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Lawrence Harmon

New truths about Boston in Senate race

Whoever wins Tuesday’s special election in the First Suffolk Senate District is going to obliterate old Boston stereotypes. And it will be a pleasure to watch them go. For too long, the strong sense of community in some Boston neighborhoods — South Boston especially — had been defined by the exclusion of certain people and ideas.

This so-called Southie seat passed from former Senate President William Bulger to Stephen Lynch, now a US representative, to Jack Hart, who resigned recently to practice law in a downtown firm. “Southie seat” is a misnomer, however. South Boston, which is largely white, comprises less than a quarter of the district’s registered voters. The larger portion of the district includes many minority neighborhoods in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

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This is the field in the Democratic primary: Linda Dorcena Forry is a Haitian-American state representative from Dorchester who is married to an Irish-American newspaper publisher; Maureen Dahill is a fourth-generation native of South Boston and fashion stylist who is grinding what remains of the neighborhood’s xenophobic traditions under the heel of her signature clogs from Rue La La; Nick Collins, the state representative from South Boston, is the old-school, white candidate — and by “old-school” I mean the youngest candidate at 30 who is reaching out like no one’s business to the district’s black and Cape Verdean communities.

Whoever wins will make a statement. But a Dorcena Forry victory would be the loudest. Many across the nation can still recall the televised scenes of violence during the 1970s-era school desegregation battles in South Boston. Some black conventioneers are still reluctant to come to Boston based on that old reputation. Yet how are we supposed to know when those old demons have been exorcised? The election of a Haitian-American woman to the top elected post in South Boston would probably do it.

But don’t expect Dorcena Forry, 39, to work herself up into some kind of multicultural lather. The busy mother of four biracial kids is more likely to get excited about simplifying regulations for small business or finding more money in the state budget to pay early childhood workers a decent wage.

Dahill, a 43-year-old political newcomer, is married to a Boston firefighter. Her brother is a Boston police officer. She learned about the neighborhood’s traditional values at the knee of her grandfather, a bigwig in South Boston civic affairs. This is about as pure a South Boston pedigree as one can have.

But some of the old neighborhood didn’t rub off on her. She’s been on the march against the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council for banning gay and lesbian groups from the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill is surrounded by proud members of municipal unions. Yet she is a strong proponent of charter schools and pension reform. And she is open to charging a fee for resident parking stickers as a way to discourage congestion. It’s personal with her. It’s so hard to park in South Boston, she said, that no one comes to visit.

Whoever wins the First Suffolk Senate District election will obliterate old Boston stereotypes.

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Collins, meanwhile, is reaching beyond his comfortable base in South Boston. The earnestness of the second-term state representative has drawn the support of some well-known minority leaders, including Larry Ellison, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. The old rap on South Boston pols was that they would turn the world upside down for someone in need provided they lived in the high-voting 02127 ZIP code. Collins, however, has been showing the flag in Dorchester neighborhoods marred by poverty and violence. Some minority voters there are saying that he, not Dorcena Forry, would best champion their quest for construction jobs and new housing along undeveloped portions of the commuter rail line in Mattapan and Dorchester.

“I think the days of identity politics are over,’’ said Collins.

Political interest in this race extends beyond the district, which is shaped like a sea horse. The increasingly crowded, multiracial mayoral field will be scanning the results for clues about how best to cross ethnic lines on Election Day. There is a lesson here for voters, too. The days have passed when a quick snapshot of a Boston candidate’s race, gender, ethnicity, or address could be used as a palm card on election day.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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