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The last Irish ward boss

For all those whining about two white Irish Catholic guys advancing to the Boston mayoral final, it might be helpful to listen to Dr. King’s speech, the 50th anniversary of which was just commemorated, and what he had to say about not judging people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Defining Marty Walsh and John Connolly as Irish pols is like defining the great and recently departed Seamus Heaney as an Irish poet. It’s accurate, but misleadingly narrow.

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Connolly is as comfortable in Roxbury as he is in his native West Roxbury. Walsh has used his position in labor to open doors for women and minorities, not to hoard jobs for white guys who pray at red brick churches.

The Irish have long memories. Too long, sometimes. But the best of the Irish remember that every disparaging and racist thing said today about the newest arrivals in Boston was said about the Irish when they first got here. Walsh and Connolly get that.

Boston’s mayoral race is not a classically Irish political battle. For that, you need to head north to Lawrence, the poorest city in the state and one of the poorest in the country, where James Michael Curley has been reincarnated in the form of Mayor Willie Lantigua.

Lantigua has much in common with Curley, the legendary Irish pol who served four terms as Boston’s mayor and two terms in prison. Like Curley, Lantigua speaks with a silver tongue and is a hero to many poor people. Like Curley, he uses patronage to buy political loyalty. And, like the often investigated Curley, Lantigua’s administration has been targeted by more than one prosecutor.

Even as his aides and cronies get indicted for corruption, Lantigua dismisses the investigations of his administration as proxy attacks on the Dominicans who form his political base. Like Curley, who dismissed those who pointed to the endemic corruption of his administrations as anti-Irish bigots, Lantigua is expert at the politics of division and deflecting blame.

Enter Dan Rivera, the challenger. He was born in the Bronx to a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father he never knew. His mom worked as a seamstress in New York, then Lawrence. Dan Rivera grew up at the Lawrence Boys and Girls Club, played football at Lawrence High, joined the Army and served in Desert Storm, then went to UMass Amherst on the GI bill and came home to make a difference. He is a veteran, has an MBA, works in the private sector as a marketing manager, serves as a city councilor, and is a solid family man.

Which means he doesn’t stand a chance.

At least that’s what the political wiseguys say. Rivera is determined to prove them wrong. He’s knocking on doors, telling voters that Lantigua is holding Lawrence back.

“Lawrence has a lot of challenges,” Rivera says, sitting in his campaign office next door to a vacant storefront. “My message is not that Willie is the devil. My message is Lawrence will never move forward as long as he is mayor.”

Rivera topped a field of five primary challengers, but even if he got every one of their votes, he would have been about 600 short of Lantigua’s 5,725. But Rivera and his allies, who include many Anglos in a city that is more than 70 percent Hispanic, see an opening: Lantigua lost votes in 20 of 26 precincts since the last election.

“We have to get the vote out,” Rivera says.

On Wednesday, Rivera stood with some volunteers, who chatted easily in a mix of English and Spanish.

Kate Reilly, one of his aides, talked strategy. She wore a Claddagh ring, a symbol that, like the church spires that dot the city skyline, harkens to a time when Irish women worked the mills before giving way to Dominican ladies.

Now the Irish in Lawrence are pulling for a Latino guy named Dan Rivera to oust Willie Lantigua, the last remaining Irish-style ward boss in Massachusetts.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.

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