Situational Ethics

As Jew Don Boney has moved upward in public life, have his values changed to meet his needs rather than those of his constituents?

Amilcar Shabazz, a historian and professor of American studies at the University of Alabama, remembers attending the NBPA convention as an activist and student at the University of Texas, where Boney was educated and hosted the school's first black talk-radio show.

"I remember being quite impressed," recalls Shabazz, a native of Texas who lived in Houston from 1991 until last year. "We were a community organization in Austin at the time, and Brother Jew Don was telling us what the black agenda was, what it meant and how we could go about building an assembly in Austin."

The son of educators-- his father, J. Don Boney, was the first black chancellor at the University of Houston-Downtown; his mother was a high school teacher -- Boney came naturally to social awareness. Invariably, he is linked with the Free Clarence Brantley movement, a three-year effort that saved an innocent man from being executed.

For the spiritual Boney, saving Brantley is understandably his most cherished accomplishment. But he is just as proud of his work with groups few people have heard of: The Peace Farm, the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition, the Red River Peace Network, the War Resistance League and Houston Non-Violent Action, to name a few.

"You gotta remember, I was deeply involved in the negotiations that resulted in the only out-of-court settlement for desegregation of the school district," adds Boney, who produced a 350-page study for the Houston Urban League that outlined the city's shortage of educational opportunities for minorities. "I've organized and sustained volunteer organizations over decades that were involved in social change.... I mean it goes on and on. I've forgotten some of the stuff that I've been involved in."

Influenced in equal parts by the '60s counterculture and the black-nationalist movement, Boney has always exuded a barely contained rage against the machinations of power. But those who know him say his intense physical presence -- that subtle aura of impending violence that scares the bejesus out of middle-class white folk -- was merely a tool.

"Everything about Jew Don was very calculated," says Rick Lowe, director of Project Rowhouses, a Third Ward art and culture center from which Boney announced his 1995 Council candidacy. "When he would get up and do his strong black-nationalist rhetoric, it wasn't because he couldn't tone it down or redirect it in some other way. He was dealing with a constituency that demanded that."

Says Lowe, who counts Boney among his role models for community activists, "I think he's in a different arena now. His constituency is broader than it was on the grassroots level, so automatically there's a certain amount of tradeoff and compromise. I think that people who know Jew Don and his work understand that he's always been extremely capable, and I think he's now in a position where he's forced to have to show it."

But even supporters find themselves scratching their heads over some of Boney's positions. Lowe, for one, is willing to give Boney the benefit of the doubt on most issues, such as the increased fees at the Hermann Park golf course. But, two years ago, Lowe was troubled by Boney's failure to come to the aid of small, community-based arts groups such as Project Rowhouses, when a dispute over how city grants were doled out threatened their funding.

"I just thought Jew Don would side with us small guys," Lowe recalls. "It turned out to be that he was not necessarily against us, but trying to approach it from a broader perspective that was not divisive for himself. I have mixed feelings about that. If Jew Don was not in office during that time period, he could have articulated the position that was needed for the small to mid-sized groups better than anyone involved at that time. But since he was on Council, he articulated something that was a compromise. It was a show of his diplomatic skills, but I also felt he was compromising us, and he was."

However, confront Boney with even that measured bit of criticism, and he unleashes a crisp assessment of the constituent services he's provided District D. Among the accomplishments he points to are tax-increment financing zones in the midtown and South Post Oak areas and along the Almeda-Old Spanish Trail corridor; 450 affordable-housing units near Windsor Village; the Renaissance Shopping Center, which was built with the help of federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

Boney flatly disputes the notion, held by many, that he cut a bad deal for the golfers who play the course at Hermann Park. Moreover, he says, he negotiated with BSL to freeze the greens fees for juniors and seniors, who, he says, are least able to afford an increase. Sure, the fees will unavoidably rise for everyone else, he acknowledges, but they will still be below the city average.

"There was an opportunity to bring the Hermann golf course up to first-class standards, comparable to Memorial, which is considered the Cadillac, the finest municipal golf course, without using city money," says Boney, whose command of political rhetoric can be persuasive. "I tend to take the position that every good thing, I want in District D. I want my constituents to have the very best, comparable to anything else in the city."

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