Ethnic rivalries loosen hold on Boston politics

Being of Irish descent is no longer a prerequisite in Bay State politics. More Italian-Americans now hold top posts.

There was a time when no matter what mastery a tradesman named Donato Salvucci possessed, he could never get a job as a bricklayer in Boston.

It was the early 1900s, and a friend suggested he change his name. "Whereupon Dan Sullivan was miraculously admitted to the bricklayer's union," says Boston historian William Marchione of his great-great uncle, who emigrated to Boston from Italy at the turn of last century.

That ethnic tribalism is of another era, of course, when the Irish in this city hung fiercely to the power they had secured from the old Yankee establishment - keeping it out of the grasp of Italians and other immigrants flooding into Boston. But the legends of Boston mayors John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley, House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, and JFK are more than just disparate icons. They form the current of Massachusetts politics.

So when Salvatore DiMasi accepted the speakership of the House last week, replacing Irishman Thomas Finneran, it was a moment of celebration for the Italian-American community in the state.

Mr. DiMasi is not the first prominent Italian-American to serve in the highest ranks of state government here, but together with Senate President Robert Travaglini, who became Senate leader in 2003, Italian-Americans now hold the top posts in the state legislature for the first time in its 224-year history. And with Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino, the three form a triptych that reflects an ongoing shift in the state's political machine.

"It is a confirming event that ethnic-mindedness isn't there anymore, that being Irish is no longer absolutely critical," says Mr. Marchione. Over the past 50 years, even as old patterns began to break down, Italian-Americans were slow to grasp their full political potential, he says. "I think it was the burden of history itself. They had never succeeded at winning, and were doubtful of their capacity to win."

Boston is still tribal. Shamrocks are plastered in windows in "Southie," and garlic wafts from the restaurants that line the North End. But city neighborhoods are far from the ethnic turfs they used to be - immortalized by novelist James Carroll, who wrote of mob wars between Irish and Italian gangsters in his 1978 novel "Mortal Friends."

Sitting on his fold-out chair on Parmenter Street in the North End, a spot he has staked out since he retired 40 years ago, Jimmy "Ninny" Limone says Italians have come of age in his lifetime. "We don't get pushed around like we used to," he says. Back then, with few exceptions, "if you wanted one of the big jobs, you had to be Irish."

So that his neighbor - whom he calls "Sal" - has ascended to a top spot in state government is a gratifying moment. "Sal's a local boy. He is a gentleman. He deserves it," Mr. Limone says, waving to passersby and giving directions to drivers making deliveries to local eateries.

Ethnic rivalry has been the story of immigration in every gateway city. But historians have argued that immigrants in Boston faced particular challenges assimilating, in large part because of a discriminating Yankee community securely in place.

The Irish, though, had a penchant for politics. They spoke the language, and their numbers were huge. So when they eventually won control of many city and state institutions, they held on tightly.

"They were clannish," says Neil Savage, author of "Extraordinary Tenure: Massachusetts and the Making of a Nation." "Italians had the handicap of not speaking the language.... They didn't have unity."

This fostered a sense of inferiority. "They were considered lower than the Irish by everyone," says Jack Tager, who teaches urban history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Under the burden of stereotypes their progress was limited. "There was no Fiorello LaGuardia emerging in Boston," says Marchione.

But intermarriage and other factors contributed to the blurring of ethnic lines over time. It is no longer the case that certain industries are the exclusive domain of a particular ethnicity, for example.

And by the 1950s, Italian-Americans began to emerge in a significant way on the political landscape. They have produced three governors here: Foster Furcolo, John Volpe, and most recently, A. Paul Cellucci. A defining moment came in 1993 when Mayor Thomas Menino won the mayoral race, thereby ending decades of rule by Irish mayors in the city. Menino has since been reelected twice.

Not everyone sees DiMasi's win as an ongoing shift in the political structure. For starters, the Irish still dominate, says Mr. Tager. There is Boston Council President Michael Flaherty and Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole. Today Italians make up some 14 percent of the population of Massachusetts. The Irish represent about 23 percent.

In fact, Tager sees recent wins as a byproduct. The Irish have historically courted other ethnic groups to gain a majority; they have also put other groups in second lieutenant roles to appease. From Menino to DiMasi, Tager says, "I think it's just a coincidence.... They finally got recognized. But how? They fell into these situations."

The result could bode well for Italian-Americans, though. "Those three [DiMasi, Travaglini, and Menino] will do their best to bring Italian-Americans in, and [get] some of the patronage they've been denied for years."

Says one Italian-American from Saugus, Mass: "It's almost like the baton is being passed from one group to another." John Serino, a former principal in Saugus who was tending a parking lot in the North End one recent day, says ethnicity does not play the role it used to in the state's politics. It remains an undercurrent though, he says.

"I just hope they do a good job."

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