How a judge's decision years ago gave the Franklin County commissioner a second chance

Editor’s note: Long before he was pepper-sprayed in a Downtown protest, Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce has had a unique perspective on racial inequities, law enforcement and poverty. That comes from his tough upbringing in Columbus, as well as the moment when he was 15 years old when his life could have taken a different turn, as documented in this 2009 Columbus Monthly profile published nine months after he was appointed state treasurer.

Kevin Boyce drives his Lincoln SUV north on I-71 from Downtown through a steady rain. He's headed to the old neighborhood. Or, one of the old neighborhoods—he attended at least 10 schools in Columbus before graduation. These days, he's been on the road a lot, trying to get around the state since becoming the state treasurer in early January. The election is only a little more than a year away, after all. On Saturday, he was in Pike County. Tonight, it's Gallia County. That's 30 counties in the past 45 days, chatting with the locals who know little about a 37-year-old former Columbus City Council member.  

But right now, he's steering off the highway onto Hudson Street and heading east, making a series of turns onto Medina, Blake, Dresden, Duxberry and finally Maynard. There it is, on the 1400 block—a run-down two-story where he used to live with his mom and sometimes his sister, sometimes his brother and seemingly always somebody else who had enough cash to help pay the rent by taking a room. He points to a place across the street where one buddy lived—a great athlete who ended up in prison. A little while later he's talking about a close friend who was murdered. Boyce has more than a few of these kinds of tales: same theme, different names. The hardest one to tell is about his father. 

That story will come later, though. Now he's driving by the Linden Recreation Center—the shelter from the storm when he was a kid. He felt safe there. People cared. Somebody from the center would knock on his door at home to check in if he hadn't shown up for a few days. Conversation turns to the city's closing of several rec facilities to cut the budget deficit. “It really sucks," he says without casting blame. “If I didn't have a rec center, I'm not  sure what would have happened." 

He's driving to the east side, near Mount Vernon Avenue. It's a path traveled many times to see his grandmother. Another oasis. He stops in front of a small, well-kept home where his grandma, Melba Crews, still lives. "The family refuge," he says. “This is where you went when things aren't going well. Grandma always took you in. Those doors never shut." 

Then he heads back Downtown toward the underground garage for the Rhodes Tower—and the reserved parking space behind the steel curtain of a doorway that lifts only with an access card. He pulls into space No. 83, exits the vehicle and returns to the ninth floor to resume his duties as the chief investment officer for the state of Ohio.

***

Kevin Boyce has a feel-good story: poor, inner-city kid who avoids following the tragic path of so many wasted lives. You can credit hard work, good sense, a few opportunities and a lot of helping hands.

The tale of Boyce's overcoming the odds to become a rising political star also has a defining moment—one that could have changed the trajectory of his life. He was just 15 years old when he found himself standing before a judge. 

The story begins on Oct. 27, 1986. According to Boyce, he and a friend, Ray, were riding the bus home from Brookhaven High School. Another student, Troy, started to pick on Ray; Boyce stood up for his buddy. The mouthing off continued when all three left the bus in their Linden neighborhood. Then, Troy abruptly ran off. The other students were all impressed. Kevin sure showed him. 

But not for long. Troy came back. With his gangster brother and a bunch of his friends. They were carrying bats and clubs. 

Troy was ready for a fight. Boyce was always small for his age, so he had to learn to take care of himself. His motto: It's better to give than to receive, so to speak. So he struck first, punching the kid right in the face. 

All hell broke loose on Medina Avenue. Boyce remembers ending up on the bottom of a pile, getting kicked and punched. Just then, by coincidence, his older brother and some other guys drove by. They got out of the car, ready for action. More hell broke loose. Knives were involved. 

And someone was carrying a machete with an 18-inch blade. 

An off-duty cop, Gary McCants, then Mayor Buck Rinehart's bodyguard, happened to drive past, too. McCants stopped, pulled his gun and yelled to a bystander to call the police, according to press reports. Some ran. Boyce stayed. Asked if he were involved, Boyce recalls saying, “Yes, sir." 

Boyce was cuffed and hauled off to a juvenile detention center. What the hell just happened, he says he thought to himself. Things were looking up: good grades, doing well in sports, college on the horizon. His mom arrived. Not Kevin, the one we thought would make it. He'd been strip searched and was now wearing a brown jumpsuit. Just like a real criminal. She was crying, making him cry, but he knew he had to regain his composure or he'd be like prey among the prisoners.  

The brawl made the news. At that time, the city, led by Rinehart, was cracking down on teen fights. In fact, when Boyce and a 16-year-old boy were found guilty of delinquency counts of aggravated rioting, they were, according to the Dispatch, “The first teens ... to be convicted under a 1974 law [fashioned to combat college campus protesters) that police want to use to curb youth violence." 

Boyce's immediate future looked bleak: getting locked up as a ward of the Department of Youth Services. But then teachers, coaches and others rallied around him. His grandmother wrote an impassioned letter to Rinehart, which drew a response from then-police chief Dwight Joseph. (Boyce still has copies of both.) 

In early 1987, he stood before then Franklin County Judge Charles Petree. As Boyce remembers, all the others charged in the fight went to prison or a juvy center.

Today, the retired Petree says he has no recollection of the matter. Just another decision among thousands over his long judicial career. But the choice he made had a profound impact on the teenager standing before him. Boyce remembers hearing the judge talk about his clean record and the support from his school. Instead of heading into custody, he says he was released with a stern warning. His plan to one day break away from the poverty, crime, temptations and everything else that swallowed up so many kids from the neighborhood was still intact. 

Kevin Boyce caught a break. 

*** 

On Jan. 7, Boyce became the 47th treasurer of Ohio and the first African-American Democrat to hold statewide office. A handful of Boyce's relatives attended his swearing in, including his mother and grandmother. For Melba Crews, it was the first time she had visited the Statehouse, and she met a lot of important people who said nice things about her grandson. “I was puffed up," she says with a laugh. 

Boyce got the chance thanks to Marc Dann, who resigned in disgrace as Ohio attorney general in 2008 after scandal engulfed the office. When Treasurer Richard Cordray filled the seat by winning an election later that year, Gov. Ted Strickland appointed Boyce to fill the vacancy.

It wasn't the first time Boyce had been considered for higher office. In 2006, he was approached by two different Democratic groups: one wanting him to run for state auditor and the other to challenge incumbent Pat Tiberi for a U.S. House seat. He declined both offers, he says.

Boyce doesn't move to action quickly; he's the kind of guy who looks both directions before crossing a one-way street. “He weighs everything, even buying a pair of socks: thread count, brand name, price," says longtime friend Atiba Jones, executive director of Franklin County Common Pleas Court. Before accepting the treasurer's job, he talked to friends, his wife, his two young sons, his mother, his grandmother, other politicos, business people, community folks. He got mixed messages. Seize the moment vs. stand pat because of the state's terrible economic condition. 

Meanwhile, Columbus power attorney Larry James says he told him: "The option was not which political path to take, but whether to vote with your pocketbook and stay in the private sector." According to Boyce, taking the job meant a pay cut of about $70,000 a year. He was making at least $180,000 as executive director of KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit educational advocacy group, and as a member of Columbus City Council. The treasurer's position pays $109,000. 

He also considered other political opportunities. At the time, the hot rumor was that Mayor Mike Coleman might head to Washington, D.C., to join either a law firm or President Obama's administration. And it's no secret that Boyce has considered running for mayor one day. Boyce says he set up a meeting with Coleman while he was deciding about the treasurer's position. “I asked him, 'What are you going to do?' He told me: 'I have no interest in going to D.C’ " Boyce believed him, figuring Coleman would rather try to lead a big city out of a bad spot than be a second- or third-tier guy in the nation's capital.

And Boyce knew that flavors of the month change. How many times do you say no before people stop asking? So he considered the risks—including losing the election in 2010–and accepted the post. 

But before taking the job, he says his kids—Kevin (KJ), 10, and Kristopher, 6– were a big factor. In two separate interviews last fall, before he was offered the state position, he spoke at length about juggling family and career. Never enough time to spend with his sons. Never enough time to support his wife, Crystal, who runs her own dance studio. Never enough time to meet the demands from the community. “I feel like I'm accomplishing so little," he said, holding his thumb and forefinger just barely apart. 

On an upcoming Saturday, for example, he had three commitments at the same time: a black-tie affair for KnowledgeWorks, a ceremony in which he was winning an award and a dance recital at his wife's studio. He backed out of the black-tie deal ("probably pissing off my boss") and planned to leave the ceremony early (“people probably think I'm being a snob"), but still would be late for the recital. 

He could work less, he acknowledged, but that would send a message to his sons that public service isn't important. He covered his face with his right hand, his eyes closed. "Don't know how much I struggle," he said. 

Yes, dealing with multiple responsibilities is tough. But that's a familiar tale among all parents trying to handle the pressures of modern life. And, in some ways, his laments sound like the same old blah-blah-blah that so many politicians recite before putting career ahead of family. (Boyce, after all, doesn't lack for ambition.) 

Yet, it's hard not to consider his words in the context of his background. 

As kids, Boyce, his sister and brother were frequently on the move—and many times not together—either living with their mother or other family members. (Boyce discovered as an adult that he also has two half-sisters on his father's side of the family.) He ticks off the names of those 10 schools he attended, finishing with Brookhaven and East high schools. He remembers living for roughly a year without electricity. To this day, he's scared of mice and rats; as a child, he could hear the rodents scratching inside the walls and scurrying across the floor as he tried to fall asleep. Drugs were pervasive, with hypodermic needles scattered like pebbles in the street. Gunshots were part of the soundtrack of life. A friend's uncle was shot dead not too far from Boyce's front door.

Grandma's house gave him a respite. He wanted to be different, he told her. He wanted out of this life. "He said he wanted to be a businessman," Crews says. 

“People get hard growing up in the inner city," says Jones, who lived near Crews' home. "You see bad things happen to people and it's just, that's the way it is. Kevin felt compassion. His biggest role model was his grandmother. People respected her. He also listened to teachers and coaches. He is one of those people who learns from bad things around him. It bothered him what he saw around him. It shouldn't be like this." 

Boyce remembers his mom, a single parent, working two jobs, mostly at seedy bars and restaurants. He describes Deborah Boyce as a survivor—always trying to put food on the table. "She's short, but feisty," he says. "She'll knock your teeth out." She found stable employment, at the U.S. Postal Service, when Boyce was in high school and still works there, recently buying her first home. 

Then there was his father. 

Henry Boyce, a Marine in the Vietnam War, lived in Atlanta and worked as a security guard after he and Kevin's mom separated. One day, when Kevin was 7 years old, his dad came to visit. He wore a suit. That made a big impression on little Kevin. A suit said you had class—not like the other men on the street in their bell bottoms and hats tilted to the side. He thought maybe his dad and mom might try to get back together. 

A couple of days later, a teary-eyed aunt came to the house and talked to his mother in the kitchen. He and his sister were playing with oranges, of all things, in the living room when he saw his mom fall to the floor, crying. She gathered herself and took the two kids on her lap and broke the news. His dad, the sharp man in the suit, was dead—killed in Atlanta in his car, the victim in a domestic dispute. 

Boyce got angry, began to screw up in school. “It was painful, not understanding what's going on. Life was pretty negative," he says. “No days with any meaning." Crystal Boyce says she has seen her husband cry three times: "At the births of our sons and the first time he told me about his father." 

Today, Boyce—who rarely saw a dad in any of the neighborhoods in which he grew up—is the parent of two sons. He fully knows the devastating statistics about African-American men and cites a number of them, including one about 70 percent of homicides in Columbus involving a black male as either the victim or suspect. 

His wife says the only thing they clash about is how to discipline the boys they're raising in their northeast-side home near Sunbury Road. He is strict and wants to be stricter. She is more liberal, let kids be kids. 

When his oldest son turned 5, he began to teach him what he calls the Rules of Manhood. He's given KJ a new one for each successive year. Every night, they recite the now-five rules (the last of which he attributes to something he once read): 

People respect you, if you respect yourself.

Finish what you start. 

Always respect women, especially your mother. 

Chivalry is not dead. 

Excuses are monuments to nothing. Those who use them are incompetent and seldom masters of anything 

His sons, of course, are in a better place than he was as a kid. But he also realizes how one incident, like that fight on Medina Avenue when he was a teenager, could change the course of their lives. “I know what it takes," he says. “It's not enough to be a father who's around. I take shaping a young mind seriously. When I was growing up, there were a lot of people who created opportunities for me. My responsibility as a father is to create those opportunities ... to prepare my sons to take advantage when they come."

***

After the fight, Boyce's mother sent him to live with his grandmother so he could get away from Brookhaven. He graduated from East High School in 1990 and then, with a track scholarship, headed to Pittsburgh to attend Robert Morris University. It didn't go well, particularly when he says he found racial slurs written on the door of his dorm room. He wanted to come home, but his mother insisted he stay away—to avoid trouble finding him in the neighborhood. 

He stuck around for two years before transferring to the University of Toledo, where he also ran track (all-conference one year in the 400-yard dash) and made an important connection: Jack Ford, who was teaching political science. Boyce would stay after class to pepper him with questions about public policy and politics. "I felt he was looking for some male direction," Ford says, and he wonders aloud if Boyce, because of growing up without a father, suffered from "classic abandonment issues."  

Boyce earned a degree in political science in 1995, took a job with the city of  Toledo—as a youth-program coordinator and later moved to Columbus to join Ford, who was then the minority leader in the Ohio House of Representatives. Ford gave the 23-year-old a lot of responsibility as his legislative aide. "He ran my office, was my gatekeeper, had to know the issues," he says. Ford also taught him life lessons, both big and small. Excuses are not acceptable. Keep your shoes shined. Wear a tie, even on Fridays. (He showed Boyce how to tie a Windsor knot.) "He was raw," Ford says.  

Behind the scenes, Boyce began to make a name for himself as he moved up the ladder, becoming executive director of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, campaign manager for Charleta Tavares's failed bid for Ohio secretary of state in 1998 and then chief of staff of the Democratic caucus in the Ohio House of Representatives. In 2000, Fred Ransier, the highly respected Columbus City Council member, resigned his seat. The post would be filled with another African American male: 28-year-old Kevin Boyce. 

During his nine-year council career, he focused on youth issues and worked his way into the chairmanship of the finance committee. Boyce also stepped into controversy by examining the issue of racial profiling soon after 9/11, sparking a divide with the local chapter of the FOP when he launched the initiative without its input. “It would rather hear about things on the front end than the back end," says James, general counsel for the national FOP, who adds that the fissure was temporary. 

Boyce also was part of a four-member council cabal that forced the resignation of then-council president Matt Habash's chief of staff, Melinda Swan. While Habash, who served on council from 1993 to 2007, calls Boyce's power play “not the right thing," he compliments his tenure. "When he first started he was attentive, had the ability to listen. But fairly early on he wanted to stake out his own position, didn't want to be seen as under anyone's wing," he says. Habash praises Boyce's campaign organization (he won council elections in 2001 and 2005). “The number of people involved, how early he would start campaigning, how often he would be meeting with the volunteers.”

He will need those campaigning (as well as fundraising) skills while running for election in 2010. His opponent is Ohio House Rep. Josh Mandel of the Cleveland area, who, according to the latest filings, raised nearly $1 million compared to more than $500,000 by Boyce. They are both young, lack statewide recognition and have compelling personal stories. (Mandel, 31, is a Marine and a veteran of the Iraq war.) 

Boyce got hit with his first taste of statewide bad press in June with a Dayton Daily News story. It called into question his office spending $38,000 on promotional material and hiring friends and people with political connections. Boyce counters that he has cut the marketing budget by 50 percent and that his hires are qualified for their jobs. While trying not to sound irritated by the story, he sounds, well, irritated. After the piece ran, a friend asked him if he was ready for the grind and heat of state politics. “I don't have a choice," he told him. 

*** 

Back in April, while driving through the old neighborhood, Boyce was asked about the lesson he learned from his involvement in the fight on Medina Avenue. You'd think he'd reply: Stay out of trouble. No, he wouldn't change what he did. He didn't do anything wrong. 

In fact, he said the incident taught him a lesson in politics. Not realpolitik. But the corny stuff. “Public service is about standing up for somebody else who needs help," he said. “Sometimes the outcome puts you in a position you are not prepared for. But standing up for my friend at the time felt like the right thing to do."

This story originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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