A political slugfest in Dorchester
AN OLD-FASHIONED political slugfest is underway in Dorchester to replace District 3 city councilor Maureen Feeney, who steps down at the end of the year. For 18 years, the amiable Feeney has kept a tight hold on the district. That’s a lot of pent-up political energy that needs somewhere to go.
There is concern that Feeney’s departure will leave just one woman on the 13-member board. Two women with political experience, legislative aides Stephanie Everett and Marydith Tuitt, are among seven candidates running in the Sept. 27 preliminary election. But it’s shaping up to be a three-way race among former city employee Frank Baker, real estate firm owner Craig Galvin, and well-known neighborhood activist John O’Toole. Doug Bennett, a former Nantucket selectman, and South Boston native Martin Hogan round out the field. The top two finishers will face off in the Nov. 8 final election.
Each of the perceived frontrunners enjoys high-profile support from incumbent or former politicians, a solid geographic base, and field organizations capable of expanding that base. Even in this increasingly diverse district, the most intense political activity is taking place in the high-voting white parishes. O’Toole’s support is strong at St. Brendan in Cedar Grove, Galvin is associated with St. Ann in Neponset, and Baker’s core supporters operate in and around St. William in Savin Hill.
Feeney, 63, believes those parish distinctions are weakening in part because of her efforts over nine terms to reach across the district and create “one Dorchester.’’ But geography is still destiny in Dorchester politics.
“It’s human nature to get a little territorial,’’ said Dorchester state representative Martin Walsh, whose race in 1997 was the last big political brawl in the district. Baker’s geographic base in Savin Hill is quite secure, unlike Galvin’s and O’Toole’s, whose areas bleed into each other. That could mean that neighbors and even family members will split votes, leading to hard feelings in a section of the city that takes its politics very seriously.
“It’s getting a little scrappy out there’’ said Walsh, a Baker supporter.
On Thursday night, more than 100 Baker and O’Toole supporters faced off in a noisy battle of sign waving and chants as the candidates prepared to enter a forum at a church on Meetinghouse Hill. Galvin supporters were conspicuously absent. Inside, the candidates differed little on how they view public safety, housing, and employment challenges in Dorchester. This race won’t be decided on issues.
Endorsements in Dorchester are less important than who you went to school with or whose kid you coached in Little League. But O’Toole certainly isn’t complaining about Feeney’s coveted endorsement or the support he is receiving from Mayor Menino’s political machine. Galvin, meanwhile, has close ties to former City Council president Michael Flaherty of South Boston, the mayor’s nemesis. It adds to the sense of political excitement building in the coastal district that runs from Columbia Road to Lower Mills.
Feeney has raised the bar very high for the next councilor. Whoever wins in November had better be prepared to make the rounds of civic associations and other meetings three or four nights per week, because that’s what District 3 voters have come to expect. Feeney’s loyalty played especially well in Dorchester’s working- and middle-class neighborhoods, though sometimes it bordered on cronyism.
Feeney could come across as a perky lightweight when she was elected to the Council in 1993. But no one was thinking along those lines a few years later when she led the effort in the Council to approve the merger of Boston City Hospital and Boston University Medical Center, a task that required a deft touch with labor, heads of hospitals, and state legislators. Feeney also made her mark citywide when she increased the clout of minority voters while serving as chair of the city’s redistricting committee.
She won’t be easy to replace.
The candidates who think they can replace her made their pitches Thursday night at the First Parish Church in Dorchester, the site of the city’s first recorded town meeting in 1633. Dorchester was bitten long ago by the political bug. And it’s not about to heal any time soon.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.