Brown's bumpy road from young activist to legislative hopeful

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Thursday, September 11, 2008
photo courtesy of Chelan Brown

It was not, presumably, the kind of media coverage Chelan Brown was hoping for.

One day back in April, Brown found herself holding a press conference to address questions from a reporter at WWLP about Alive With Awareness, Knowledge and Empowerment, or AWAKE, the anti-violence agency she runs. She brought with her some AWAKE members, including Bob McCollum, a member of the group's board and a former Springfield School Committee member, and Desi Jackson, one of AWAKE's street outreach workers.

Jackson's employment by AWAKE was, in fact, the reason for the press conference. WWLP, along with other local media, had received a tip that the 34-year-old Jackson—whose job brought him to city schools and street corners to work with troubled young people—was classified by the state criminal records system as a Level 3 sex offender, the category for those considered "likely to re-offend."

In 1995, Jackson had pleaded guilty to statutory rape and abuse of a child, for which he received a suspended sentence. The previous year, he'd been convicted of indecent assault and battery on an adult—for beating and sexually assaulting his then-girlfriend, for which he served a year in jail and three years' probation. Jackson's record also includes a 2000 conviction for cocaine possession and a 2004 conviction for assault.

On camera, Brown assured viewers that Jackson is not the risk his record might suggest. "He has never hurt a kid," she told reporter Dan Elias. "There's no need to be concerned with any child's safety." Later, Brown told the Springfield Republican she knew of Jackson's troubled background when he joined AWAKE, and while she didn't try to hide it, she also worried that if the news got out it would hurt both the agency and Jackson.

Brown contended that Jackson's Level-3 classification was unwarranted by the circumstances. The child in the case, she said, was a 15-year-old who had told the then-19-year-old Jackson that she was 18.

Fallout from the story was relatively minor, at least for AWAKE. Superintendent Joe Burke—by then a lame duck whose contract had not been renewed—told the Republican he was "concerned" that Jackson had recently been at an assembly at Putnam High, given a School Department policy that bans Level-3 offenders from school property. But Kevin McCaskill, principal at Putnam—and a member of AWAKE's board—told the paper he didn't feel Jackson posed any threat, and that he would be welcome at future events. And the controversy didn't financially hurt AWAKE, which this summer received $250,000 in state funding, more than double what it received in previous years.

Indeed, if anyone appears to have been bruised by the story, it's Brown herself. The controversy couldn't have broken at a worse time for AWAKE's president, who was poised to announce her candidacy for the 11th Hampden state representative seat.

And it wasn't the only blow to her campaign. In short order, Brown found herself dealing with an unsuccessful challenge to her legal residency in the district, and questions about the legal status of her nonprofit organization. Adding to her troubles, in May came the revelation that policy positions on her campaign website had been copied from the websites of candidates for offices in other cities.

Faced with accusations of plagiarism, Brown responded with her own counter-charge: She says her website had been tampered with by a saboteur who posted the copied information in an attempt to set her up.

While the 11th Hampden district is known for its fiercely contested races, this year's has a particularly ugly tone, especially considering the history of the two most prominent candidates: the incumbent, Benjamin Swan, was once a mentor of sorts to Brown, who, as a young activist, counted the large and influential Swan family among her strongest supporters.

Now Brown puts the blame for many of her woes on the Swan camp, which she says has launched a smear campaign against her and her agency. She also charges the Swan family with exerting tight control over the district, its agencies and public funding sources, to the detriment of struggling residents. Those charges are dismissed by Swan and his nephew, who describe Brown as a once-promising young leader who's let her ambitions get in the way of her integrity.

Swan and Brown—as well as a third candidate, Lorenzo Gaines—will face off in the Sept. 16 Democratic primary. Although the general election isn't until November, because there are no other candidates for the seat, the primary results will determine the winner. But while the race might be over next week, it's hard to imagine that the bad blood it's generated won't last much, much longer.

 

Chelan Brown is not new to politics, or political controversy.

Brown—then known by her maiden name, Chelan Jenkins—first entered the public eye as a teenager, organizing protests after the 1994 shooting death of a 20-year-old unarmed African-American man, Benjamin Schoolfield, by a Springfield police officer. The police had stopped Schoolfield after receiving a report—which turned out to be false—that the van he was driving had been stolen at gunpoint. A grand jury found the shooting to be an accident, and the Police Commission did not pursue any action against the officer, Donald Brown.

The case sparked protests in the city, where stories of police abusing black and Latino residents were nothing new. Fueling the fire was the infamous party thrown by Brown's colleagues, celebrating his return to work after being cleared in the shooting. At the party, Brown was presented with a gift of a ham—a reference, outraged residents believed, to a Southern tradition of presenting vigilantes with a ham after the murder of a black man.

Jenkins, a friend of the Schoolfield family, organized protests marches and vigils; ironically, among those joining her was Ben Swan, a civil rights veteran who three decades earlier had organized the Western Mass. contingent to the March on Washington.

Jenkins began speaking out about the broader injustices in the city, especially toward its young, poor and minority residents. In 1995, at 18, she announced her candidacy for mayor of Springfield, on a platform focused on empowering young people in the city. Jenkins' showing at the polls was thin; she won about three percent of the vote in a four-way primary that also saw the elimination of incumbent Mayor Bob Markel. But her tenacity and outspokenness brought her a certain prominence, and the respect of some city leaders, including eventual winner Mike Albano, who named her chair of the city's Youth Commission after he took office.

Not long after the election, Jenkins found herself in the midst of another controversy. In November of 1995, she was arrested at the Eastfield Mall after disregarding orders by mall security to leave the food court. Jenkins, who was at the mall that evening with her younger sister and cousins, protested that her group was doing nothing wrong and was being harassed by security; she also said she had been harassed by police after her arrest.

Jenkins' arrest prompted community protests, including calls for a boycott of the mall and pickets by the Million Man March Committee—which was chaired, in another bit of irony, by Ben Swan's nephew, the Rev. Talbert Swan II. In the end, the District Attorney dropped charges of criminal trespass against Jenkins; she, in turn, dropped her complaint against the Springfield Police Department.

In the years since, Jenkins has married—her husband, DeJuan Brown, is a fellow founder of AWAKE—had two children and become stepmother to a third, and worked at a number of agencies in the city, including the Urban League, and Southwest Community Health Centers, which was then headed by Ben Swan's brother, Fred. (Jenkins had previously worked for a consulting firm owned by Fred Swan.) She also continued her activism work, signing on as one of the plaintiffs in a 1997 federal lawsuit filed by community activists to bring ward representation to the Springfield City Council.

 

In 2005, the Browns and some friends, including Desi Jackson, founded AWAKE.

AWAKE's mission is to reach young people whose limited options find them drifting toward a life of drugs, violence and general aimlessness. Through mentoring work, school programs and on-the-street interventions, AWAKE tries to persuade young people to stay in school, seek out jobs, find alternatives to gangs.

While Brown has worked with young people since she herself was a teenager, at 31, with three young children of her own, she has a new perspective, she said. She and her husband are already talking to their 10-year-old about the dangerous allure of gangs, and the importance of not following the crowd.

"What I try to instill in him, that's what I try to instill in all the young people I meet on the streets," she said. "I look at them like they're all my little brothers and sisters, they're all my children. I love them all. I love the ones I turn in for murder. I love the ones I turn in for drugs. &. Even if they're mad at me, I love them all still, because I see something good in all of them. They're not all murderers and gang bangers, shooting people, like people think they are. They deal with a lot of issues when they go home."

AWAKE's work includes a relationship with Baystate Medical Center, which turns to the group when street violence lands someone in the emergency room. "When young people are shot, they call us," Brown said. "We bring pastors and parents down with us, two o'clock in the morning, to deal with the other young people down there who are grieving, who may be talking about retaliating, or [as witnesses] are not cooperating with the police. &We're down there encouraging them to work with the police. Who else does that?"

AWAKE also works with the Hampden County Sheriff's Department, in an intervention program for young offenders. According to Jack Fitzgerald, assistant superintendent of community corrections, the program is designed for those considered "high risk"—in many cases, young men locked up on firearms charges.

AWAKE members work for free with sheriff department staffers, meeting with the offenders to try to determine what factors led them to crime and how to get them on a new path. The relationships AWAKE establishes with the men in jail carry over after they're released, and allow the group to continue to support their re-entry into the community, Fitzgerald said. "They're serious members of the community whom the community and these kids know, and they carry some weight," he said of AWAKE. "It's almost like a mentorship relationship."

Fitzgerald—no doubt with the Desi Jackson issue in mind—noted that his department screens AWAKE members before they can participate in the program. But that doesn't mean someone with a criminal record can't be helpful in this kind of work, he added: quite the opposite. People who have been in legal trouble but turned their lives around can be valuable mentors to young people heading down the same path. "This kind of an initiative allows us to use that experience they have," he said. "They have a credibility I could never have."

That credibility, Brown says, comes from AWAKE's presence in the community. Everyone on the organization's staff does direct, hands-on work, she said—managing case loads, bringing job applications to young people hanging out on the streets, escorting to court kids they've persuaded to turn themselves in. "A lot of our outreach workers—more than 90 percent—are born and raised in the city of Springfield," Brown said. "They know these young people just by living here."

They also have often gone through similar troubles. Brown herself dropped out of the High School of Commerce as a junior, and as a young teen had a quick temper and a penchant for fighting. She went on to get her GED and attended Hampshire College.

But it's the past of one AWAKE member in particular—Jackson—that's gotten particular attention. Brown defends her friend, contending his Level-3 sex offender status is unwarranted. Jackson, she said, "was not a pedophile, waiting in the bushes to forcibly rape a child." He was a 19-year-old who had sex with a teenager who told him she was 18 but turned out to be 15. (According to a police statement given by the girl, and reported in the Republican, she had told Jackson she was 18 when they met but admitted she was really 15 before they had sex.)

As for his other convictions, Brown said, Jackson has acknowledged his mistakes and served his time. "He's paid his debt," she said, noting that Jackson went on to be hired both by Northern Educational Services and Southwest Community Health Centers. "They knew about it and hired him," she said.

"We hire people who are reflective of the kids we're trying to reach," Brown said. "We took a hit for that, the hiring of ex-offenders. But all the youth research shows that, dealing with young people that are ex-offenders, or offending, or getting in trouble, ex-offenders can have a huge impact, sharing their stories and helping young people turn their lives around. So they trust us, because we've gone through similar situations & and can share our stories and tell them, 'We've been there; we've done that. You know what? You don't have to stay stuck here.'"

 

Originally a volunteer organization, AWAKE now has 11 staffers, four of whom work full-time, Brown said. This summer, it received its largest public appropriation yet: $250,000 in state money.

Despite the large checks it's received, AWAKE is not officially registered with the state as a non-profit organization (known as a 501c3). Although AWAKE began that registration process with the Secretary of State's office in 2005, it still has not filed all the required documents and is considered to be noncompliant.

"I know that's a topic of controversy," acknowledged Brown, who said her attorney is working on remedying the problem.

As Brown tells it, AWAKE never completed the paperwork because it was caught off guard by its own success. "When I first started doing this, we were all volunteers—there was no money," she said. "We had no idea the work we were going to do was going to get us funding so quickly. People started throwing money at us." Then-Mayor Charlie Ryan first gave the group $16,000 in city money; shortly after, AWAKE got its first earmark in the state budget, for $100,000.

"Local funding sources said, 'Hey, come apply with us; we like what you're doing. We see what you're doing without money; we'd like to put some resources behind you,'" Brown said.

Because AWAKE lacks 501c3 status, its grants do not go directly to the group, but to an established agency that acts as its fiscal sponsor. In return for a 10 percent administrative fee, the sponsoring agency oversees the money, with AWAKE acting as a subcontractor. "That's why we're never in trouble with any of our funders—we get site visits, we get audited," Brown said.

The arrangement suits her fine, she added: "We didn't want to [deal with] accounts payable and receivables—we just wanted to work. & Instead of spending a bunch of money on administrative overhead, CFO titles, we spend our money on direct program services."

AWAKE has worked with several agencies over the course of its life, including American International College and the Spanish American Union. This year, its state funding is overseen by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in the North End. Brown credits 10th Hampden state rep Cheryl Coakley-Rivera with helping AWAKE secure its recent state earmarks.

 

In 2004, AWAKE had applied for a state grant with Northern Educational Services to do anti-gang work in the city. In the process, a major rift developed between AWAKE and NES—and between Brown and the Swan family.

"So many rumors spread. We never get to tell our side," Brown said of the conflict, which she said resulted in a "huge falling out" with the Swans.

The details of the conflict vary depending on who's recounting it. Brown says AWAKE was first approached by an NES staffer, who suggested the two groups partner on an application for a $300,000 grant from the Executive Office of Public Safety. Brown said she had some concerns about working with NES—her former place of employment—but agreed, counting on an eventual contract to spell out the two groups' responsibilities and roles. The grant was awarded, in large part, Brown said, because of AWAKE's relationships with Charlie Ryan and then-Police Chief Paula Meara, both of whom advocated in Boston for the application.

Under the original agreement, Brown said, AWAKE was to receive $133,000 of the money to do street outreach and case management. But when the state award was less than expected, NES cut AWAKE's portion to $100,000. "I said, 'I don't really think that's fair, but at this point, I want to go ahead. We'll take the $100,000 and do our jobs,'" Brown said.

AWAKE also balked at NES' requirement that the group sign a no-compete clause, which she said would have prevented the agency from seeking funding after the EOPS grant ended. Then, when NES cut AWAKE's portion again, and refused to show her the full grant, Brown said, she threatened to withdraw from the grant. Talbert Swan—who by this point had joined NES as its assistant executive director—attempted to mediate a resolution, as did Ryan, who was anxious to see the city, then in the midst of a wave of violence, get the funding.

But, Brown said, the relationship continued to deteriorate, and AWAKE walked away from the grant rather than take less money than they'd need to do the work. "We were misled from the beginning," Brown said. "I'm not going to make my agency look bad. I'm not going to take this money and not be able to meet our goals and objectives."

Brown wrote a letter of grievance to EOPS and officially withdrew from the grant. In the end, NES received the money and subcontracted with another agency to do the outreach work.

"The falling out [with the Swans] is because I actually fought and made them look bad and told what happened—that's what it's all about," Brown said.

Talbert Swan disputes Brown's version of the events, including the figures each of the two agencies would have received. NES, he said, was the lead agency on the grant, and AWAKE was going to be a subcontractor, not a partner—in part, Swan said, because AWAKE does not have 501c3 status. And, he added, a no-compete clause such as NES wanted AWAKE to sign is standard in these kinds of arrangements. But that apparently was enough to get AWAKE "ranting and raving," he said, to the point that negotiations to reach a workable agreement were not possible.

Swan also dismissed Brown's suggestion that it was AWAKE's participation that won the grant. "She's entitled to that opinion," he said, "but I think perhaps she's believing her own press." NES, he said, has been around for 45 years and has well-established relationships with local law enforcement; in fact, Swan pointed out, his agency has gone on to receive the grant again in subsequent years without AWAKE's involvement.

Swan agreed with Brown's assertion that Ryan was a strong advocate for AWAKE, although he suggests that had less to do with AWAKE than with his own cooler relationship with the mayor. "Springfield is an extremely political city," Swan said. "It's no secret that I was an active supporter of Linda Melconian [Ryan's opponent in 2003], that I was vocally critical of Mayor Ryan's campaign."

Brown, he noted, was also a Melconian supporter. "But she played both sides. & Chelan quickly tried to make amends [with Ryan] once the campaign was over," he said. " Me, I have a different set of values. When I feel passionate about issues that I stand on and people that I support, I'm loyal. I don't switch sides to go along with the political whims."

Talbert Swan's comments get to the tension that underlies the contest between his uncle and Brown—the sense that, by taking on a man (and, by extension, an entire family) that's been so supportive of her over the years, Brown is committing the ultimate political sin: disloyalty. Opinions may differ on the job Ben Swan has done as a legislator, but it's hard to dispute his role, over several decades, as one of the city's top African-American leaders and civil rights activists. To some, Brown's aggressive campaign against him smacks of disrespect.

"The problem I see in certain individuals in Chelan's generation is this desire to replace current leadership, but to do it in a way that's not respectful of those who have basically blazed the trail," Talbert Swan said.

Swan listed the number of ways his family has supported Brown over the years, from giving her jobs to backing her mayoral campaign. The Swans, he said, "have done nothing through the years but support Chelan Brown. It's not just that she's running against the rep—it's all the negativity coming out of her campaign, all the nasty rumors and innuendo."

 

Next fall, the Springfield City Council will finally include councilors elected by ward, as well as at-large members. But Brown—despite being one of the plaintiffs in the original ward representation lawsuit—said she opted to run for state rep rather than ward councilor because of the crucial role the state job plays in the 11th Hampden district, a largely poor neighborhood where much of the financial investment comes in the form of government funding for social service agencies.

"The economic development and enhancement of that district plays a crucial role in why we chose that seat, because the state seat is a major way to get that going," Brown explained. "That seat sets the tone for everything else in that district. People look at that seat to collaborate, to bring people together, to work on ideas for that district—not to mention the amount of money that seat brings back to the district in terms of programs, agencies."

Economic development, Brown said, is her top priority. "Everything else springs from that," she said. "The gang violence that's going on, the youth violence that's going on in the city, poverty, crime, lack of hope—when people are starving and they can't feed their families, people become desperate."

Brown also said she was asked to run for the seat by residents frustrated with Swan's performance: "People have been asking for leadership from that district and from whomever's in that seat, to be visible and accessible. [They] just really hope that someone could come in and take that seat and bring some life back to the district."

Michaelann Bewsee, a long-time community organizer and a founder of Arise for Social Justice, worked on Brown's 1995 mayoral campaign, and says she refused to shop at the Eastfield Mall for years after Brown's arrest there. The two women were also both plaintiffs in the ward representation lawsuit, although over time Brown was not as involved in the case as Bewsee.

Bewsee remembers meeting Brown as a young mayoral candidate and being impressed by her as a potential future leader. But in this month's primary, Bewsee will be supporting Swan. "I have no problem with her challenging Ben. That's what the democratic process is all about," Bewsee said. "But to portray Ben as someone who hasn't done anything for the community—people who say that don't understand the job of the state representative." Swan has a long record of bringing needed aid to the district and the city as a whole, and Springfield would be hurt if it lost his years of experience, Bewsee said.

"And he's one of the—if not the—most progressive legislators we have in the Statehouse," she added. "We are so lucky to have him, and as long as he's willing to run—I'm not saying other folks shouldn't challenge him—but I'll support him as long as he'll run."

 

In Springfield politics generally, and among its legislative delegation specifically, incumbency is a powerful force. Once a candidate wins a seat, it takes the political equivalent of a crowbar (in the case of former state Rep. Chris Asselin, for instance, a public corruption indictment) to get him or her out. Not surprisingly, many legislative hopefuls bide their time, opting to wait for an open seat rather than taking on an incumbent; when a seat does open, it invariably sets off a mad tumbling of dominoes, as impatient aspirants jockey to fill long-awaited vacancies.

Swan has held off, with relative ease, numerous challengers in his 14 years in office, among them city councilor Bud Williams and former Councilor Mo Jones. So the odds are long for Brown, who lacks the political connections of someone who's already been elected to office in the city. While Brown might be well known within the district, the nature of her work puts her in contact with groups—poor people, young people, some mixed up in illegal activity—who rarely shape election outcomes.

Swan, by contrast, has typically found support among the 11th Hampden's politically engaged—for example, in the small but influential pocket of the district that crosses into the middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Also working in his favor are his record of bringing money to a district that's especially dependent on state aid, and the relationships he's built in the city and in Boston.

But Brown says she's facing an additional challenge: the undue influence she contends Swan and his extended family wield over politics, programs and public money in the district. "That's part of the reason why I'm running. For too long, we've had a family that has controlled resources and dollars, and that has not been fair," she said.

By way of example, she points to Swan's advocacy for state funds for NES (which employs both his nephew, Talbert, and Norma Baker, Fred Swan's sister-in-law) and for the Black Men of Greater Springfield, of which Ben Swan himself is a member, as conflicts of interest. (It's worth noting that Coakley-Rivera, AWAKE's benefactor, recently landed in hot water for pushing for funds for an agency headed by her brother-in-law. It's also worth considering whether Brown, should she win the state rep seat, would not still advocate for state money for AWAKE.)

"That kind of stuff has to stop," Brown said. "Because what's happening is, there are good agencies, good, small programs that are working in the community, that are very effective at what they do, that can't get the resources that they need because there's so many politics going on with the larger sort of nonprofits, and the ones run by [Swan's] political family and friends, so they're never let in on any of these resources."

Brown contends that Swan, or his family or supporters, have been using their influence to damage both her agency and her campaign. During last summer's state budget process, Gov. Deval Patrick vetoed a line item that included AWAKE's $250,000 earmark. In an interview in July, while she was waiting to see if the Legislature would override that veto, Brown said she'd been told "members of [Swan's] camp, maybe not specifically him, had been calling the legislators, asking them not to override that line item, just because AWAKE is in that line item."

Similarly, she said, she suspects her opponent's camp of tipping off the media about Desi Jackson's sex offender status, noting that the news broke shortly before she announced her plans to run for the seat. "It's politics. I definitely think it was, if not Rep. Swan, I think it was members of his family or camp or people that are supporting him that made the calls," she said. "Because what other reason would it come out right before I decide to announce my candidacy, and right around the time there was a falling out between their family's organization and mine? Nobody else has problems with AWAKE like that. We get praise all over the city. &

"There's one unit in the city that doesn't like us and has a lot of political influence," Brown added. "I think that's the source of everything."

AWAKE has high-profile supporters, including Coakley-Rivera and Ryan. Ryan's successor in the mayor's office, Dom Sarno, has on his staff Darryl Moss, formerly AWAKE's outreach coordinator, while his chief of staff, Denise Jordan, served on AWAKE's board.

 

Perhaps the hardest controversy for Brown to shake during this campaign has been the alleged tampering with her website.

The site hadn't been up for a day before posts began appearing on MassLive.com's Springfield forum pointing out that large chunks of it matched, verbatim, campaign websites from races in other parts of the country. A section on job retention apparently was taken from a state rep candidate in Michigan; another on the environment matched, word for word, the language on a website for a candidate in Fairfield, Conn.

Brown quickly took down the site, replacing it with a message announcing that it had "been pulled due to unauthorized tampering." Her campaign also held a press conference on the steps of City Hall, where Brown said someone had hacked into the site and posted the plagiarized information to damage her credibility. (While the message on Brown's website had said, "We will be back online soon!", at deadline, less than two weeks before the primary, no new information had been added.)

In an interview with the Advocate, Brown stopped short of accusing the Swans of being behind the alleged tampering. Anonymous posters on MassLive.com, however, have made that assertion—prompting Talbert Swan to publicly call on Brown to ask for an investigation by law enforcement officials to determine what exactly happened. Brown has declined to do so, to the great skepticism of some observers (especially local bloggers and forum participants who helped uncover the copied material in the first place).

"When you claim someone has committed a federal crime by hacking into your website and then you refuse to file charges & it speaks to the credibility to your campaign," said Talbert Swan. "All of them lost credibility in my eyes when they went down to City Hall to blame somebody else. & I can't even think of the words to describe how slimy she is."

But, Brown responds, her decision not to pursue an investigation "is perfectly within my charter. & I've always been a person who likes to remain above the fray."

For one thing, Brown said, the Springfield police have more important things to do with their time than investigate a tampered website. And, she added, "I would hate for it to come out that it was a member of a certain camp. It makes the whole entire community look bad. And I believe in giving people second chances. & I would rather save the person the embarrassment of it coming out, and probably prosecution, over a stupid political mistake."

Michaelann Bewsee has also called on Brown to settle the matter by seeking an investigation. "I thought it was very disappointing that she did not actively pursue this, get to the bottom of this situation and then make it public," Bewsee said. "My guess—and it's only a guess—is that someone on her campaign got carried away and came up with this website, and whether that person is still with her campaign or not I don't know, but obviously it was a mistake."

Bewsee objects to the implications and anonymous accusations that the Swans had something to do with the alleged tampering: "I felt [Brown] was directly pointing at the Swan family, and if that's true, let's hear about it. Because if that were true, depending on who did it, that might change my mind [about whom to support]. &

"Innuendos are much more difficult to combat than direct accusations," Bewsee added. "That's been my big disappointment with this campaign—how she handled that issue. Talk about actions that breed cynicism."

 

Ben Swan notes the irony of Brown's criticisms of him and his family given the ways the Swans have supported her over the years, from providing office space for her mayoral campaign to his brother Fred's hiring her as coordinator of a teen health program at Southwest Community Health Center—a program for which Ben Swan obtained state funds.

Swan described Brown's accusations against him and his family as "hurtful."

"You don't mind people running against you," Swan said. "You don't expect people who you influence early to follow you, or be locked in to your views. You don't mind difference of opinions, you don't mind people espousing their ambitions. But when [they're] a little bit malicious, that's unnecessary. And when [they're] spouting false information, that's hurtful to the community as a whole, not just toward me."

Swan dismissed the notion that his camp was involved with tampering with Brown's website as "so ridiculously bogus." And he chuckled at the charge that he and his family exert undue control over the district. "I've been accused at times of not providing strong leadership because I'm not controlling everything," Swan said. "I use my office not to try to control, but to support."

That includes, he said, supporting AWAKE's work. "I could have stopped the AWAKE funding, if I'd wanted to be malicious," he said. "I'm hoping they use it rightfully, and I will find out how it's used," he added, noting that he serves as vice chair of the House's post-audit committee.

The incumbent ticked off a long list of funds he brought to the district and the city this legislative session, including funds for a new African-American history museum, a bond bill for a deck garage in Mason Square, money to renovate the long-vacant firehouse and funds for parks and river cleanup projects. Swan has also gotten money for agencies like the Girls' Club and the Dunbar Community Center—organizations "that are seriously working with youth development, not somebody that takes advantage of some tragedy and holds a press conference," he said pointedly.

Swan's social activism, on the national and city level, reaches back 50 years. In the 1960s, as a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality, he organized protests against police brutality; later he served as president of the Springfield NAACP. "I've worked with everybody," he said. "If they've been involved in civil rights, I've had a relationship with them."

And over his career, he says, he learned the importance of maintaining relationships, even with people he doesn't completely agree with. To be an effective leader, you need to work collaboratively and get past differences to find common goals. That, he said, is a lesson that's been lost on Brown. "You don't burn bridges all over the place," Swan said. "You don't have to tear down to build yourself up."

Brown, in turn, accuses Swan of directing voters' attention to controversies and scandals at the expense of real issues, like gang violence, seniors' needs, support for veterans. "I'm asking people to not be distracted," she said.

mturner@valleyadvocate.com

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