Block voting

By , Christopher J. Matthews is administrative assistant to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr.

Last November, Philadelphia followed Chicago in electing its first black mayor. In Boston a black finished a respectable second. After these elections, I heard at least one person decry the prevalence of block voting in these elections. What struck me immediately was that old axiom: ''The more things change, the more they stay the same.''

A few years ago, the term ''big-city politician'' meant ''Irish.'' As recently as the 1970s the New York congressional delegation included Murphy, Delaney, Rooney, Carey, Buckley, and Ryan. Philadelphia had McGlinchy, Byrne, Stack, Green, and Barrett. All Irish; all Roman Catholic. Today, save for those from Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill's hometown, there's not a single big city Irishman sitting in the US House of Representatives.

My grandfather, a big-city pol if there ever was one, never aspired to such high office. He did have two things in common with these other more prominent figures. One was his love of cigars. The other was ancestry.

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Charles Patrick Shields never expected much from politics. His highest position in the party was that of ward secretary to a neighborhood leader with the proud name of James H. J. Tate, a man who would later rise through the ranks to become Philadelphia's mayor.

The fact that this other, more successful Irish pol made a point of using both his middle initials tells you something about the kind of politics practiced in the good old days. The ''J'' represented the name His Honor had selected at his confirmation: It allowed his neighbors to know that he was raised in the proper faith.

Such public shows of reverence failed to impress my grandfather. He felt a disdain for the Irish who, like him, lacked a formal education.

As for his own political ambitions, grandpop seemed to have set his sights fairly low. What he hoped most to gain from decades of work as a division committeeman was a sense of position in the neighborhood.

He also harbored a few more tangible goals.

One was the $50 in ''walk around money'' he proudly claimed each election day. Technically meant to cover get-out-the-vote expenses, this was pocketed by most committeemen as their yearly dividend for loyal party service. Certainly grandpop looked at it that way.

Second, there was the matter of patronage.

When I was growing up in the early 1950s, my grandfather would recount how, during the Great Depression, each morning he walked the entire length of north Broad Street in search of a job. His destination: that employer-of-last-resort for all urban pols - City Hall.

Whether he was successful in getting himself on the city payroll or not, no one has ever told me. I know for a fact that in his years of retirement he ended up with one of those no-heavy-lifting City Hall jobs that has been the main staple of big-city machines since time immemorial.

Grandpop felt that he earned this kind of consideration. After all, he would tell us, he brought in the ''best division in the city.'' On election day, his people would come to the polls in droves. Practically to the last one, they would pull the big D, straight Democratic lever.

Now the interesting thing is that Philadelphia neighborhoods have changed a great deal over the years. I can remember sitting on my grandparents' porch 30 years ago watching the horses stop at just the right houses as they pulled their milk wagons along 15th Street.

Then, North Philadelphia was an Irish stronghold. Though no one would have recognized the word at the time, it's clear that I grew up in what is today called an ethnic environment. My grandfather would refer to someone as a ''nice fellow,'' then add, almost like a little grace note, ''Polish.''

All this carried over into politics. Needless to say when the name John Fitzgerald Kennedy appeared on the ballot in 1960, Charlie Shields had no trouble at all figuring how to vote.

All of which brings me to the present. The big cities of this country have always been ruled by block voting. When someone talks about the ''phenomenon'' of black voters tending to vote for one of their own, my response comes easy: so what else is new.

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