More politics, race and South Boston

Earlier this year I wrote about Linda Dorcena Forry, the Haitian American who won the special state Senate election to represent South Boston and parts of Dorchester.  I know Linda and I assumed that she would do a great job and win over any reluctant Southie constituents by sheer force of her personality if not her voting record.  Someone, I think it was Jim Braude on Boston Public Radio, said that she lights up a room when she walks into it.  So Dorcena Forry gets elected and you would think that would be it.  You would be wrong.  There is the small matter of St. Patrick’s Day.

For many decades there have been two events marking the holiday in Boston.  First, there is a breakfast at which Boston and Massachusetts political figures tell bad jokes and try to sing.  It was once just a small event, but now it gets TV coverage.  I think it has gone downhill the last few years, maybe since the William Bulger/Stephen Lynch hosting days ended.  Second, there is a parade.  This is a huge event, also televised.  It is notable for the drinking that takes place among those watching and for the fact that few politicians march.  They don’t march because the breakfast tuckers them out, but because the organizers do not allow LGBT groups to participate.  (I should note here that both events are organized by private non-profits and that my husband has marched in the parade as a 000000000paying gig.)  These events are an opportunity for South Boston to shine and celebrate.  Everyone is Irish at these events.  Or so we all thought.

Yesterday we woke up to this front page news. 

Southie St. Patrick’s Day breakfast slugfest begins early

Emcee struggle raises questions of tradition

What was this about?   Last year’s temporary host, William Linehan, the city councilor from South Boston, was making noises that he was not going to give up his hosting.  Linda Dorcena Forry who by longstanding tradition should be the next host was, ahem, not Irish you see.  The Boston Globe explains

The battle is over who has the rightful claim to host the event. Call it the Southie version of Game of Thrones.

For generations, the breakfast — which is essentially a political roast — has been hosted by the sitting senator in the First Suffolk Senate district. And since the 1940s, that office has been held by an Irish-American man from South Boston — from John Powers to Joe Moakley to Billy Bulger to Stephen Lynch to Jack Hart.

The neighborhood’s stranglehold on the office was so pronounced that it was referred to as the “Southie seat,” even though it also includes much of Dorchester, Mattapan, and a piece of Hyde Park.

But in May, Linda Dorcena-Forry, a Haitian-American woman from Dorchester, won that Senate seat after narrowly defeating Nick Collins, a young state representative from South Boston, in the Democratic primary.

Everyone had something to say.

William M. Bulger, the former senator who transformed the event into the made-for-television spectacle that it is today, took over hosting duties from then-senator Joe Moakley while Bulger was still a state representative. But in a phone interview this week, Bulger said “that’s mostly because I was such a ham, and Moakley finally said, ‘You want to take this thing over?’ ”

But Bulger went on to support Dorcena-Forry’s thinking, saying that “it has always been the understanding that it was the state senator that was the host.”

US Representative Stephen Lynch, who succeeded Bulger as state senator and breakfast host in 1997, also supported the idea that Dorcena-Forry should host.

“I believe the sitting state Senator has always served as host,” Lynch said in a statement. “As our new Senator, Linda should be the host, and I am happy to lend her my expertise and any assistance I can provide.”

Linehan and his supporters also weighed in.

“It’s never been stated anywhere that it has to be the state senator,” Linehan said. “It’s a cultural thing. There has never been anyone who hosted it who does not live in South Boston, but there have been people who have hosted it who were not the state senator.”

and the last host who was a state senator?

But Jack Hart, the last of the sitting senators to host the event, took a different approach. He said the election of Dorcena-Forry ushered in an “unprecedented time,” and he said he hoped that Linehan and Dorcena-Forry could sit down and work out a compromise. “There are no rules. There’s no rule book to go by regarding who hosts the thing.”

He said he did not hand over the duties to Linehan; he simply left politics, and later got a call from Linehan saying that as the ranking South Boston elected official, he wanted to host, and asked for Hart’s advice on how to do it.

Representative Nick Collins who lost to Dorcena Forry agreed with Linehan leading some to accuse them of trying to revive the racial divisions of the past.

For her part, Dorcena Forry believed she should be host and pointed out

“The sitting senator has always hosted, and you don’t have to be Irish to do it,” Forry said in a phone interview. “I believe that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone’s celebrating Irish culture. You don’t have to be 100 percent Irish.”

Dorcena-Forry argues that she is no stranger to the Irish-American community. She is married to Bill Forry, an Irish-American who is editor of the Dorchester Reporter.

“I have four bi-racial children — Irish-American and black. I’ve been to Ireland four times. We celebrate the culture in my house. My two oldest sons were baptized in St. Augustine’s chapel in South Boston. I’m not just a random black woman who has this seat.”

Linda Dorcena Forry

Linda Dorcena Forry

I think that everyone realized that they were in tricky political waters which could rapidly become dangerous.  Dorcena Forry wants to win re-election next year.  Bill Linehan is facing Suzanne Lee, a Chinese American woman who narrowly lost last time, this fall.  (The South Boston council district includes Chinatown and what people would call “downtown” Boston, so it is not really a Southie seat.)  So this morning the headline read

After backlash, St. Patrick’s roast dispute is over

Dorcena Forry to host fest as councilor relents

The resolution followed mounting criticism of Linehan’s refusal to allow Dorcena Forry to host the event, as officials from the governor to the mayor to the mayoral candidates said she was the rightful emcee.

The controversy shined an uncomfortable spotlight, at least momentarily, on racial tensions that many hoped Boston had left behind. It touched a raw nerve from the halls of the State House to the walking paths of Castle Island.

Many who live in South Boston will be unhappy because Linda Dorcena Forry is not only Irish but has dark skin, but most won’t really care.  But for politicians – particularly the white men running for Mayor this fall – it was important.  They mostly lined up to support Dorcena Forry.

“It will be different, but Boston is changing, South Boston is changing,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said after a ribbon-cutting in Faneuil Hall. “Let’s have a change in leadership over there, and let’s have Linda Dorcena Forry be the mistress of ceremonies.”

And so she will be.  By next March, it is possible that there will be Councilor Lee and the Mayor of Boston will be black or Hispanic.  Boston is changing fast and Southie has to change also.  Maybe I’ll watch the breakfast next year:  All the folks running for Governor will be putting in an appearance.

Photograph: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/file

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