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Linehan is facing his first challenge

District 2 Boston City Council candidates (left to right) Robert Ferrara, Suzanne Lee, and Bill Linehan posed before a voters’ forum last week at the Quincy School. District 2 Boston City Council candidates (left to right) Robert Ferrara, Suzanne Lee, and Bill Linehan posed before a voters’ forum last week at the Quincy School. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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In tomorrow’s preliminary election, City Councilor Bill Linehan must fight on two fronts as he faces his first challenge since taking office in 2007.

First, the two-term incumbent confronts a competitor from his native South Boston, Bob Ferrara, who is trying to brand Linehan as a “mayor’s guy’’ backed by the vaunted political machine of Thomas M. Menino. It’s not a term of endearment in a neighborhood that voted 2-1 against Menino in 2009. And in this election, it’s not entirely true.

Second, Linehan must focus on Suzanne Lee, a political newcomer from Chinatown who has proven to be a prolific fund-raiser. The irony is Linehan’s original path to office led through Chinatown.

When the seat opened after the death of longtime City Councilor James M. Kelly, Linehan actually lost South Boston by roughly 200 votes to Edward M. Flynn, the son of former mayor Raymond L. Flynn. But Linehan, with the help of Menino’s organization, made up the difference in Chinatown.

Since then, Linehan has clashed with the Menino administration, particularly when the councilor did not formally endorse the mayor in 2009 as Menino beat back a challenger from South Boston. Linehan also battled the administration during a high-profile dispute in 2010 over the firefighters’ union contract.

But Linehan has had four years in office to build name recognition, running twice unopposed after winning that first special election in spring 2007.

Among his accomplishments he lists keeping open the Tynan Community Center and Washington Village branch library, which had been slated to close because of budget cuts. He talks about capital improvements, such as the new decorative fence at Union Park in the South End. He highlights his work as chairman of the council’s economic development committee, which helped negotiate a deal that lured two large employers - Liberty Mutual insurance and Vertex Pharmaceuticals - to build in Boston.

“I’m excited to see what people really think of Bill Linehan as their city councilor,’’ Linehan said. The top two finishers tomorrow will compete Nov. 8.

During the campaign, the challengers have talked about improving city schools and lowering crime. But councilors have limited power, and most of their work focuses on nuts-and-bolts constituent services, from getting potholes fixed to addressing missed trash collection.

Hired by Flynn’s administration in 1987, Linehan worked for the city for 20 years in the parks and finance departments. He described Ferrara’s contention that he has the backing of the Menino machine as a “misrepresentation.’’

“It is my family, my friends, and the supporters who believe in me,’’ Linehan said of his campaign. “That’s who is doing it.’’

In Boston, City Council incumbents almost never lose district seats. Linehan is only the second councilor to represent District 2, which has been identified with South Boston since it was created and won by Kelly in 1983. But more than half of the 48,000 registered voters in the district live in Bay Village, the Leather District, Dorchester, Roxbury, the South End, and other neighborhoods. On paper, that would give a fighting chance to a well-financed candidate from outside South Boston, such as Lee.

An educator for 35 years in Boston Public Schools, Lee has deep ties in Chinatown as a community organizer and principal of the Josiah Quincy School.

After emigrating as a child from China, Lee, 60, grew up predominantly in Grove Hall. She lived in the South End for a decade, and moved to Brookline for 18 years because, she said, she needed to live near family members who helped raise her son while she taught full time. But Lee said she spent all her waking hours in District 2 in Chinatown, where she moved her residence two years ago.

“I’m running because I’ve spent my entire adult life bringing people together to solve problems and meet the changing needs in our city,’’ said Lee, who has raised more than $71,000 in her first run for office.

But Lee needs more than Chinatown and the South End to win, because voter registration and voter turnout are two very different things. When Linehan captured the seat, 9,000 people cast ballots, more than 62 percent of whom lived in South Boston.

Precincts in Chinatown and the South End represented just 25 percent of that vote.

“I’ve been knocking on doors in South Boston. I’ve had great conversations with people,’’ said Lee, whose campaign has focused on improving city schools. “They hear my message. They want the same thing.’’

In South Boston, Ferrara’s campaign has taken direct aim at Linehan, saying the incumbent is not really even a “Southie guy’’ despite having lived there his entire life. Ferrara, 48, works for a shipping company and founded South Boston’s youth football and lacrosse programs.

In 2007, Ferrara ran for the District 2 seat after Kelly’s death but finished last out of seven candidates in the preliminary election, garnering less than 5 percent of the vote.

For this race, Ferrara has raised less than $2,200, according to his campaign finance records - far less than Lee or Linehan, who has raised almost $110,000.

Ferrara lives a few doors down from Michael F. Flaherty Jr. and worked on his unsuccessful bid to unseat Menino in 2009. Some political watchers have speculated that Ferrara joined the race to help drive up turnout in South Boston for Flaherty, who is trying to regain an at-large seat on the City Council.

Ferrara vehemently denied that.

“This isn’t a Mike Flaherty comeback campaign,’’ Ferrara said. “I’m looking to defend the neighborhood the way that Jimmy Kelly defended the neighborhood. That’s not really happening now.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.