The St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston has long been known as a no-holds-barred political slugfest. And though the event is six months away, the slugfest has already begun.
The battle is over who has the rightful claim to host the event. Call it the Southie version of Game of Thrones.
For generations, the breakfast — which is essentially a political roast — has been hosted by the sitting senator in the First Suffolk Senate district. And since the 1940s, that office has been held by an Irish-American man from South Boston — from John Powers to Joe Moakley to Billy Bulger to Stephen Lynch to Jack Hart.
The neighborhood’s stranglehold on the office was so pronounced that it was referred to as the “Southie seat,” even though it also includes much of Dorchester, Mattapan, and a piece of Hyde Park.
But in May, Linda Dorcena-Forry, a Haitian-American woman from Dorchester, won that Senate seat after narrowly defeating Nick Collins, a young state representative from South Boston, in the Democratic primary.
With her victory, Dorcena-Forry looked to be in line to take over hosting duties at the breakfast, which is one of the main events on the state’s political calendar. But in South Boston, the breakfast is something more, a symbol of South Boston’s lengthy position of power in the political infrastructure, and the idea that a black woman from Dorchester is poised to take over the cherished Irish-American event is culturally and politically loaded.
Bill Linehan, a councilor from South Boston who hosted the breakfast this March after Jack Hart abruptly resigned the “Southie seat” to take a position at a private law firm, is vowing to retain hosting duties.
‘The sitting senator has always hosted, and you don’t have to be Irish to do it. I believe that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.’ — Senator Linda Dorcena-Forry
“It’s never been stated anywhere that it has to be the state senator,” Linehan said. “It’s a cultural thing. There has never been anyone who hosted it who does not live in South Boston, but there have been people who have hosted it who were not the state senator.”
William M. Bulger, the former senator who transformed the event into the made-for-television spectacle that it is today, took over hosting duties from then-senator Joe Moakley while Bulger was still a state representative. But in a phone interview this week, Bulger said “that’s mostly because I was such a ham, and Moakley finally said, ‘You want to take this thing over?’ ”
But Bulger went on to support Dorcena-Forry’s thinking, saying that “it has always been the understanding that it was the state senator that was the host.”
US Representative Stephen Lynch, who succeeded Bulger as state senator and breakfast host in 1997, also supported the idea that Dorcena-Forry should host.
“I believe the sitting state Senator has always served as host,” Lynch said in a statement. “As our new Senator, Linda should be the host, and I am happy to lend her my expertise and any assistance I can provide.”
But Jack Hart, the last of the sitting senators to host the event, took a different approach. He said the election of Dorcena-Forry ushered in an “unprecedented time,” and he said he hoped that Linehan and Dorcena-Forry could sit down and work out a compromise. “There are no rules. There’s no rule book to go by regarding who hosts the thing.”
He said he did not hand over the duties to Linehan; he simply left politics, and later got a call from Linehan saying that as the ranking South Boston elected official, he wanted to host, and asked for Hart’s advice on how to do it.
The breakfast is paid for by the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast Committee, a nonprofit that raises funds from the community, as well as through television advertising. The breakfast airs on New England Cable News.
Dorcena-Forry said she is open to discussing the matter with Linehan and the elected officials in South Boston, but she is not backing down from the idea that the position is rightfully hers.
“The sitting senator has always hosted, and you don’t have to be Irish to do it,” Forry said in a phone interview. “I believe that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone’s celebrating Irish culture. You don’t have to be 100 percent Irish.”
Dorcena-Forry argues that she is no stranger to the Irish-American community. She is married to Bill Forry, an Irish-American who is editor of the Dorchester Reporter.
“I have four bi-racial children — Irish-American and black. I’ve been to Ireland four times. We celebrate the culture in my house. My two oldest sons were baptized in St. Augustine’s chapel in South Boston. I’m not just a random black woman who has this seat.”
Nick Collins, the state representative who lost to Dorcena-Forry, is the chief ally of Linehan in his claim to retain hosting duties on the grounds that it should fall to the “dean of the local delegation,” though not necessarily the state senator. “It’s always been a person from South Boston,” he said.
But at the breakfast in March, Collins made it clear that he was planning to host the event if he won the Senate seat. “Don’t get used to this, Bill,” he said, while reciting a joking ode. “A good job you have done as a sub. . . . I look forward to taking on this challenge next year. . . . Just get me through this special election.”
But Collins says that had he won, he would not necessarily have taken over hosting duties. “I would have been interested, but I would have had to negotiate with Bill [Linehan] to get him to give it up. I don’t think anybody has ever relinquished it if they weren’t OK with it.”
Should Linehan lose his reelection bid this fall — he’s expecting a tough challenge from Suzanne Lee, a woman he narrowly defeated in 2011 — Collins said he would then make the claim that he, not Dorcena-Forry, should host.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but as the dean of the local delegation and a resident of South Boston, yes I would make that claim,” Collins said.
What happens next is unclear, and both Linehan and Dorcena-Forry are in tricky political waters. They risk alienating some by taking on the fight, and others if they do not. Linehan’s position could become an issue in his election, while there is wide speculation that if Dorcena-Forry follows through on her claim, she will only incite the still-powerful South Boston political machine, which will lead to her facing a stiff challenge when she is up for reelection.
The two have discussed the matter with each other in passing, but both sides say they need to sit down and have a serious negotiation. Linehan says he is open to Dorcena-Forry playing a large role in the event, “but I’m the host now,” he said.
“And I don’t change my position that it has always been someone from South Boston, but it hasn’t always been the senator. It’s the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. That’s the name of it. Just because she feels she should be the host doesn’t mean that will happen without negotiation. She’s not just going to proclaim that she’s the host without having a discussion with me.”
Dorcena-Forry said she’s looking forward to that discussion, but worried she was being subjected to a revisionist interpretation of the rules of succession.
“To change the rules now because you’re not happy with the outcome is not cool,” she said.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.