When Linda Dorcena Forry became state senator for the 1st Suffolk district, nearly five years ago, it caused a rumble through South Boston. A Dorchester pol—never mind a black woman—had won the “Southie Seat.” It was seen as a sign of the neighborhood’s diminishing clout, symbolized most blatantly by the annual sight of Forry emceeing the legendary St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast.
That storyline was predictable, and arguably overplayed, but very real and palpable in the storied but rapidly changing neighborhood.
In the years since, Forry’s place among Southie’s political ranks has become less controversial, and almost taken for granted. From the moment she took the stage to The Quiet Man theme at her first Breakfast as host, Forry took care to show she would honor traditions, not upend them—while Southie’s highest-ranking pols publicly welcomed her with humor and respect.
Nevertheless, if you had hoped that we would be spared that divisive narrative the next time the seat came up for grabs, you are in for disappointment.
Here we go again.
Forry’s sudden retirement, to join the politically powerful Suffolk Construction Company, could have triggered a multi-faceted race. There are qualified, ambitious people throughout the district—we could have seen a variety of Irish-American, black, immigrant, and progressive candidates from across South Boston, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
Instead, it appears that South Boston’s most powerful are rallying around Nick Collins, the state representative who lost to Forry in 2013; while potential minority candidates have decided to stand aside for state representative Evandro Carvalho of Dorchester.
So far, they are the only two declared Democratic candidates for the special election. South Boston education advocate Kenny Jarvis is considering a run but tells me he is likely to wait and run for state representative if Collins wins.
It’s similar to what happened five years ago, when Collins and Forry squared off, with only South Boston’s Maureen Dahill also in the Democratic primary mix.
Collins ran up huge vote advantages throughout South Boston, while Forry dominated just as much in predominantly black precincts elsewhere in the district. To a large extent, the returns really did show clear battlelines, with the two distinct geographies—and races—pulling in a tug-of-war for the seat. Forry narrowly prevailed.
A similar us-versus-them notion has animated recent elections for “Southie’s” district seat on the Boston City Council. Just two months ago, Ed Flynn—son of the last mayor from South Boston—won that council seat in part because of South Boston residents coming out to “save” the seat from Flynn’s South End opponent.
Adding the racial component is always volatile, especially because Forry’s departure leaves the 40-member state senate without a black member. In addition, Ayanna Pressley’s just-announced primary challenge to Congressman Michael Capuano is threatening to divide the city along racial lines. (One prominent black resident, in reaction to Capuano’s radio comment that voters don’t choose “on the basis of identity,” bitterly suggested to me that Capuano seemed fine winning identity-based Italian-American votes in the 1998 primary that sent him to Congress.) And many community members remain frustrated at the ongoing failure to mount a successful black candidacy for mayor.
The election to replace Forry will be a fast dash: ballot-qualifying signatures are due in less than two weeks, and the primary—which will effectively decide the race, in the heavily Democratic district—takes place on April 3rd.
Insiders believe the timetable gives Collins the advantage. He has widespread name recognition from having campaigned across the district before; his South Boston base tends to vote even in low-turnout special elections; and he already has more than $130,000 in his campaign account—a six-figure head-start on Carvalho.
Theoretically, Carvalho should have plenty of potential voters to court outside of Southie. But in a short, low-turnout election, his path is probably similar to Forry’s in 2013: pump up turnout among black voters, particularly among his base of Cape Verdeans, along with the Haitian-Americans who pushed Forry to victory.
As Collins tries to fire up his base, and Carvalho tries to fire up his, it’s hard to imagine that people won’t talk about bringing the seat back to South Boston, or maintaining it as the lone black-held seat.
The candidates themselves might refrain from such arguments, but it will be there.
And of course, dropped into the middle of this short sprint of a campaign, will be the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast.
Since Forry won’t be hosting it—or raising the money to put on the show at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center—discussions are underway among South Boston’s elected officials and power brokers on how to pull it off. I’ve heard, from several people, that some combination of pols will probably take on the challenge collectively. Those names include Congressman Stephen Lynch, city councilor Michael Flaherty, and former state senator Jack Hart.
I have not yet heard of pols from outside the South Boston portion of the state senate district being included in those discussions. It is, after all, a South Boston event, although traditionally hosted by the state senator from the district.
That’s just one more potential source of tension to add to the growing list—even before the jokes start to fly.
This story has been updated.