Jack Hart — the genial South Boston Democrat who resigned last week — was a quiet force in the state Senate, not one to spark much controversy.
It’s ironic then that his exit may serve as catalyst for an election that could send sparks flying, if it ends up pitting South Boston against Dorchester. That, in turn, pits the city’s old political guard against its new reality.
Hart’s former district was long the stronghold of William M. Bulger. It has been represented by men from South Boston since, well, forever. But redistricting and demographic change have substantially altered its makeup, to the point that South Boston is not guaranteed to produce its senator.
Among the possible candidates to succeed Hart are state Representative Nick Collins and former city councilor Michael Flaherty, both from South Boston, and Linda Dorcena Forry and Russell Holmes, both Dorchester state representatives. All have confirmed, in various venues, that they are considering running.
“There’s no question that Forry could win this race,” said a State House insider who asked for anonymity. “South Boston has changed substantially, and so has that district.”
Hart’s decision barely registered publicly in a week in which upheaval seemed to arrive on a daily basis. Every politician in Massachusetts seems to be running for office, pondering a run, or waiting for someone else to leave the office they really want to run for. Case in point: Hart succeeded US Representative Stephen Lynch, the congressman now chasing his longstanding senatorial ambitions.
Hart’s resignation came as a mild surprise, given that he was considered a likely Senate president in the not-distant future. But he quit to join a downtown law firm.
“It’s a decision that I didn’t make hastily,” he said in a telephone interview. “I have four daughters, and I’m paying [private school] tuition for all of them. This was really the best decision for my family.”
The reasons this historically South Boston seat could change hands are easy to understand. For one thing, the majority of the district is now in Dorchester. Also, many observers believe that someone from outside South Boston could win a significant percentage of votes within Southie. That wouldn’t have been likely a few years ago, but South Boston continues to become home to new residents at a rapid clip.
Forry has become one of those politicians who is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for everything. A Haitian-American who married into a popular Dorchester family, she has unusually broad appeal, and her diligence has won almost nothing but praise during her eight years in office. Both Collins and Holmes are relative newcomers who would have only a few months to build support outside the districts that elected them. Generally, name recognition counts heavily in a special election, simply because there isn’t time to build it.
Of course, name recognition won’t be a problem for Flaherty, who represented South Boston for a decade on the City Council before losing a bid for mayor in 2009. Flaherty ran a respectable campaign against Mayor Thomas M. Menino. But he was hurt by the perception that he was a conventional son of South Boston. That image may not work in his favor in this race, either. This race will struggle for attention, perhaps, against a US Senate race that will probably garner heavy national attention. But its outcome may say a lot about political power in Boston — specifically, who is gaining it and who’s losing it.
And of course, the winner will presumably inherit the longstanding mantle of host of the St. Patrick's Day Breakfast, the premier political event of Boston’s Irish-American power structure. The breakfast has been a stale affair for years now, but it doesn’t have to be.
Hardly anything would say “change” in Boston like a woman of color leading the crowd in warbling Irish ballads in honor of St. Patrick. I’d buy a ticket to that.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.