RICHMOND -- The first recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace and Freedom award here is a fiery city councilman known for his combative and polarizing political style, drawing outrage from some local leaders and residents.
Corky Booze was selected for the award by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he'll be recognized at the NAACP Richmond Branch's Freedom Fund & Membership Awards banquet Saturday.
"I am unbelievably honored," Booze said, adding that proceeds from the banquet go to college scholarships for local African-American students.
But the selection of the longtime gadfly and former race car driver has drawn scorn from incredulous observers and Booze's opponents.
"Given his history in Richmond, I cannot support honoring Mr. Booze as a peacemaker," wrote Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles in a statement distributed via email and social media Thursday. "I think that many in Richmond know him to be a bully who makes regular abusive verbal threats, including at Council meetings. He has threatened to have physical harm done to me and to others."
Local NAACP President Willie Robinson said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin sent him a letter expressing her displeasure with the choice. Longtime Councilman Tom Butt shared Beckles' letter on his popular e-forum and was deluged with respondents praising Beckles and castigating Booze.
"In all my years on the council, Corky is clearly the most combative and belligerent figure I've served with," Butt said Friday. "Him getting the award for peacemaker stretches the bounds of credibility. It's like a joke."
But Robinson disagrees. He said nine members of the NAACP Richmond executive committee voted unanimously to support his choice to honor Booze, chiefly for Booze's actions on Sept. 27, when he got into an altercation with a 72-year-old political rival in Point Richmond.
Booze, 68, has said that David Moore, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and a website designer, "cold cocked" him outside a town-hall meeting that night. Moore was arrested by an officer on the scene. Robinson said the NAACP has no reason not to believe Booze.
"(Booze) demonstrated that he believes in the philosophy of nonviolence practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King," said NAACP member Lloyd Madden. "He was attacked and did not retaliate. His actions are commendable."
Booze initially vowed to press charges against Moore, now 73, but has since changed his mind, saying he wants to "take the high road." Skeptics say it's because Moore did nothing wrong, and was instead attacked by Booze.
"In my younger days, I would have beat him down," Booze said. "I am proud of myself for how I have changed."
Booze added that he suspects Moore was part of an RPA "conspiracy" to lure him into a violent reaction in Point Richmond, a community he has often criticized.
Reached Friday, Moore said news of Booze's award was "funny."
"My first reaction was to laugh," Moore said. "I kind of wondered whether (the NAACP) was kidding."
Moore maintains that he and Booze had words and that Booze threw the first punch, hitting him in the face.
"The impact was like a little kid's slap," Moore said. "He's no Muhammad Ali."
Along with the scuffle in Point Richmond, Booze has been involved in several other contentious situations since his election in 2010. Police investigated another assault allegation against Booze in September, but the woman who made the complaint rescinded it soon after.
Also last year, then-Councilman Jeff Ritterman claimed Booze threatened to "punch him in the nose."
Beckles called giving the award to Booze a "mockery" that precluded it from going to others more deserving and vowed to skip the event.
"To honor ... others who have worked peacefully to improve Richmond would truly honor Dr. King's beliefs," Beckles wrote. "To give the award to Mr. Booze as part of a political campaign is a mockery of everything Dr. King stood for."
Booze said he was unmoved by Beckles' criticism.
"My community supports me and knows Corky is working for them," Booze said. "She isn't hurting Corky, she's just hurting the kids who we're raising scholarship money for."