Politics as Unusual: Barros serves up lunch—and a strong candidacy

May 24, 2013
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Even if you don’t vote for John Barros to be your next mayor, you should make it a priority to grub the grilled octopus at Restaurante Cesaria, the lovely Cape Verdean joint on Bowdoin Street that he founded with three family members. The dish is beyond spectacular, a delectable medley of fresh catch and bright peppers with a dash of lemon heaven. Don’t just stay for the food, though; take a look around, and at the scene outside. Cesaria stands as a cornerstone of the community, and an oasis in a troubled area. There’s room for improvement—bullets still fly all too frequently on this side of Dorchester. But the corner’s come a long way since Barros set up shop there 12 years ago.

As I write this column, many of the two-dozen prospective mayoral candidates are scrambling to submit their qualifying signatures. It would be great fun to sit with each of the lesser-known contestants—there are certainly a lot of characters among them—but ultimately, that would be a waste of time. Nevertheless, I’m determined to interview all of the qualifiers, of which there will likely be just short of a dozen. (That includes District Attorney Dan Conley, who I’ll be asking out for PBRs at the Silhouette in Allston or some other hipster haven.) In that spirit, I thought to start with Barros, the relative frontrunner who voters are probably least familiar with. Admittedly, my decision to begin with him came after checking out his menu online.

There’s been a lot of talk among community-organizing types about the 39-year-old Barros, plus a great deal of positive news coverage of his early candidacy. It’s no wonder; his pedigree is a textbook American Dream story, with the Roxbury native attending Boston College High School, then graduating from Dartmouth College to make it big in the early Internet boom. All this while maintaining his neighborhood roots; the overachieving Barros was elected to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative board at 17, and nine years later—after his detour on Wall Street—returned home to serve as executive director there. He even has a 1-year-old son and a wife who’s pregnant with their second child, and plays music at his church on Sundays.

What I find most intriguing about Barros, though, is his role at Cesaria. Seeing a desperate need for a safe gathering hub, Barros, along with two brothers and a cousin, opened Cesaria in 2001. In hopes of establishing a family space, he chose not to include a bar (though you can order any drink you want at your table). The idea succeeded; the restaurant has grown into what Barros calls a “pseudo-cultural center,” complete with live music and a popular weekend brunch. Several other storefronts, including a pizzeria and two other Cape Verdean establishments, have opened in its wake, and appear to be alive and thriving.

Barros’s philanthropically flavored business acumen is especially impressive in light of his nonprofit work. He has delivered on development, fighting for and winning low-income housing units, and successfully lobbied the state to fund programs that help ex-criminals become productive members of society. They’re not feats that necessarily win preliminary votes, but they’re important nonetheless. A former School Committee member, Barros can also hold his own on education, and his ideas on transit should attract T riders in Roxbury, Mattapan and other tragically underserved areas.

Picking at his own plate of octopus, Barros looks up and says, “I feel like one of the outsiders looking in.” It’s the kind of line that you’d expect from a consummate insider fraud, like Mitt Romney. Coming from Barros, though, it rings sincerely—even if he’s friendly with a lot of his opponents. He says he knows and likes state Rep. Marty Walsh, who lives nearby, as well as former legislator Charlotte Golar Richie, who has dined at Cesaria several times. Barros also goes way back with Bill Walczak, the cofounder of the Codman Square Health Center. The two served together as Barr Foundation fellows in Zimbabwe, where Barros says they once led locals through a rendition of “Charlie on the MTA.” Walczak played guitar. Barros smacked the bongos. (Someone please get a video of this.)

Barros has lost 15 pounds since announcing his run in late April—a remarkable feat, considering his unchecked access to an endless smorgasbord of Cape Verdean vittles. He might not have yard signs yet—or a campaign office, for that matter—but he’s absolutely a contender. I can see why so many people are taking him seriously. John Barros has a lot more to offer than just some of the finest fish dishes in Dorchester.

Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain. Though John Barros was generous enough to offer lunch on the house, Faraone paid for his own food.