Gannon is the only likely political candidate who criticizes the linkage deal, but others have plenty to say about it. O’Shea contends that rather being the object of citywide ridicule for the deal, South Boston deserves credit for negotiating in the first place. “For years we have been painted as parochial and nonconformist, but we got involved in the system,” he says. “We are the impacted community. Those protections that we fought for should be adhered to.”
And Brian Wallace, an all-but-certain candidate for the state-representative seat if Hart decides to run for Lynch’s position, is more than willing to take a shot at Menino over the matter. A long-time community activist who ran Joe Timilty’s campaign in South Boston in 1979, Wallace will serve as a co-host for Lynch’s breakfast and as the official starter of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “Jimmy felt he got screwed. If you back Jimmy Kelly into a corner, you better watch out,” he says, adding that the community feels abandoned by the mayor: “I think he walked away from us. I don’t think you should make policy based on what the Globe told you to do.” (Hollywood alert: Fox 2000 just purchased the film rights to Wallace’s true-crime yarn Final Confession: The Unsolved Crimes of Phil Cresta [Northeastern University Press, 2000] for a six-figure sum. The book deals only tangentially with South Boston, however.)
Even politicians who won’t say much about the linkage deal agree that the problems it was meant to address are central ones. Tom Tinlin, a deputy commissioner for the city’s transportation department, is also a potential candidate for state rep — or possibly city council. He declines to criticize anyone, saying only that the linkage controversy is now a matter for the courts to decide. But he calls affordable housing the leading issue in the state-rep race.
THE DEBATE over the linkage deal is bound up with, yet somehow obscures, the even larger issue of South Boston’s population change. Until the results of the 2000 Census are announced, no one will know exactly how much change has taken place. But one thing all the potential candidates recognize is that thousands of new residents now live in South Boston. Whether they matter politically is another question — one contested by all the pols now jockeying for position.
Gannon believes he can cobble together a successful coalition of long-time residents disgruntled with Kelly-style politics and newcomers. He points out that since his 1994 loss, when the Tribune wouldn’t even run his photograph, at least one thing has changed: South Boston now has another weekly publication, South Boston Online, which may give a fair hearing to rival candidates. The paper, which began in 1998 as a Web-only publication, is published by Jeanne Rooney and caters to old and new residents alike. “The power of the new voter in town is enormous. It just needs to be put into focus,” says Gannon. “A candidate who is more moderating in his ideas than Kelly could form a coalition of the new residency and the old-timers. There’s no doubt about it. The new voters are highly intelligent and can see when a candidate or councilor is using his position for political advantage.”
The circulation of South Boston Online’s print edition has grown to 20,000; its Web site garners another 40,000 hits per week. Don’t expect any picture bans here. “We intend to cover everybody fairly,” says editor Jamie Bearse.
One candidate who has already begun working with both new and old residents is Wallace, who’s active in neighborhood charities such as the South Boston Fire Fund. For Wallace, Southie’s changing demographics are an uncertainty that must be factored into the race. “No one really knows what the new Southie is going to produce,” he says. “I’m not sure if the new South Bostonians are going to be active in a representative’s race.”
As for Lynch, whose likely bid for lieutenant governor would set off much of this political seat-shuffling, he says it’s easy to make too much of the new residents; he notes that the base of regular voters is much the same as it always was. “I don’t see the new residents voting in the same frequency as the long-time residents,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that the overall number of voters may decrease: “The biggest factor would be a drop in the aggregate vote totals. As we see bigger families being forced out, the numbers aren’t as high as they once were.”
But other local figures don’t dismiss the newcomers. “I definitely wouldn’t ignore them,” says Shawn Murphy, a director of the political-consulting and public-relations firm GPC International, who is also weighing a run for state representative. And Kelly himself plans to encourage the new residents to vote. “I think they’ll tend to support my brand of politics,” he says. More voters, says Kelly, means more clout in City Hall. New voters will get South Boston in a position to “flex its muscles.”
There has already been one experiment with courting the new South Boston voters, and it did not go well. In 1999, the year of sweeping change on the Boston City Council, Chuck Turner of Roxbury and Michael Ross of the Fenway joined the council as insurgent candidates. But another such candidate, Greg Timilty, fell short of victory. The Timilty campaign had hoped to capture many of the new residents of South Boston; the candidate took a risk by coming out against Kelly, then the council president.
Paul Sarkis knows the story well. A two-year resident of South Boston, Sarkis ran Timilty’s campaign. “Obviously, you go look at the line waiting to get on the Broadway bus, there are a ton of people who have moved into this community,” he says. “Are these people going to the polls? It doesn’t appear that they are. I don’t see any need for any of the elected officials to cater to the new crowd, because they’re just not interested. I’m not sure that a lot of the new people even understand what the local officials do to affect their way of life.” He sees the potential for change once some of the new residents have children and begin to see the relevance of local officials. Until then, he expects to continue seeing “a disproportionate amount of people dictating who gets elected in a particular area.”
Timilty admits that criticizing Kelly wasn’t a great way to try to get elected in 1999. “Did that hurt me over there? Yeah,” he says. “When you go against Jimmy Kelly in South Boston, you know what the ramifications are going to be.” His friend Sarkis leaves open the possibility that a future candidate might be able to build on a current local base, together with the newcomers. But it might be a while before that formula is tested again: a contested governor’s race of the type that might bring out scores of new voters will not take place until 2002. At the least, given the bad year that Kelly has had, Timilty now concedes he was “a little bit ahead of my time.”
How far ahead remains to be seen. Perhaps Gannon, who seems to meet Sarkis’s description of a successful insurgent candidate, will fit the bill. It is certain that none of this will matter during Sunday’s festivities. But the upcoming political changes could determine whether South Boston remains a viable community or becomes mere fodder for Hollywood development deals.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.