CONGRESSMAN STEPHEN LYNCH is a man in a hurry. In just a decade’s time, this native son of Southie has gone all the way from ironworker to labor lawyer to state representative to state senator to the US House of Representatives. By 1996 he had aleady committed a legendary act: by defeating William Bulger Jr., the son of the Senate president, in his first bid for state senate, he earned the right to host South Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast — an honor that has gone to such local luminaries as Bulger, Joe Moakley, and John Powers.
But now the high-flying Lynch is the most junior Democrat in a House dominated by Republicans, and he is working to move up — not always an easy task in the 435-member body, but especially not so in the current political climate.
Illustrating Lynch’s new role as apprentice was his relatively low profile at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston last Sunday. For the first time since Bulger presided over the affair, Lynch, who hosted it for the previous five years, found himself on the sidelines. He rose to speak briefly — telling an innocuous joke about an Irish ironworker, a fitting yarn given his own profile. Lynch’s low-key turn on Sunday — at the microphone for less than three minutes — reflects both his transition from South Boston big fish to Washington little fish and his new focus on the world beyond the peninsula.
If Lynch graciously faded into the background at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, he’s doing the exact opposite in Congress. Most notably, he ruffled feathers in Washington, especially among the Massachusetts delegation — when he expressed interest in the House Transportation Committee, even though his "senior" by three years, Somerville congressman Michael Capuano, had already done so — something of a no-no on Capitol Hill. While both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald printed stories on the dust-up, Lynch voices few regrets.
"I think if you go down there, and you’re too nice or too passive in a body of 435, you’ll be forgotten," he says, during an interview at his office in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, which is named after his predecessor. "I need to kick up a little dust every once in a while just so they don’t forget [me]."
That’s not to say, however, that Lynch is trying to put a thumb in Capuano’s eye or anybody else’s. He knows that the business of Congress is done on committees. And he’s more than willing to devote time and energy to his current committees — Government Reform and Veterans’ Affairs (Representative Marty Meehan says Lynch is already the delegation’s point man on veterans’ issues). But he’s convinced that the Transportation Committee, which oversees everything from massive road-building projects, such as the $15 billion–plus Big Dig, to security-intensive installations, such as those involving the nation’s airports and ports, is vital to his district.
"Airports, that’s transportation; rail, that’s transportation; the Big Dig, that’s important in my district; the urban ring, if that would come to fruition; the North-South Rail Link," says Lynch reeling off a series of projects that affect both his district and his natural constituency of union workers. "We have to look at starting work on the next generation of road and bridge projects in Massachusetts beyond the Big Dig. We’ve got to do that."
The new congressman is quick pay homage to Capuano. "He’s my pal, my landlord for a little while down there, and he’s been a great mentor to me," Lynch says of the former Somerville mayor. "He’ll have the first chance, being senior, if they come to the delegation and say, ‘Does anyone want to serve on the Transportation Committee?’ He’s a senior guy, but I haven’t forgotten to assert my own wishes."
By Lynch’s calculation, there will be at least four vacancies on the Transportation Committee; two of those seats will be vacated by New Englanders, which should create room both for Capuano and him (and for more if the Democrats retake the House): Maine congressman David Baldacci will be leaving to run for governor, while McGovern is already moving to the Rules Committee. Plus, says Lynch, Capuano could eventually end up on an "exclusive committee," such as Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Budget. "I think Mike has several options that are open to him, and he’ll be in a good position come November."
For his part, Capuano says "there are no guarantees" that even he will get a spot on the Transportation Committee. But the Somerville congressman voices no complaints about Lynch. "I don’t blame Stevie for wanting what he wants," Capuano says. "I’d rather have an aggressive guy in there. I think that it’s great that we’re both aggressive guys. That’s better for Massachusetts."
Lynch’s other colleagues in the Massachusetts delegation, meanwhile, are quick to praise the newcomer. Malden representative Ed Markey calls him "a natural." Worcester representative Jim McGovern says Lynch has "hit the ground running." Lowell representative Marty Meehan says, "Steve is quietly impressing his colleagues in the House." And Quincy representative William Delahunt calls him "a real blue-chipper."
They also downplay any sense that Lynch overstepped the bounds of seniority by asking to be put on the same committee as Capuano.
"He wants to be on Transportation. He understands that Mike had already laid a claim to the seat," says Markey, the "dean" of the Massachusetts delegation by virtue of his 26 years in Congress. "He asked if he could be next in line for the seat, which could come up almost immediately. He just wanted everyone to know that he wanted to be a player. That’s what you expect."
Meehan, himself no stranger to controversy, also praises Lynch for asserting himself. "My sense is that Steve wants to make sure he’s available for any opportunity to move up," he says. "Candidly, I think any new member tries to do that. I did." Meehan recalls how he asked to be put on either of two prestigious committees — Appropriations or Ways and Means — when he first got to Congress. "It may have appeared brash," he remembers. Asked if he suffered any consequences for asserting himself, Meehan says, "No. And Steve won’t either."
Lynch has also been quick to grasp the Port of Boston’s importance to his district, to the Commonwealth, and to his work as a congressman. He has been at the center of negotiations between Massport and waterfront businesses. The day of Lynch’s interview with the Phoenix, City Council president Michael Flaherty and City Councilor James Kelly of South Boston, among others, attended a meeting about the waterfront in Lynch’s office. He also invoked his status as the South Boston waterfront’s congressman when the new owners of the Boston Red Sox — among them Tom Werner and John Henry — visited with the Massachusetts congressional delegation several weeks ago.
Lynch took that opportunity to sound off about any potential plans the new ownership team had for a waterfront ballpark. "With all due respect, I explained to them that [a waterfront ballpark] would involve shutting down the Port of Boston for 81 days a year at least," he says, adding that Capuano raised some ballpark-related concerns of his own. Incredibly, the Red Sox management team appeared unaware of community opposition to the waterfront plan. "I think it was news to them," says Lynch. "These fellows come from the outside, so they haven’t been through the wars, so to speak."