Monday, October 10, 2011

The Incredible TBD Power of Southie

The allegedly politically monolithic South Boston neighborhood gets real contests next month. A district and at-large battle should show if zip-code voting is the most important factor.

Of course, South Boston is not the only provincial area of this city, commonwealth and region. It is special more in that it tends to have a higher than average voting rate and that many of its residents share color, culture and church. So, they are more likely to be a bloc for "one of us."

Understandably in a neighborhood that long had a lower family income and perceived status than much of town, there's pride in holding Congressional, General Court, and Council seats...forever and ever. Even as Southie became part of Council District 2, it retained the power. There simply are more voting residents than in the combined South End and Chinatown. Plus, those neighborhoods are more diverse and much less likely to do the zip-code and us-v.-them at election time.

When parochial pride battles evident self-interest, pride has almost always won here. This time though there are  two skirmishes that might break that least with reinforcements from other neighborhoods.

So Don't I

So, there's District 2 incumbent Bill Linehan. He's the Irish American there, or just Irish, as those in Southie have it, against Chinese-American Suzanne Lee. She's had a long career as school principal and respected, effective avocation as community activist. He was a long-time manager in Parks and a bureaucrat for the city's COO before starting two terms as Councilor. He plugged in as replacement when Jim Kelly died.

There are major obvious differences. He believes in constituent services, but sits and waits for folk to call him; she would patrol the whole district looking for problems to ID and solve. You can learn all you need to know about what she's done and wants to accomplish from her campaign site; you could stare at his one-page placeholder and not know more about him than when you loaded the URL. She's all problem/solutions; he's a pleasant enough fellow.

This is identity politics at its plainest. For Southie, there's someone who looks like them and lives where they do versus someone born in China, who lives in the Asian-dominated part of the district.

Yet, this is also a choice of change and leadership and energy. Over at Left Ahead, we spoke with Lee, a show you can hear here. Voters who pay any attention at the forums to stump speeches and in media know he's pretty much a low-key paper pusher and she's, as the cliché goes, a change agent. Status quo lovers are not going to want Lee.

The two major local dailies have each run pieces suggesting that South Boston will be determined to hold onto this Council seat, and will turn out to do that. This conflicts with electoral history that predicts very low turnout for year with no mayoral, gubernatorial or congressional contests.

Political folk wisdom has it that shoe leather wins such races. Lee seems to have worn out many heels and soles in all parts of the district. As much as I'd like to think that willingness to propose solutions, eagerness to appear in public and in media, online presence including social media, and a history of doing good things for large number of residents would rule, it may or may not here. Lee has decided advantages in all those aspects, but she is not a life-long Southie resident and arrived in Boston from the wrong direction.

Muscle Test

That Michael Flaherty fellow is another matter. Sure, he's of Irish extraction and from South Boston, where he maintains a strong supporter base. He also proved himself a great fund-raiser when he was at-large Councilor and Council President. He's a connected lawyer and not unimportant, he's charming.

He also seems to have annoyed the devil out of Mayor Tom Menino for a long time and more recently the at-large incumbents. The former is particularly important in that Menino is extraordinarily popular, even in this day of hate-the-pols, and he has foot soldiers the inspire support, donations and GOTV.

After being unable to unseat Menino in the last mayoral, Flaherty wants back in. His entry would be one of the four incumbents. At Left Ahead, we spoke with him and the incumbents and shall try to squeeze in a couple related shows this month. You can go here for links to the at-large candidates' shows.

Back to conventional political wisdom, Flaherty's best shot supposedly would be to pick off one of the first-termers, Ayanna Pressley or Felix Arroyo. So far, he's doing a nice job raising money, but all four incumbents have base supporters and solid roles on Council. No one dislikes or distrusts any of the incumbents or feels underserved.

As in District 2, turnout more than shoe leather may make this race. There was no preliminary, just a truncated run for November 8th. The debate-like-events have only recently started. Because these slots are citywide, getting supporters to the polls is crucial and even harder than in a district race.

The great pro here, Menino, said that plainly last week when he introduced Pressley at a meet-and-greet for her at Townsend's in his and my shared neighborhood of Hyde Park. He asked people to volunteer for her "as a favor to me." He put it right out there with,"She's only been in office 20 months. She hasn't had time to build a machine. We gotta build a team for her."

That's very Boston and the kind of insight you expect from such a skilled pol. So for the two new at-large incumbents, the question may be whether their machines work well enough to overpower what may be a rusty version run by Flaherty.

District 2 and at-large are where the action will be on November 8th.

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