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Two candidates, two visions for District 7

Yawu Miller | 3/8/2011, 6:36 p.m.

The candidates running in next week’s District 7 special election have staked out distinct positions: inside player with connections downtown, or independent voice, fighting to put the community’s needs first.

At least that’s the picture that’s emerging in debates and conversations among supporters of candidates Tito Jackson and Cornell Mills.

Jackson, a former economic development coordinator for the state and political director for Gov. Deval Patrick, stresses his connections to state and local officials, pledging to bring jobs to the district.

Mills, a real estate broker and son of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, stresses his experience working with local residents as a restaurateur and mentor to at-risk youths.

Both stress the importance of bringing jobs to District 7, which includes all of Roxbury and precincts in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, the South End and Fenway neighborhoods.

But while Jackson points to Mayor Thomas Menino’s announcement of the redevelopment of Dudley Square’s Ferdinand Building as a positive step toward bringing jobs to the district, Mills questions who the jobs will be for.

“It’s a great start,” he said during an interview with WBUR reporter Anthony Brooks last week. “But I think the bigger question is who’s doing the construction? Who’s working on those jobs? Are they residents? Are they women? Are they people of color? Are they the people who need those jobs the most?”

Throughout the campaign, Mills has shown a willingness to take Jackson on in debates, presenting a vision of the district that is often at odds with Jackson’s.

But while political observers say Mills has generally done better in debates, Jackson has run a superior campaign, with more volunteers, more voter contact and much more resources.

In last month’s preliminary balloting, Jackson dominated a crowded field with an impressive 67 percent of the vote, while Mills garnered slightly more than 9 percent of the votes.

While Mills has been going door-to-door with a team of volunteers, Jackson has tapped unions, members of Patrick’s political organization, as well as his own network of friends to contact likely voters multiple times before the preliminary.

The asymmetrical nature of the campaign has many doubting that Mills will make up the 58 percentage points by which he trailed Jackson.

But many political activists interviewed by the Banner said voters may still struggle in weighing the differences between the candidates.

“I think in some ways it’s going to be a difficult choice for people,” said former WCVB-TV reporter and political activist Sarah Ann Shaw. “They bring different styles.”

Jackson, the son of the late Roxbury activist Herb Kwaku Jackson, ran a spirited campaign for an at-large seat on the City Council in the 2009 election, earning a fifth place finish in the race. On the campaign trail, he cites his work with his cousin Ron Bell’s voter registration organization Dunk the Vote.

“We helped to engage over 50,000 people,” he says of his work with the Mission Hill-based organization.

Mills often cites his 16-year history working on campaigns in the black community, including those of his mother. He also worked as an investigator in the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley.

Jackson’s relationships with Democratic Party insiders may have given him an edge in the race. An analysis by Mills supporter Jamarhl Crawford, posted on his Blackstonian news website showed that more than 80 percent of the $57,000 Jackson had raised by the Feb. 15 preliminary came from outside of District 7. Democratic lobbyists, developers and trade unions contributed thousands to Jackson.

Mills, by contrast, has raised $4,600.

Jackson has also racked up the lion’s share of endorsements, including the Banner, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.

While observers say Mills has performed well in debates, his political organization, cobbled together in the last two months, has not matched the firepower of Jackson’s machine, which has flooded the district with phone calls and flyers in the weeks leading up the March 15 election.

The winner of next week’s election will serve the remainder of the term vacated by former City Councilor Chuck Turner and will likely face a re-election campaign in November.