Boston develops melting-pot politics

The city's first black woman sheriff and Latino City Councilman are among the signs of barriers falling.

When Linda Dorcena Forry launched her campaign for the Massachusetts State Legislature, she opened her headquarters in the same neighborhood as the legendary Eire Pub, one of several establishments that reflect the community's deep Irish roots.

The neighborhood's precincts proved to be the only ones she lost. But her presence there says much about how a liberal Haitian-American woman filled the vacated seat of Thomas Finneran, the tough-minded former House speaker who epitomized Boston's old ethnic politics.

Ms. Dorcena Forry still works the neighborhood: In the countdown to Tuesday's uncontested final election, she chatted with three mothers on Minot Street and blew soap bubbles with two young girls. "It is not about race, or gender, it's about the direction the city is moving in," Dorcena Forry says of her approach. "It's about coalition-building."

In this most clannish of cities, still dogged by the 30-year-old stigma of court-ordered busing - delegates at this summer's Democratic National Convention complained about a party location in a neighborhood reputed to be among Boston's most racially tense - stubborn barriers are coming down.

Dorcena Forry's victory comes on the heels of Andrea Cabral's last year as Boston's first black woman sheriff and Felix Arroyo's the year before as Boston's first Latino city councilman. The races have added momentum to what's been dubbed the "New Boston," an alliance across cultures, races, and ideologies in a city whose increasingly diverse population is voting in higher numbers.

"When Felix won it was like, 'Whoa,' " says John Barros, the executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which works to mobilize minority voters. "Felix raised the hypothesis that it's a new day in Boston. That's why Cabral became a tester, that we can do this. Linda's winning is further confirmation of what's going to happen, of candidates forming new alliances."

The Irish grasp on Massachusetts politics, immortalized by figures such as JFK and the famously corrupt Mayor James Michael Curley, has been loosening for decades. But it's been such a slow, quiet process that the mayoral victory of Italian- American Thomas Menino in 1993 still surprised some.

"People were saying, 'He doesn't have a chance because his last name ends in a vowel,' " says Sam Yoon, housing director at the Asian Community Development Corporation.

Mayor Menino became the first non-Irish mayor elected in over 60 years. Mr. Yoon, a Korean-American, has launched a bid for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council. He would be Boston's first Asian-American councilman.

New political clout for minorities comes, in part, from demographic change: The 2000 census revealed that Boston had become a "majority-minority" city. And those minorities are increasingly voting. Turnout for the 2004 presidential election in Boston's precincts with the highest ethnic populations was up 27.5 percent among Latinos, 22.5 percent among Asians, and 18.3 percent among blacks, compared to 3.9 percent among whites, according to the nonpartisan group MassVote.

To be sure, Arroyo, Cabral, and Dorcena Forry were strong candidates with broad constituencies. But the word "coalition" has been their common theme. Minorities and progressives worked together to sweep Arroyo into office. Dorcena Forry emphasized a "new partnership." Cabral's guiding principle: "Our differences are also our strengths."

Boston's new political coalitions are emerging not only at a time of greater numeric diversity, but as people are talking more about issues of race, says Jeff Stone, co-chair of a project called City-Wide Dialogues on Boston's Ethnic and Racial Diversity, which began 14 months ago.

So far some 400 Bostonians have participated in dialogues with neighbors of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. He says that even five years ago, many residents might have avoided them. "In the dialogues there is this hunger of people to get together and break away those barriers," he says.

Hubie Jones, a longtime community activist and former dean of the Boston University School of Social Work, says racial groups won't be on equal footing until minorities can gain firmer political and economic ground in Boston.

But he sees the coalition-building of recent races as a hopeful sign. "I never thought I'd live long enough to see not only the enormous turnout of folks of color [in Cabral's race] but the fact that she got substantial votes in the Irish Catholic wards of the city - I just hope I live long enough to see a mayor of color," he says.

Now, say many, as constituents grow less likely to vote on turf lines, the old political guard, too, must work harder to reach beyond ethnic alliances.

"To win in this city, you can't run a parochial campaign anymore," says Matt O'Malley, the campaign manager in Cabral's campaign and a candidate for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council.

Still, some dismiss the notion of a "new Boston." They say the recent victories are too few to make a trend. Even those who have helped define the term express concern that it implies that old Bostonians are intolerant. "The phrasing of it sells us short," says Mr. O'Malley.

And the term is still young: At the most political of Boston functions - the annual St. Patrick's Day roast - jokes centered on old turf wars, rather than new coalitions. Sen. Jack Hart of South Boston at one point quipped: "The Italians are taking over."

Nor are Boston's evolving politics a simple matter of ethnicity or race. The election of Cabral, a social progressive, mobilized the gay community in the wake of efforts to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage. Indeed, many minority candidates, including Dorcena Forry, have opposed amending the constitution and received endorsements from the gay community because of that stance.

But the message has made Dorcena Forry a target, too: At one point in her campaign, political fliers were circulated depicting a white man kissing a black man - an effort that supporters say smacked of racism and homophobia.

It was in part her message of inclusion, evident on a recent afternoon as she walked around her headquarters in stocking feet, chatting with passersby through her window, that drew so much support.

Cabral recalls a fundraiser at which everyone from elderly conservatives to young gay activists filled the room. "It is very telling when you can bring together so many representatives from so many different groups and so many different neighborhoods," she says.

The scene may not yet be emblematic in a city known just a quarter century ago for the homogeneity of its neighborhoods.

But, says Lawrence DiCara, a former city councilor, that day is getting closer. "The next mayor could be Irish, Italian, black," he says. "Whoever it is will be a coalition candidate."

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