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Southie newcomers have clout

Each of the three Democratic candidates running for South Boston’s open state-rep seat — Shawn Murphy, Bob O’Shea, and Brian Wallace — can legitimately lay claim to a sizable chunk of the neighborhood’s largely white, Irish-Catholic, socially conservative voters. Wallace, a top political operative to former mayor Ray Flynn, remains the putative frontrunner in the three-man race. But O’Shea (South Boston’s community liaison to the Big Dig) and Murphy (an attorney and former staff director to the City Council) are hard on his heels. And in this most insular of Boston’s neighborhoods, the battle is largely being fought one street, one three-decker, and one door at a time.

But in the run-up to the September 17 Democratic primary, does any one of them dare reach beyond the divide separating traditional voters from the more progressive new Bostonians increasingly moving into the neighborhood?

It’s true that most active voters in South Boston have a long history in the neighborhood and close family ties to the community. Consequently, all three candidates have pledged fealty to a host of homegrown conservative issues, i.e., returning to neighborhood schools, developing affordable housing for Southie residents, opposing access to abortion, and so on.

But this is not their fathers’ South Boston, as recent data from the 2000 census and other surveys have shown. In the decade of the ’90s, as rents and home prices skyrocketed, a wave of newcomers moved into the neighborhood, many of them "yuppies," as Boston Redevelopment Authority research director Robert Consalvo puts it. The census also shows that for the first time a majority of households in Southie were of the "non-family" variety. Even more prescient, a 1999 Northeastern University labor survey showed that nearly 40 percent of the neighborhood’s population had lived there 10 years or less.

Among them is David Breen, a Democratic activist and openly gay man. Though he has family roots in South Boston, Breen considers himself representative of the new Bostonians populating his neighborhood. He says the candidates’ stand on the Defense of Marriage Act — a controversial initiative that would prohibit marriage and civil unions between homosexuals — will have a major impact on how the growing number of gays and lesbians in South Boston vote in the House race.

South Boston state senator Jack Hart (D-South Boston) agrees that Southie's new Bostonians must be taken into account. At this point, candidates who ignore nontraditional voters do so at their own risk, says Hart, who is running for re-election this fall. He points to the turnout in South Boston Wards 6 and 7 from the last presidential race and the Ninth District special congressional races. The presidential race drew 15,000 Ward 6 and 7 voters to the polls. The congressional race — with South Boston state senator Stephen Lynch on the ballot — drew 9000 voters to the same polls.

City Council president Michael Flaherty, also from South Boston, is even more emphatic: "Of course, they should reach beyond the divide ... it could mean the difference between winning and losing. It did for me. Reaching out beyond my natural base allowed me to defeat Dapper O’Neil."

That lesson is not lost on Wallace, who says he’s approaching the race with eyes wide open to the possibilities. "That’s the wild card in the race. We know who voted before; we don’t know will vote this time. I’m not taking any chances," he says.

O’Shea says the potential number of nontraditional voters hasn’t changed his strategy one bit. He’s still trying to meet "as many [voters] as possible." But, O’Shea adds, he’s trying to connect with newcomers on certain crossover issues such as environmental health. South Boston, for instance, has an alarmingly high number of cases of lupus and scleroderma.

Murphy figures his ace in the hole with the new crowd is his professional background. The son of a traditional South Boston family, he was raised by his widowed, working mother, and was the first of his family to graduate college. He worked his way through law school and currently has a private practice. "Many, many of the new voters are young professionals ... I think they can identify with me."

All three candidates say their basic message and strategy is unaffected by the pool of potential "new" voters. Still, results of the September 17 Democratic primary may ultimately show how much the old neighborhood truly has changed.


Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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