Boston's Ethnic Power May Shift in Mayor Race

FOR six decades, Boston City Hall has been the domain of Irish-American mayors. But in this enclave of ethnic politics, a new group may rise to the fore in next week's mayoral election.

Acting Mayor Thomas Menino (D), an Italian American, is leading his Irish-American challenger, Democratic state Rep. James Brett, in the race to fill the city's top seat vacated when Raymond Flynn became the United States ambassador to the Vatican.

While the election may signal a changing of the guard, the campaign has been unusually civil in a city noted for bare-knuckle politics. Like elsewhere, Boston may be experiencing the decline of ethnic politics and the rise of nontraditional candidates.

But the anti-incumbent mood in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York is surprisingly absent here. Even though Mr. Menino is a veteran of city politics, he still enjoys strong public support. He won 27 percent of the vote in September's primary to Mr. Brett's 22 percent.

``I get the sense that most cities in the country are in a state of real decline, and there is an angry electorate and the anti-incumbent sentiment is intense,'' says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ``[In Boston], Menino is technically the incumbent. But he showed surprising strength in the preliminary election.''

Both Menino and Brett have lived here their whole lives. As a little known city councilor from the Hyde Park neighborhood, Menino was narrowly elected council president in January and became acting mayor in July.

Since taking office, he has made few missteps though he was blamed for bungling on a teachers' union contract this summer. In a Boston Globe/WBZ TV poll conducted last week, Menino was favored by 47 percent compared with 34 percent for Brett and 19 percent undecided.

Backed by city employees, Menino has captured much of Mr. Flynn's City Hall voting constituency.

``A lot of Irish ethnics are voting their jobs ... and so the old saw that you vote your ethnicity is being vitiated,'' says Joseph Slavet, senior fellow at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Indeed, old tribal loyalties are changing. Whereas the city once had a majority Irish-American population, ethnic intermarriage and an influx of minorities are starting to blur traditional ethnic voting patterns, analysts say.

``I think the city may well be in a post-ethnic phase,'' says Jack Beatty, author of ``The Rascal King,'' a biography on former Mayor James Michael Curley. ``In 1920, something like 6 out of 10 Bostonians were of Irish descent, and that is down to no more than a third.''

But Brett, drawing on the strength of voter-rich Irish-American strongholds like Dorchester and South Boston, is nevertheless waging a strong fight. A 12-year State House legislator, he says he will breathe new life into what he sees as a stale, enervated City Hall. Criticized for close ties to State House insiders like powerful Senate President William Bulger, he says his contacts will help, not hurt, efforts to lead Boston during tough economic times.

``How are we going to solve our problems in the city? How are we going to get help?'' asks Brett, who chairs the House Banking Committee. ``Half of the city budget comes from the state, which means whoever is elected mayor is going to have to go [and lobby] at the State House.''

Brett touts his record on raising state funds for Boston in the legislature and his leadership in 1991 as House congressional redistricting committee chairman. He takes credit for leading a legislative effort to ban assault weapons in Boston in 1989.

Yet, he has failed to draw attention away from the acting mayor.

``His campaign is somewhat passive so far,'' says Mike McCormack, former Boston city councilor. ``He hasn't really made an aggressive move on the voters to convince them he would do a better job than Menino.''

Though both candidates are considered moderates, Brett is more socially conservative. He is anti-abortion while Menino is pro-choice. Brett also pushed forward legislation to try juveniles as adults and favors a dress code for public school students.

Menino, on the other hand, stresses his City Hall accomplishments. In a report on his ``first 100 days'' as acting mayor, he takes credit for putting more police officers on the streets, freezing rising water rates, and putting city bond issues out for competitive bid for the first time. Low-key and pragmatic, Menino's plain style has not been a liability.

At a recent forum, he said he will maintain an active leadership style that calls for making decision by ``working at the table'' and without ``a lot of headlines.''

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