The St. Patrick's Day political breakfast in South Boston yesterday marked a curious milestone in the state's political history: For the first time in a generation, no Irish-American has control of the Massachusetts Senate, House of Representatives, governor's office, or Boston's mayoralty.
''I never thought I'd say this, but thank God for [Republican Lieutenant Governor] Kerry Healey," quipped Representative Brian P. Wallace, Democrat of South Boston, reading from his poem ''Where Have All the Irish Politicians Gone?"
The nationally televised breakfast, coming on the heels of a special election that saw Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American, replace former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, an Irish-American, was an opportunity for many to note Boston's changing political dynamic -- especially the ascendancy of Boston's Italian-American politicians.
Looking at Mayor Thomas M. Menino -- the first non-Irish mayor of Boston in a century -- Senate President Robert E. Travaglini of East Boston, and new speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi of the North End, breakfast host and state Senator John A. Hart Jr. of South Boston said, ''The Italians are taking over."
He added, ''It's never been better, and I hope I don't take criticism for saying that. But I'm not talking about the policy, I'm not talking about the politics -- I'm talking about the food."
Travaglini took the opportunity to cite the ignominious departures of the last two prominent Irish-American state lawmakers to hold the Legislature's top posts: Finneran, who remains under the cloud of a federal perjury investigation; and former longtime Senate president William M. Bulger of South Boston, who stepped down as University of Massachusetts president amid allegations he refused to cooperate with authorities seeking to locate his fugitive mobster brother James ''Whitey" Bulger.
''You wonder if Bulger and Finneran knew it when they ruled us like kings long before they both blew it," Travaglini said, ''that it might not be long before they joined Martha Stewart."
DiMasi, in his first St. Patrick's breakfast since becoming speaker, acknowledged a mild level of discomfort as he took the microphone during the three-hour event at the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center -- which sits in a part of South Boston he rarely visited as a youth.
''Thank you very much, Jack, for inviting me here today," DiMasi said. ''It's the first time I was ever invited over the bridge without getting into a fight." He paused for laughs, then said, ''I know. I didn't get back over the bridge yet."
State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill joked that Hollywood is putting together a new reality television show based on the lives of Irish state representatives under DiMasi. ''The show is going to be called 'Desperate House members.' "
The best chance for Irish-Americans to win back a seat of power in the State House may come next year, when Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly is expected to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But some fellow Democrats insinuated yesterday that the soft-spoken and less-than-telegenic politician will need an image makeover if he hopes to emerge victorious against Governor Mitt Romney.
''We have hope for Attorney General Tom Reilly; it's called political steroids," said DiMasi.
As the crowd dominated by Reilly backers sat in bemused silence, Hart interjected, ''What's the punch line?"
Reilly, who stayed at the breakfast for less than an hour, spent most of his rhetorical ammunition on Romney, his presumptive opponent, who has traveled the country recently as he tests the waters for a potential presidential run. Saying he has to keep Romney abreast of local issues because he's out of state so much, Reilly said the governor recently tried to repay the debt of kindness: ''He said, 'You know Tom, I really want to thank you for all that you've done for me. You know, I have season tickets, why don't you and I go to a Bruins' game?' They're not playing this year."
DiMasi, joking that Romney must have enjoyed the short ride from Logan International Airport to the convention center, looked to the governor and said, ''Are those tickets in your pocket? I don't want to keep you too long. You can leave any time you want."
Romney replied, ''I'll be here until you get funny."
DiMasi shot back: ''You being president of the United States. That's a joke."
Menino quipped that Romney must be a big sports fan because he has season tickets for all the Celtics games -- all the out-of-town games, that is.
Romney began his own remarks on a self-deprecating note: ''It's great to be here in Iowa this morning." Then feigning a slip-up, he continued, ''Oops. Wrong speech. Sorry about that."
Romney, like most who grabbed the microphone yesterday, seized on three recent issues that have dominated local headlines: the legalization of gay marriage, the leaks in the Big Dig tunnels, and Travaglini's efforts to pass a law encouraging the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research.
Saying he is against gay marriage, Romney said that, as a Mormon, he believes ''marriage should be between a man and a woman. And a woman. And a woman."
Romney, a fierce critic of Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the state Supreme Judicial Court -- who penned the gay marriage ruling in 2003 -- began his comments by saying, ''Let's take a few moments and give thanks to the supreme being who watches over us, guides us, gives us our commandments from on high. Thank you Margaret Marshall."
Romney then said he was pleased that Hart's committee was the one presiding over the stem cell bill, saying many believe Hart is considered the moral conscience of the Senate.
''That's a bit like saying the most honest contractor at the Big Dig," Romney said.
''Hey, hey, hey, hey, these are all my friends out here, you know, governor," Hart protested.
''And they're all contractors at the Big Dig," Romney replied.
But it was US Representative Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston who seemed to have the most fun at the Big Dig's expense. Lynch, whose committee will hold a hearing on the leaks next month, said he's frequently asked about the tunnels' woes and whether they are safe. ''The tunnels are perfectly safe, but with all that water, you should probably wait at least an hour after you've had something to eat before you drive through there," Lynch said. ''Actually, if you drive close to the wall, it's somewhat like a car wash."
Referring to Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello, who was the butt of several jokes yesterday for his handling of the leak controversy, Lynch said, ''Actually, Matt Amorello's starting to make it look like Venice."
But Menino said the leaks should not worry anyone; Amorello reassured him about the presence of water in the tunnels: ''That's the sprinkler system for the Rose Kennedy Greenway."