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[talking politics]

The new New Boston?
Under the new Senate redistricting plan, the seat from South Boston will become minority-majority. Is an ugly racial campaign in Boston’s not-too-distant future?


YOU WANT A real test of the so-called New Boston and the era of racial harmony ushered in by Mayor Tom Menino? Consider this: since 1947 four Irish-American men from South Boston have represented the First Suffolk District in the Massachusetts Senate — John Powers, Joe Moakley, William Bulger, and Stephen Lynch. The seat has been a base of power within the Senate (Powers and Bulger became Senate presidents) and a launching pad to Congress (Moakley and Lynch became US representatives). Since Powers’s reign, it’s also provided us with the host of the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston — the must-attend power-politico event of the year. (Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all telephoned the breakfast during their terms in office; the first year Lynch presided over the event, Vice-President Al Gore actually attended.) But in a state-senate redistricting move that’s gone more or less unnoticed by political observers, all that may be about to change.

Under Senate president Tom Birmingham’s redistricting plan, the neighborhoods of Dorchester and Mattapan that now belong to State Senator Brian Joyce of Milton will be merged with the South Boston seat. This means that the First Suffolk District will be dominated by Dorchester (which has 129,000 residents as compared to the 29,000 who live in Southie). It also means — and this is the truly groundbreaking part — that the newly configured Dorchester–South Boston district will be minority-majority: 33.9 percent white, 41.2 percent African-American, 6.8 percent Asian, and 10.7 percent Latino.

If the votes follow the demographics — which is always the question in Boston — Southie voters could wake up one St. Patrick’s Day morning, arrive at the traditional breakfast, and find that their host is not from South Boston, but from Dorchester, and not Irish, but African-American, Haitian, Latino, or Vietnamese. The Dorchester Reporter, which cited Dot’s relative population advantage in a recent story, is already touting the presumptive candidacy of State Representative Marie St. Fleur as "the strongest minority candidate who might mount a campaign for the newly crafted Dorchester–South Boston seat." St. Fleur told the Phoenix last week that she’s "interested" in running for the Senate seat, adding that she’s already convened a meeting of her advisory committee to discuss the subject.

No one seriously expects St. Fleur to win the January 15 special primary to replace Lynch, who won election to the Ninth Congressional District seat on October 16. The primary will be held under the old district lines favoring South Boston — a circumstance that Boston VOTE policy director George Pillsbury, who fought for the new district, calls a "gift to South Boston." State Representative Jack Hart of South Boston, who announced his candidacy for the seat November 3, is considered the front-runner. State Representative Marty Walsh of Dorchester, who had hoped to challenge Joyce under the old district lines, has already endorsed Hart.

Traditional voting patterns suggest a South Boston candidate might be able to hold on to the seat for a while. But for how long? The first election with the new boundaries will take place in September 2002, just nine months after the January special election. "There’s going to be a wide-open race in fall of 2002, and Mattapan and Dorchester will have substantial weight in what’s going to happen," predicts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee. "The fact is the city has changed."

WE’LL FIND out just how much the city has changed next year when and if Hart and St. Fleur face off. So far, outcry in South Boston over the redrawn district has been minimal. In part, that’s because the events of September 11 continue to mute political activity. And Lynch, who held the seat until his election to Congress, has been quiet on the topic of his old district. But the silence surrounding the impending legislative shift also indicates just how much and how quickly Boston has already changed. After all, it was little more than a quarter-century ago that the city had to call the shock troops of the Tactical Patrol Force into Southie to quell racial riots in the wake of busing.

"I think you would have gotten a lot of outcry 20-30 years ago because the sense of turf was much stronger then," says Thomas O’Connor, a Boston College professor and author of The Hub: Boston Past and Present (Northeastern University Press, 2001).

Hubie Jones, a special assistant to the chancellor at UMass Boston who is working on a book about African-American life in Boston, puts it even more strongly: "I never thought I’d live long enough to see it."

Perhaps the real reason for South Boston’s low-key response to the redrawn district is tied to Southie voters’ belief that the more recent political and demographic changes actually work in their favor. The infusion of immigrants into Dorchester over the last 10 to 20 years — Latinos, black Caribbeans, Vietnamese, and Cape Verdeans — means that even if there are technically more minorities in the district, it won’t be easy to organize so many disparate groups around one candidate. Though whites will be outnumbered, they’ll be easier to organize around one candidate throughout South Boston and Dorchester — even if it’s someone from outside South Boston. "I would think [Hart] will do very, very well here," says Jim Brett, a former state representative from Dorchester. "He’ll have a lot of support in Savin Hill."

Then there’s the question of who actually votes. In her re-election last year, St. Fleur received just 4466 votes. Compare that with the 10,802 votes Hart received in his re-election bid, and the 8113 votes Walsh (who has, remember, already endorsed Hart) won last year.

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Issue Date: November 22 - 29, 2001

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