O'Neil Angered by Questions on his Support for Group

By Stephanie Ebbert
Boston Globe, January 28, 1999, p. B3
� Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company

His eyes were wild, his voice raised.

Seated in his wheelchair, in front of his nurse and behind a microphone bedecked with a small American flag, City Councilor at Large Albert L. "Dapper" O'Neil yesterday lashed out at a fellow councilor for questioning his support of a white supremacist group.

Long known for his vitriol, the 28-year veteran of the council managed to still stun some councilors during yesterday's City Council meeting, hollering that he is not a racist and berating a black colleague for asking him whether he supports the white group.

In a heated exchange during a break, the 78-year-old O'Neil threatened Councilor Gareth R. Saunders (Roxbury): "I wish I could get up out of this goddamned chair. I'll show you what you are."

Yet before the weekly council meeting had ended, O'Neil was again in the spotlight - this time for his longterm dedication and service, as the Knights of Columbus recognized him as a fourth-degree Knight. Councilor Brian Honan (Allston-Brighton) read the honor and handed O'Neil a certificate, joking: "No speeches, right?"

The juxtaposition is the tale of O'Neil's tenure. In his 28 years on the council, the sometimes angry, sometimes animated councilor has continually won the longstanding support and admiration of many, coasting to reelection to represent all the city's neighborhoods. Even as he battled illness and moved temporarily into a Stoughton nursing home, O'Neil has harbored plans to run for another term this fall.

But O'Neil's angry speeches are starting to wear thin. As he unleashed criticism yesterday, he attracted the skepticism of his colleagues, who have been trying to heighten the profile and professionalism of their body. One councilor said several members want to meet with O'Neil privately to discuss his behavior.

"Usually there's a measure of vaudeville or showmanship, or at some point the tirades are laced with humor," said one councilor, who asked not be be idenitified. "This was totally out of control. It was a sad day for City Council."

Saunders said he's drafting a letter to Council President James M. Kelly (South Boston) calling for an apology or a contempt citation.

"Eruptions from him or accusations or threats from him have surfaced in the council before and many of us kind of look the other way," Saunders said. "We say, `That's Dapper. He's up in age.' But you have to draw the line sometimes."

O'Neil, who is legally blind and has weathered a host of ailments, including prostate cancer, an intestinal tumor, and pneumonia in recent years, was not available late yesterday to respond to his fellow councilors' comments about his outbursts.

During his tirade yesterday, O'Neil seemed intent on demonstrating his vigor, saying he is moving out of the Stoughton facility in two weeks to return home and will be stronger than ever. But even as he proclaimed that he is "not looking for sympathy from anybody," he spoke of the nerve disorder that left him temporarily paralyzed.

"Don't you tackle me when I was down and out," he said. "And the Globe, get off my back."

Two weeks ago, O'Neil told The Boston Globe he was not a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group whose literature touts endorsements by a number of conservative politicians, including O'Neil. "I'm not a member of it, but they are a good group," he said at the time.

Saunders yesterday said he had recently called O'Neil merely to verify the statements, and became satisfied that O'Neil was not a member.

"I did not criticize the councilor or kick him when he was down," he said during the meeting.

Yesterday's fracas began when O'Neil proposed that a statue be erected for John F. Kennedy near City Hall, an effort he linked to his refusal two weeks ago - the only nay vote - to support a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. O'Neil's proposal also passed.

But several councilors criticized the "tit-for-tat" nature of his effort. Councilor Thomas M. Keane Jr. (Back Bay) noted: "It looked like, if you're going to honor Martin Luther King, you have to do it for John F. Kennedy as well."