IT HASN’T BEEN all local wrangling for Lynch, however. Following the example of Moakley, who became a national leader on the issue of improving relations with Communist Cuba, Lynch accompanied a group of other legislators to the island nation a few months ago. Again, he was quick to assert himself. Along with Congressman Delahunt and the others, he entered Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a meeting with Foreign Minister Felipe PŽrez Roque, who, in a speech to the United Nations, had earlier condemned the United States’ bombing campaign in Afghanistan for targeting civilians. When it was Lynch’s turn to speak, he took issue with the foreign minister’s speech.
"Steve was very clear and forceful in expressing his displeasure," says Delahunt. Lynch told the foreign minister his statements were unacceptable, untrue, and unhelpful to the job of improving relations between the US and Cuba, according to Delahunt, who added tongue-in-cheek that Lynch "might have been a little more brusque" in his words. "The foreign minister was taken aback by the young rookie," says Delahunt, noting that Roque even brought up Lynch in a subsequent conversation. " ‘The congressman, he’s not shy,’ " Delahunt reports the foreign minister as saying. "He gained their respect."
Lynch, perhaps eager to maintain a low profile during his interview with the Phoenix, failed to mention his dust-up with Cuban diplomats. If anything, he stressed his commitment to ending the travel ban and the business embargo on Cuba. Asked what taking part in a diplomatic mission in a Communist Caribbean nation was like, Lynch declined to provide any personal anecdotes or insight into his private feelings about his new diplomatic life. He answered humbly, first paying homage to Delahunt and McGovern as "our resident experts on Cuba," and then sticking to Cuba-policy points.
Basically, Lynch views Cuban strongman Fidel Castro as a leader with whom business can be done. "I think on a personal level people mellow out when they reach 80 years of age, and it’s no different with Castro. He’s mellowed out quite a bit," says Lynch, who now views the dictator as something of a Gorbachev-like figure, willing to bring reform to Cuba for the sake of aiding the nation’s economy. "I think the withdrawal of Soviet support has put him in a position of seeing what his planned economy, what this Marxist approach has done to the country, and he realizes it’s failing." It would be unwise to wait until Castro dies to try to engage Cuba, Lynch believes. Rather, he envisions a deal whereby the US ends the embargo in exchange for Castro’s agreement to allow independent "third-party" judges to adjudicate disputes involving American companies.
"I think he can be instrumental in tremendous reform. [Castro’s] got such credibility," says Lynch. In the tradition of Moakley, Lynch also sees Cuba’s economic potential for the businesses and workers of his district; everyone from Gillette to construction contractors could benefit from doing business with Cuba, he contends.
Whether you agree with Lynch on Cuba or not, his involvement with the issue suggests something interesting about the South Boston congressman. Like his predecessor, Lynch is attempting to be more than a lunch-pail congressman. The difference is that Moakley didn’t begin advocating on a foreign-policy issue — that of the American nuns murdered by a death squad in El Salvador — until much later in his career. Lynch is already studying subjects far afield from his base and assimilating them to his worldview. Delahunt recalls that Lynch read not only the entire briefing book, but also did extra reading in preparation for his trip to Cuba.
In some ways, the uniqueness of Lynch’s election — coming in the middle of a term and replacing a House giant such as Moakley — has afforded him special status. His background as an ironworker, a job that took him on a blue-collar odyssey across 1970s-and-’80s America from Chicago and Louisiana to Wall Street, has given him a natural niche. Before beginning his college studies as an adult — he attended Wentworth Institute of Technology at night and Boston College Law School — he did ironwork in locations across the United States.
Already, Lynch is frequently asked to speak at labor gatherings in the nation’s capital. For example, he spoke at a rally calling for the imposition of a new tariff on foreign steel in order to preserve the steel industry. He is the only member of the Steel Caucus, a body of representatives from steel-producing regions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, to come from a state without a single steel mill. Unlike almost all the other members of Congress, Lynch worked retrofitting steel mills in Gary and East Chicago, Indiana. But he emphasizes that he’s determined to transcend his labor background, pointing out that many measures help both workers and businesses. He adds that he tries to speak in front of as many business groups and chambers of commerce as possible.
It’s Lynch’s labor background that nonetheless distinguishes him. Given his work experience — and the Massachusetts delegation’s tendency to vote as a bloc — Lynch finds himself solidly within the Democratic mainstream and virulently at odds with such Republican leaders as Majority Whip Tom DeLay. This constant clashing with Republicans has drawn Lynch closer to colleagues like Barney Frank. "Given the right-wing cast of the House of Representatives, differences within Massachusetts that seem to be significant tend to diminish down here," says Frank. "Steve is basically aligned with us on almost all the issues that come up."
This closing of the ranks is intensified by the fact that Lynch, like many congressmen, including Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (a potential House Speaker), will be helped inordinately if the Democrats retake the House. Chances for advancement will be greater, and he’ll be able to do more. "Lynch has had a hard time in establishing himself because the Republicans are keeping Congress at such a low throttle," says Frank.
The move from Boston to Washington, by changing the context for Lynch's work, has altered the appearance of his politics, if not his actual positions. Locally, for example, progressives charged that sending Lynch to Washington would be a mistake because he is in some ways a social conservative — he takes an anti-choice stance on abortion, for example. But in Washington, where the bulk of votes have been on economic matters such as the stimulus package and airline security, he has been with the rest of the Democrats. E.J. Dionne Jr., a columnist at the Washington Post and senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution, points out that the evolution of O’Neill and Moakley’s politics followed the same trajectory. "On a lot of the gut issues, where all the controversial votes have been, he is a strong labor guy and naturally votes with the rest of the Democrats," says Dionne. "There haven’t been any big fights on abortion or any of the social issues." Capuano puts Lynch’s politics — and his own — in geographic perspective. "You forget we’re in the same country as Alabama," he says. "Everything is relative to the rest of the country, not Cambridge or South Boston. Next year, when they start rating everyone, you’ll see that Stevie’s record is a relatively progressive one."
Not only have perceptions of Lynch's politics shifted; he also faces shifts in his personal life. (It appears unlikely that a difficult re-election bid awaits him next fall; no serious candidates have emerged to challenge him.) Right now, he still spends the bulk of his time in his congressional district — although he has taken a studio apartment just blocks from the Capitol and behind the Supreme Court building. His wife and daughter will remain in South Boston. He says he takes inspiration from House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who spent much of his early congressional career hurrying back to Cambridge. Lynch recently completed John A. Farrell’s book Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century (Little, Brown, 2001) and says he was "encouraged" to learn that O’Neill wrestled with similar concerns in making the transition from Boston to Washington. "He struggled a bit in trying to find a balance between home and Washington, DC," Lynch says. "That’s something I’m going through right now."
Nobody yet knows whether Lynch will end up with a career as illustrious as O’Neill or Moakley’s, but he seems just as ambitious. He is also driven, likeable (President George Bush invited him to the White House for a White House Ball and a family reception), and far more cerebral than most assume. He’s on his way up.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com