NEW YORK — The concentration inside Mendez Boxing is palpable. Everyone in the basement gym is focused on the task at hand: shadowboxing before a corner mirror or sparring in the ring.
Enter Boyd Melson, and ever so subtly, the atmosphere shifts. As the 35-year-old crosses the mat-covered concrete floor, he stops and hugs nearly everyone he sees, bringing a touch of warmth into an otherwise no-nonsense place.
It is this combination of strength and compassion that the retired pugilist and Army Reserves captain wants to bring to Capitol Hill. Running as a Democrat, Melson aims to unseat New York City’s lone Republican congressman, Daniel Donovan, from the 11th Congressional District, which covers Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn.
“This whole ‘Make Something Great Again’? We don’t need an outside agitator to tell us to be great again. We’ve been seduced by fear and we’ve started to lose our American values,” he says, his green eyes turning a shade darker. “We are strong now and Staten Island is the strongest of the boroughs. We’re strong enough to be compassionate. We have all the abilities to do something ourselves.”
For Melson, who serves as a public affairs officer assigned to the 361st Press Camp Headquarters out of Fort Totten in Queens, that “something” is making college more affordable, working to aid those suffering from the opioid crisis that has gripped Staten Island, investing in preventative medicine, and providing care and purpose to veterans.
His bid for Congress is a bold move — the West Point graduate has never held elected office, he must get through a competitive primary, overcome a funding shortfall, and contend with the oft-repeated criticism that he doesn’t live on Staten Island (his current residence is in Bay Ridge). But Melson is all about bold moves and overcoming challenges.
After six surgeries in the span of two years (four shoulder surgeries and two on his nose), Melson struggled for years to quit prescription pain medicine. Because the crisis has hit Staten Island particularly hard, he decided to talk about it in a campaign advertisement.
“There is more and more urgency about the crisis. Everyone on the island has been hit by it one way or another. I don’t worry what people will think, I had to be fearless in talking about it,” he says, the sounds of a nearby boxer pummeling a heavy bag seeming to underscore his point.
According to a recent report by the New York City Health Department, heroin overdose death rates increased by 158 percent from 2010 to 2015. In 2015 alone it was involved in 59% of drug overdose deaths.
Staten Island continues to have the highest number of overdose deaths involving opioid analgesics, although the rate declined by 8%, from 7.6 per 100,000 residents to 7 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the health department.
A family tradition of service
There was never a question that Melson would serve. It’s just something his family does.
Melson’s father, Nolan, is a Louisiana Creole with African-American, French, Spanish and Cherokee roots, and spent 26 years in the US military. His great-grandmother was said to have been one of Louisiana’s first African-American paralegals. According to family lore she started marching for civil rights before there was even a civil rights movement.
His mother, Annette, was born in Israel to Holocaust survivors and served as a nurse in the US Army. During World War II his grandfather jumped off a train bound for a Nazi death camp. The Russian army found him and gave him a choice, said Melson — to fight alongside them or die then and there.
Melson’s sister is an officer in the US Army Judge Advocate Group. She deployed twice, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. His brother, who also served, is now working toward a PhD in public health at New York Medical College.
Melson’s face lights up when he recalls his childhood on Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton Army base, where he had his first paying job bagging orders at the commissary’s Burger King.
“Living there gave you a false sense of security. Cars were unlocked, no one locked their doors. There were kids everywhere and everyone was always looking out for each other. At 13 we could play basketball until 2 in the morning,” he says.
Now Melson wants to represent Staten Island, a place where he spent a lot of time while growing up. He got his weekly allergy shots there and often visited his relatives and friends. He also remembers asking his uncle why its residents had to pay tolls to cross back and forth to Manhattan.
“We’d go visit my aunties and I still remember as an 8-year-old asking my uncle why we had to pay $4 every time we crossed the bridge. It pissed me off. There was no toll-free way for people to get to Manhattan,” he says.
When Melson was in the 11th grade his family moved to White Plains. For the first time Melson had his own room, and for the first time he was away from the protective bubble of the military.
“No one knew anything about the military. I was trying to fit in, trying to explain the military to other kids. None of them had even heard of Fort Hamilton. I’d spend my weekends at Fort Hamilton with my friends or Staten Island with my family,” he says.
In spite of the rough transition he kept his grades up. When the time came to consider university, there was only one place the Eagle Scout wanted to go: the United States Military Academy at West Point.
A plebe at the Point
Attending the four-year academy, perched high above the Hudson River, was, as the cliché goes, life changing.
“At first you can’t see past the now. In the first week I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ You think it’s going to be four years of the same, but then you earn back privileges, you earn back rights. It changes you, and you develop a willingness to suffer for a goal,” he says.
It was also there where he first donned boxing gloves.
Every plebe, or first-year cadet, must take 20 boxing lessons, each of which runs 45 minutes. The last four classes are graded bouts; two one-minute rounds. After winning all four bouts Melson was tapped for West Point’s intramural team and then for its intercollegiate team. He was a gold medalist at the 48th World Military Boxing Championship and was also the 2001 intercollegiate national champ.
His first assignment after graduating in 2003 was teaching plebe boxing at West Point. He was promoted to captain in 2006. In 2008, after his five-year military commitment ended, he took a job selling spinal implants for Medtronic. After that he worked as a medical device sales representative for Johnson & Johnson.
In 2010 Melson became a professional fighter. He donated all but one of his purses to spinal cord injuries. That one, which was $1,000, went to BIGVISION, which helps young adults on Staten Island live a sober life.
“That’s what I did for the island I don’t live on,” he says.
He currently serves on the advisory board of Stop Soldier Suicide. He also holds a free boxing clinic every Saturday at DeMarco’s Boxing Gym on Staten Island for those who are battling drug addiction.
“We use the mantra ‘Knock Out Addiction,’” he says.
Aside from addressing the opioid epidemic, Melson also wants to work on veterans’ issues if elected. He envisions a nationwide Veterans mentorship program where returning veterans get paired with single-parent homes.
Home to 470,000 people, Staten Island has a large community of active duty service members and veterans, in addition to police officers, firefighters and teachers. It’s one of the last bastions of Reagan Democrats.
“Their two biggest concerns are the economy and healthcare. They’re afraid of losing their pensions and they’re afraid of not affording health insurance. In order for the government to bring in tax revenue, people need to work. But they can’t work if they’re not healthy,” he says.
While Melson rapidly fires off his ideas, he says he understands the pace of change in Congress is a tad slower.
He likens it to training for a marathon or to being able to stand up again and again after being bloodied in the ring. For Melson, it’s about endurance.
He’ll need to tap into that endurance to raise cash for the campaign. It’s the one part of campaigning he most definitely dislikes, he says.
According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filing, Melson has raised $56,791.19 to date — most of it from individual contributions from family, friends and colleagues. And while he’s outpaced his Democratic rivals, he falls far short of Donovan’s haul. The incumbent has so far raised $278,339.79, according to the FEC.
And while friends and family said they worry about the tenor of politics, he seems unfazed.
“In West Point we were taught to always choose the harder right over the easier wrong,” he says.