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THE POLITICAL TRAIL

Cabral's shocker ushers in 'a new day'

For Murphy, Irish name not enough

It seemed to have all the makings of a perfect storm. But while the political wise guys saw everything coming together to send Andrea Cabral's wobbly ship crashing on the shoals of Boston politics, it was Stephen Murphy -- along with conventional wisdom -- who took a battering in Tuesday's race for Suffolk County sheriff.

The longtime at-large city councilor was supposed to coast to victory in Tuesday's Democratic primary. It would be a low turnout affair, went the thinking, with the votes concentrated in more conservative areas of the city where Murphy runs well. With dozens of campaigns under his belt, he was supposed to know the ropes that pull supporters to the polls. The most brazen of Murphy's handlers had him walking away with the race by a 60-40 margin.

They had the math right, but nothing else. In a contest that will go down as one of the true shockers of local politics, it was Cabral, a political neophyte appointed to the job two years ago, who trounced Murphy, 60-40.

''Conventional wisdom would dictate that a black female running in a low turnout primary wouldn't have a chance," said Cabral campaign manager Matt O'Malley. ''It's a new day."

Indeed it is. While minority neighborhoods delivered a resounding vote to Cabral, with the former prosecutor rolling over Murphy by margins of more than 10-1 in some precincts, places like West Roxbury, believed to be a Murphy stronghold, saw the two candidates run virtually even. In Dorchester's prime Savin Hill precinct, despite an all-out push for Murphy by local politicos, including City Councilor Maureen Feeney, Representative Marty Walsh, Senator Jack Hart, and Congressman Steve Lynch, Cabral beat Murphy by a handful of votes.

As much as some have heralded a new political awakening in the minority community, which a year ago helped Felix Arroyo become the first Hispanic city councilor elected, Boston also appears to be witnessing the death of ethnic politics in some traditionally white neighborhoods, where the votes of those with Irish surnames no longer go automatically to a guy named Murphy.

It happened 10 years ago, when Ralph Martin became the first black elected Suffolk D.A., but he had the benefit of running in a high-turnout November election.

It may only be fitting that Murphy was the fall guy in the latest chapter of the shifting sensibilities of Boston voters.

After all, it's not for nothing that the Hyde Park councilor is probably the only politician under 50 regularly linked to the bilious former councilor Dapper O'Neil, who liked to boast of his link to James Michael Curley, Boston's legendary mayor who left office more than 50 years ago. Murphy once served as a driver for O'Neil, who once served as a driver for Curley, making for just one degree of separation between the 47-year-old backslapping pol and the man who helped give Boston its reputation for hardball politics.

While Cabral's future seems to brim with possibility, Murphy's is very much in doubt, with a classic bit of Boston political turnabout now threatening him.

Patricia White, the daughter of former mayor Kevin White, who finished fifth in last year's at-large council race and who would have taken a council seat had Murphy prevailed in the sheriff's race, is gearing up to run again next year.

Hoping to help clear a path to the council for his daughter, Kevin White appeared Monday at a Revere senior center with Murphy. Just last year, Murphy had complained when Patricia White brought her father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, on the trail in her campaign.

But the votes had barely been counted when the long knives of the White team came out for Murphy. Public relations honcho George Regan, once press secretary to the former mayor, declared Murphy ''ripe for the picking" in next year's council race.

In May, in one of the first volleys of the sheriff's race, Cabral slammed Murphy as an old-school operator who practices Jurassic politics. While the sheriff is shining up her badge for a six-year term, Murphy wears the label of most endangered council incumbent, with a battle ahead against extinction.

Winds of changeChange was in the air Tuesday in Somerville and Medford, where newcomer Carl Sciortino toppled 16-year incumbent Vinnie Ciampa in the Democratic primary for the 34th Middlesex House seat by a 117-vote margin.

Sciortino, a research manager at the Fenway Community Health Center who is openly gay, said Ciampa's votes in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage were the ''final straw" in his decision to challenge the veteran Somerville pol. But the 26-year-old Tufts graduate was never a one-issue candidate, waging a savvy campaign emphasizing access to affordable health care and support for local schools.

Sciortino ripped Ciampa for tax votes that he said favored big business and the wealthy, while putting more of the burden for funding schools and local services on property taxes, which have risen sharply in Somerville.

At the same time, he energized liberal voters, who have a growing presence in the district. ''People responded well to a candidate who said they supported all families," said Sciortino, who portrayed gay marriage as an issue of fairness.

In '96, Ciampa barely survived a primary challenge by another young liberal. This time, the winds of change blew a little stronger.

Michael Jonas can be reached at jonas@globe.com.

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