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The Boston Irish - a political obituary?

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Raymond Flynn
The Boston City Council election took place on the first Tuesday of this month, just as they do every two, odd-numbered years. Four councillors are elected on a citywide basis, while nine councillors are elected to seats representing districts of the city. In election years like this one, where there is no mayoral race – mayoral elections take place every four years – voter turnout tends to be low and is dominated by long time, older city residents, public employees and political activists.

This year’s city council election was really no different, yet what was very different in the end was the result of both the citywide and at least two district races. The result makes it plain that, in America’s most Irish of cities, the Boston Irish are a largely spent political force. Their power has been on the wane since a federal judge, W. Arthur Garrity, ordered students to be bussed all over Boston in a misguided attempt to desegregate the city’s public school system in 1974.

This foolhardy edict, issued by an unelected, unaccountable judge who didn’t live in the city, but in one its most tony suburbs, launched Boston into chaos, destroyed what had been one of the country’s best urban public school systems and did irreparable harm to the education and prospects of the minority and white students affected. In the wake of Judge Garrity’s decision, thousands of Irish-American families left the city for the suburbs and this path of migration, which had begun prior to 1974, continued steadily in the decades thereafter. Boston’s minority population has increased significantly at the same time. Also, some city neighbourhoods have been gentrified and are now home to professionals with little or no connection to Boston and its politics or organs of government.
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Prior to 1974, the Boston City Council had been the launching pad for Irish-American politicians who went on to notable political careers at citywide, statewide and national levels. Most famous of them all was the “Rascal King,” James Michael Curley, who subsequently served several terms as Mayor of Boston, as Massachusetts Governor and as a United States Congressman. In addition, the city council was a platform for Raymond Flynn, later Mayor of Boston and United States Ambassador to the Vatican, and for legendary United States Congressman, Joseph Moakley.

My own Boston Irish political family has a strong connection to the Boston City Council. Two great-uncles, John and Francis Kelly, were elected to the council at the start of their political careers. John went on to serve as council president and, in this capacity, would have become Mayor of Boston when Mayor Curley was indicted, had John not been under indictment himself! He was ultimately exonerated and successfully campaigned for re-election using the simple slogan, “John Kelly – Proven Innocent.” Francis later served as Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General of Massachusetts.

So, history lessons aside, what happened in this year’s election and why is it over politically, once and for all, for the Boston Irish?

Two years ago, then-City Councillor Michael Flaherty, a popular vote getter from the Irish-American stronghold of South Boston, sought to unseat the long-serving, Italian-American incumbent mayor, Thomas Menino. Flaherty was handily defeated and, this year, attempted to recapture his citywide seat on the council. The conventional wisdom was that he would do so, and actually could do so comfortably. The political cognoscenti calculated that, because the turnout would inevitably be low, it would favour a more traditional Irish-American politician like Flaherty. Moreover, the prevailing view was that his South Boston base and the neighbourhood’s tradition of “bullet voting” for its own (i.e., voting for just one citywide candidate when voters are entitled to select four) would be enough to return him to the council.

The corollary contextual assumption was that African-American City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, a former aide to United States Senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, would be quite vulnerable in seeking her second term. Many liberals from all over Massachusetts see Pressley as a genuine progressive and an iconic figure in her own right given Boston’s troubled racial history. They pulled out all the stops for her and hoped against hope that she would survive the Flaherty challenge.

The result reveals that they needn’t have panicked. Not only did she thwart Flaherty’s challenge, she topped the poll. She was followed in second place by Felix Arroyo Jr., a labour activist and the city’s second Latino city councillor. Pressley and Arroyo were followed then by a youngish Irish-American councillor seeking his third term, John Connolly, and then by veteran, Steve Murphy, who took the final citywide council seat, just 900 votes ahead of Flaherty.

Such a result in a Boston municipal election with no mayor’s race at the top of the ballot to drive turnout among minority and casual voters would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. It testifies to just how much the city has changed in recent years and signifies the end of whatever last clutches the Boston Irish held on city hall.

The changes in the city were evidenced in two district races as well. City Councillor Bill Linehan, who represents South Boston (where most of the voters in the district live), Chinatown and the South End, overcame the challenge of Asian-American Suzanne Lee by a mere 87 votes. And in Dorchester, John O’Toole, a proud Irish-American who has cultivated strong ties with the city’s Irish community and founded his neighbourhood’s annual Irish heritage festival, was soundly defeated in his attempt to claim the seat of retiring district councillor, Maureen Feeney.

While the results of the various city council races are not “out of the blue,” they do represent the final nail in the coffin for Boston Irish politicians at the citywide level. If an Irish-American is elected to citywide office, it will be because he or she is the best person for the job, not because of an Irish surname. And maybe that’s how it should be.

Irish-Americans still dominate politics in Boston’s close-in suburbs though. My congressman is Stephen Lynch; my state senator is Brian Joyce; my state representative is Walter Timilty; and my town selectmen are Hurley, Shields and Sweeney. The Boston Irish haven’t died out or ceased to embrace public service. They’ve migrated. But processing this month’s city election returns on the internet 3,000 miles away still made me feel wistful about the end of an era.
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READ MORE:


Ashlynn Conner’s family speak out over 10-year-old’s bullying and suicide


Gambling Irish nun blew close to $1 million in Atlantic City 


Hit and run driver who killed Queen’s Irish barman captured

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