Swan song for Southie?

As circumstances have changed for Irish Bostonians, the political talent pool in South Boston has dried up. Plus, voting a black slate?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 22, 2009

South Boston is famous for producing politicians the way Detroit is known for manufacturing automobiles. Sons of Southie include former congressmen John McCormack (who was also Speaker of the House) and Joe Moakley, former mayor Ray Flynn, and former State Senate presidents John Powers and Billy Bulger, as well as such current officeholders as Congressman Steve Lynch, State Senator Jack Hart, and city councilor and mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty.

And though Southie isn't asking for a federal bailout, perhaps its industry, like Detroit's, is heading for obsolescence. Consider: in this year's wide-open race for at-large city councilor, in which two of the four incumbents are not seeking re-election, it appears that the field of well more than a dozen candidates will not include a single South Boston resident.

"I'm surprised," says State Representative Brian Wallace of South Boston. "In the old days, there would have been three or four on the Council, each grooming the next group to run."

"It's definitely different to have no Southie candidate," says John Connolly, a West Roxbury councilor running for re-election to his at-large seat. "Historically, Southie dominated the at-large seats."

This race would have presented a golden opportunity for a would-be South Boston candidate, too. The two open seats — vacated by Flaherty and Sam Yoon, the latter of whom is also running for mayor — are a rarity, and even further, a Southie candidate would likely inherit many of the tallies that have made Flaherty a perennial top vote-getter.

The absence of a South Boston candidate is being seen by some as a sign that times have changed in Boston politics. And there are plenty of theories as to why.

Southie, they will tell you, is no longer the stereotypical multi-generational Irish enclave. There is an active artist community there now. Young single adults, many new to the city, have also moved in, as have young families priced out of the South End.

"The town has changed," says Wallace. "Sixty percent of Southie has lived there less than five years."

Circumstances have changed for Irish Bostonians, too. Long ago, their approach to politics possessed an element of self-defense, a practical (and very American) methodology for an immigrant group to protect its interests, in this case against the powerful Brahmins. Later, issues like busing continued to fuel that desire for representation.

"We're not as close to the battles as they were," says Nick Collins, chief of staff for State Senator Jack Hart and one of South Boston's young political rising stars.

Collins also points out that his generation of Irish Bostonians have a lot more options than their predecessors — who had a limited number of professions open to them, including priest, cop, and politician. The kids Collins grew up with in Southie went to Princeton, Brown, and Holy Cross. "They're now mostly in the private sector," he says.

Whatever the reasons, the bottom line will likely result in apparently just one South Boston voice on the 13-member Council, that of district councilor Bill Linehan. And even that seat may not stay Southie forever: Linehan got it by fighting off a strong challenge from South Ender Susan Passoni.

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