South Boston is famous for producing politicians the way Detroit is known for manufacturing automobiles. Sons of Southie include former congressmen John McCormack (who was also Speaker of the House) and Joe Moakley, former mayor Ray Flynn, and former State Senate presidents John Powers and Billy Bulger, as well as such current officeholders as Congressman Steve Lynch, State Senator Jack Hart, and city councilor and mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty.
And though Southie isn't asking for a federal bailout, perhaps its industry, like Detroit's, is heading for obsolescence. Consider: in this year's wide-open race for at-large city councilor, in which two of the four incumbents are not seeking re-election, it appears that the field of well more than a dozen candidates will not include a single South Boston resident.
"I'm surprised," says State Representative Brian Wallace of South Boston. "In the old days, there would have been three or four on the Council, each grooming the next group to run."
"It's definitely different to have no Southie candidate," says John Connolly, a West Roxbury councilor running for re-election to his at-large seat. "Historically, Southie dominated the at-large seats."
This race would have presented a golden opportunity for a would-be South Boston candidate, too. The two open seats — vacated by Flaherty and Sam Yoon, the latter of whom is also running for mayor — are a rarity, and even further, a Southie candidate would likely inherit many of the tallies that have made Flaherty a perennial top vote-getter.
The absence of a South Boston candidate is being seen by some as a sign that times have changed in Boston politics. And there are plenty of theories as to why.
Southie, they will tell you, is no longer the stereotypical multi-generational Irish enclave. There is an active artist community there now. Young single adults, many new to the city, have also moved in, as have young families priced out of the South End.
"The town has changed," says Wallace. "Sixty percent of Southie has lived there less than five years."
Circumstances have changed for Irish Bostonians, too. Long ago, their approach to politics possessed an element of self-defense, a practical (and very American) methodology for an immigrant group to protect its interests, in this case against the powerful Brahmins. Later, issues like busing continued to fuel that desire for representation.
"We're not as close to the battles as they were," says Nick Collins, chief of staff for State Senator Jack Hart and one of South Boston's young political rising stars.
Collins also points out that his generation of Irish Bostonians have a lot more options than their predecessors — who had a limited number of professions open to them, including priest, cop, and politician. The kids Collins grew up with in Southie went to Princeton, Brown, and Holy Cross. "They're now mostly in the private sector," he says.
Whatever the reasons, the bottom line will likely result in apparently just one South Boston voice on the 13-member Council, that of district councilor Bill Linehan. And even that seat may not stay Southie forever: Linehan got it by fighting off a strong challenge from South Ender Susan Passoni.
Still, an obituary for Southie's political legacy would be premature. Observers suggest that a few one-time factors have steered potential candidates toward skipping the race. Some are working instead on behalf of others' mayoral campaigns; along with the Flaherty loyalists, Southie has plenty of Menino insiders, like Michael Kinneavy. Others believe that there is no room on the Council for a third white Irish man, along with incumbents Connolly and Stephen Murphy of Hyde Park. (Insiders say that Connolly and Murphy are the most likely beneficiaries of the absence of a South Boston candidate — one predicts that Murphy will "go through Southie like a vacuum, sucking up votes.")
There may be political talent yet in Southie, says Collins. "I'm sure you have not seen the last of South Boston in city politics."
Always bet on black?
Boston's black residents are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: after years without at-large representation, this year they have an abundance of candidates in the race.
It has been 16 years since the council had an African-American at-large rep — Bruce Bolling, who left the council to run for mayor. Although two of the nine district seats have been consistently held by black councilors, the at-large races, in recent election cycles, have not seen any significant black challengers at all.
This year, possible candidates on the September preliminary ballot include Natalie Carithers, Ego Ezedi, Robert Fortes, Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, Jean-Claude Sanon, and Scotland Willis.
"One could view this as a kind of shifting in the city," says Bolling, who is now executive director of MassAlliance, which represents minority contractors. "There's a whole new cadre of elected leadership emerging."
The local enthusiasm over the campaigns of Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama — and local winners like State Representative Linda Dorcena Forry and Sheriff Andrea Cabral — are credited by many for the sudden surge of African-Americans seeking office.