Ethnic Blocs Key in Boston Race

Italian-American faces Irish-American in city traditionally run by Irish politicians

IN a city that takes its politics as seriously as its sports teams, two candidates now begin the final phase of what promises to be a lively fall campaign for Boston mayor.

Acting Mayor Thomas Menino and state Rep. James Brett, both Democrats, were the two top vote-getters out of a field of seven Democrats and one Republican in the nonpartisan preliminary election held Tuesday.

After an unusually civil summer campaign, Mr. Menino garnered 27 percent of the vote, while Mr. Brett pulled in 22 percent. They will face off in the Nov. 2 special general election, called because longtime Mayor Raymond Flynn left the city this summer to take on the United States ambassadorship to the Vatican.

In a Monitor interview conducted after early election results became known, Menino said he will discuss the following themes in the next few weeks: developing the downtown waterfront, reforming public schools, and improving public safety in the nation's 20th largest city.

``Our proposals will be concrete proposals,'' he said. ``They won't be pie in the sky, they will be Tom Menino's proposals. Just like Tom Menino: practical and real.'' Menino - a little-known city councilor elevated to council president, then acting mayor - clearly benefited from his 2-1/2 month stint in that office.

Despite changing demographics over the last decade - an influx of minorities, especially, and white newcomers - analysts say the results of the preliminary contest show little variation from traditional ethnic voting patterns in the rough-and-tumble world of Boston politics. Specifically, the strong showing of Menino, an Italian-American, and Brett, an Irish-American, came as no surprise.

``As the electorate shrinks as a percentage of the population, it becomes like foreign countries where there is a voting class,'' notes Lawrence DiCara, former city mayoral candidate. ``In this case, the people who are the very regular voters are middle-class Irish and Italian people, many of them public employees.''

In recent weeks, it appeared that the two finalists could be Italian-American, marking a historical shift for the city that has elected an Irish-Catholic mayor since 1929.

But, unlike Tuesday's winners, the two other Italian-American candidates - Suffolk County Sheriff Robert Rufo and City Councilor at Large Rosaria Salerno - did not sustain strong home-ward turnouts. Mr. Rufo, who capitalized on his experience as a crime-fighter, won third place with 20 percent of the vote; Ms. Salerno, a liberal and former nun, took fourth with 18 percent. Strong city political organizations played the upper hand over ideology in this election, analysts note.

That holds especially true in minority districts where turnout is traditionally low. Although the city is now 45 percent minority, the only African-American candidate, City Councilor at Large Bruce Bolling, was able to garner only 6 percent of the vote.

One reason may be the divisiveness of the minority community, which did not vote in a unified bloc the way it did in 1983. That year, African-American candidate Mel King mobilized his base and won the preliminary election, though he lost to Mr. Flynn in the general election.

``The racial division in the city has not been as sharp as in recent years,'' says Democratic consultant Michael Goldman.

Lagging behind after Mr. Bolling were TV journalist Christopher Lydon with 3 percent; former Police Commissioner Francis Roache, also with 3 percent; and GOP lawyer Diane Moriarty, with 1 percent.

Now that the race is over, the general election promises to be far more fiesty.

Ideological differences will take on even greater importance as the two candidates sharpen their campaign messages. One issue sure to come under discussion is Boston's shaky financial future. A recent report from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau estimates that the city faces a $20 million to $30 million revenue shortfall in the next year.

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