by Yvonne Abraham
His health is bad. He can barely see. His staffers have fled. He finished third
in the preliminary -- even after his protégé, Stephen Murphy --
the worst he's done in 14 years. The papers have written him off. His City Hall
colleagues barely tolerate him. Folks are saying Dapper O'Neil is washed up.
He's not buying it, of course.
"The Globe is saving me for the obituary page, but I know one thing,"
he says. "I'll outlive half the bastards!"
More important, his many fans aren't buying it either. The thing about O'Neil,
the ornery, conservative, sexist, 26-year veteran at-large councilor, is that
no matter how bad his public image gets, people still seem to love him. It's
more than a Teflon effect: it's as if his constituents like him better
for his rough edges.
On this Friday night, O'Neil makes his way to Packy Connor's, a bar that is a
Roxbury institution. And even though O'Neil is famous for his cultural
insensitivity, the black customers are all over him. In 20 minutes, he works
his way around the huge, noisy, low-ceilinged room, collecting hugs and
wisecracks and Thanks for what you did at the zoning boards.
"They love the Dap," he says outside the bar.
"That's because you do more for them than their own," Packy Connor says. If
the Packy's folks put their votes where their mouths are -- and they didn't in
the preliminary, so there's no guarantee that they will in the final -- O'Neil
will be set.
That same night, O'Neil, smelling of cologne and feeling frisky, arrives at a
Sons of Italy dinner in Roslindale. A sixtyish man with graying hair gives him
a hug at the door.
"I hear you're with Peggy Davis-Mullen," is the first thing O'Neil says to
"I am, and that's okay. I'm with you, too," says the man.
"I heard you weren't."
"Where'd you hear that?"
"I heard it from Murphy."
"How'd Murphy get it?" asks the man, miffed now. "I'm with him too!"
"But I love ya," says O'Neil, giving the man a couple of soft slaps on his
fleshy cheek. "I love ya."
Dapper's got a lot of love to give. He works the tables, kissing and
propositioning all the ladies, who don't seem to mind at all. "That's sexual
harassment," says one old woman to another after O'Neil has finished with them.
They both collapse into girlish giggles.
Of course, what works at the Sons of Italy doesn't go down quite as well at
City Hall. O'Neil's two staffers, both women, quit because he cut their
salaries to hire a driver, and because he yelled at them a lot. And the four
women on the council are infuriated by his insistence on calling them
Don't get O'Neil started on those secretaries. He is the victim in all of
this, he says, not them. "I told them, `You're not gonna get away with
this,' " he says. "And when it comes out, you won't believe what they did,
especially with my campaign finances."
And as for the women on the council, well, O'Neil is no fan of them, either.
"The four girls -- as far as I'm concerned, they're meant for each other," he
Tonight, at the Sons of Italy, one of those "girls" is on O'Neil's turf. Peggy
Davis-Mullen and aide Martin Keogh make their way around the tables, placing
blue-and-yellow PEGGY DAVIS-MULLEN bumper stickers in front of each person,
chatting briefly, trying to win votes. At-large candidate Paul Gannon is here
too, for the same reason.
It's hard to compete with O'Neil, though. Especially when he's holding a
"This song is for Peggy Davis-Mullen," O'Neil says. Davis-Mullen looks up and
forces a smile. As soon as O'Neil gives accordionist Johnny Rampino his cue and
starts singing, she goes back to meeting people, trying to ignore him.
I don't know why I love you like I do
"Oh, you music lovers are great," O'Neil says when the applause dies
down. "I want you to say hello to Peggy Davis-Mullen and Paul Gannon. These are
my opponents, but I love them. What a goddamned liar I am!"
You never seem to want my romancing
And the only time you hold me
is when we're dancing . . .
O'Neil walks over to a pretty young woman. "Are you married?" he asks her. She
isn't. "I'm not either," he says. "Are you available?"
He sings "All of Me" close to her face, embarrassing and charming her. His
attentions are relentless.
"Hey," says Johnny Rampino. "Tell him he's singin' to the wrong girl!" Rampino
had urged O'Neil to serenade someone else, a mentally disabled woman at another
table. No one tells O'Neil, so he sings the wrong girl another song.
"See that woman I kept going over to all the time?" says Dapper later, in the
car. "She's retarded. Johnny said go over there."
His driver is surprised. Appearances can be so deceiving.
"Yeah," says Dapper. "You couldn't tell."