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State Senate rivals are focusing on Dorchester

‘Southie seat’ could turn on minority vote

For months, the First Suffolk state senate special election primary has had its candidates bouncing from event to event across the expansive district, which stretches from the neighborhoods of South Boston to the streets of Hyde Park.

But in the final days of competition for a district historically dominated by South Boston politicians, Democratic representatives Nick Collins and Linda Dorcena Forry and political newcomer Maureen Dahill are pouring the bulk of their ground games into just one section of the district.

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It’s a dogfight for Dorchester.

Long known as the “Southie seat,” the state senate spot vacated by John A. Hart Jr. earlier this year may defy historical precedent when voters hit the polls Tuesday.

For decades the district’s political might was concentrated in South Boston, home to the city’s powerful Irish-American political structure and about 30,000 or so voters.

But the candidates agree that it will be the more than 100,000 voters who make up Dorchester — historically a less reliable voting bloc — who will likely decide this race.

All three candidates have spent time stumping on street corners in Dorchester — where much of the city’s burgeoning black, Latino, and immigrant power structure is based — shaking hands with black ministers and handing out signs and buttons at events miles away from the Irish pubs frequented by South Boston’s traditional power base.

‘When the campaign started, people thought we were going to stay in South Boston.’

Nick Collins, state Senate candidate 
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Collins has been spotted going door-to-door through Savin Hill; Dahill and her family members have canvassed Dorchester’s parks and playgrounds; and crews of supporters waving Dorcena Forry’s campaign signs have been a common sight near Codman Square.

A well-known and well-connected Dorchester native, Dorcena Forry has been considered the favorite to carry the support of her home neighborhood and, with the race down to its final days, insists that she will. “We are winning in Dorchester,” Dorcena Forry said, confidently, during an interview between campaign events on Friday.

“I’ve lived in the First Suffolk district my whole life,” said Dorcena Forry, 39, a Haitian-American who would be the first woman and first racial minority to hold the state senate seat if elected.

“Breaking barriers is nothing new to me,” she said, adding, “I’m someone who has been able to bring all backgrounds to the table.”

Her endorsements include the Rev. Gregory Groover, president of the Black Ministerial Alliance, and Bishop John Borders of Morning Star Baptist Church.

Her campaign events are often attended by prominent city leaders of color, including council members Ayanna Pressley, Felix Arroyo, and Tito Jackson.

In addition to a long roster of elected officials who have mobilized for her campaign, carrying white signs that scream “Linda” in dark blue, Dorcena Forry’s deep connections throughout the district have given her access to the addresses and inboxes of thousands of voters and helped land her scores of endorsements — from Planned Parenthood to the National Association of Social Workers.

Dorcena Forry’s supporters have painted her as the only candidate fit to represent a quickly evolving, largely urban district, running against two South Boston Democrats who represent an outdated city power structure.

But both of her opponents have fought hard to shed that label.

Collins, 30, a former Hart aide, is trumpeting the endorsements of several of the district’s black ministers and emphasizing his work in the Legislature to increase the presence of antidrug units in Mattapan and nearby Roxbury and improve public transportation there.

“When the campaign started, people thought we were going to stay in South Boston,” Collins said as he addressed well more than 100 people packed into the back of a Southie tavern at a campaign rally on Thursday.

“That’s not what we did,” he added, surrounded by an entourage of friends and family members. “I wanted everyone to know that I can represent everyone in this city.”

Collins, who is branding himself the race’s “millennial candidate,” highlighted his endorsement by community leaders and advocates for racial minorities in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Campaign officials note that, on some Dorchester blocks, his yard signs outnumber those of his opponents two-to-one.

And campaign officials say his ground-level focus on Dorchester will continue through Tuesday’s primary, as volunteers, signs, and political allies, including former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, find their way to the neighborhood.

“I’ll be out there in Dorchester,” said Flynn, himself a member of South Boston’s Irish-American political old guard, introducing Collins at a recent campaign event. “I’ve been going door-to-door and people keep saying ‘You don’t have to tell us to vote for Nick, he’s already been out here himself.’ This guy is working hard.”

While the Collins campaign has marketed his endorsement by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a prominent member of the district’s black leadership, Dorcena Forry still holds the support of much of the city’s minority leadership.

Meanwhile, Dahill has worked to mobilize a younger set of voters through an aggressive street campaign and her community website, Caught in Southie.

“I’m not a politician,” she said with a smile, as she stood near a South Boston intersection during a campaign outreach event last week. “Voters are drawn to me because I’m a resident just like them, not someone who has made a career out of politics.”

Web and social media-savvy, and proud of her blue-collar South Boston roots, Dahill has still based much of her campaign on one-on-one introductions to voters.

While her political support is centered in South Boston, she said that her background as a small business owner and her relative political inexperience make her easily relatable to voters in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

She said that she will spend much of the campaign’s final hours racing between Dorchester and South Boston, adding that the race’s focus on the former has cut into her ability to spread her message throughout South Boston, where Collins’s name recognition remains supreme.

Particularly painful was the cancellation of a South Boston candidates’ forum that was slated for the Thursday before election day. It was scrapped after Collins pulled out due to a conflict.

But even without the forum, Dahill said, she is pouring hours of time into the streets of South Boston and stood flanked by dozens of supporters on West Broadway on a warm Thursday evening.

“Undecided voter!” shouted one of her supporters, prompting Dahill to cut off a conversation and head in the direction of a college-aged man walking down the street.

The candidates all agree that reaching those voters who might otherwise sit out the special election primary and mobilizing those who have pledged support will decide the race.

While Boston typically sees healthy turnout in presidential votes, primaries — especially for special elections — have historically seen far fewer voters. Just 15 percent of voters in the First Suffolk district, for example, voted in the 2009 Democratic primary for the special election to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s US Senate seat.

“He said that he’s registered, wasn’t going to vote before but, now that he’s met me, I’ve got his vote,” Dahill said, returning from a 10-minute conversation with the man, as she grabbed a yard sign to hold out to passing motorists.

“I’m going to have to follow that one to the polls to make sure he gets there.”

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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