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At Savin Hill cafe, mayor-elect finds home away from home

The support for Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh at McKenna’s Cafe is clear from the T-shirt worn by server Helena Kelly. Walsh is a longtime regular at the breakfast spot near his Savin Hill home.

Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

The support for Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh at McKenna’s Cafe is clear from the T-shirt worn by server Helena Kelly. Walsh is a longtime regular at the breakfast spot near his Savin Hill home.

Behind the counter at McKenna’s Cafe, Helena Kelly hustled from customer to customer with a spring in her step. Martin J. Walsh, beloved Savin Hill native and devoted McKenna’s regular, was Boston’s newly elected mayor, the first from Dorchester in half a century.

Those at the humble cafe could not help but take pride.

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“We couldn’t be happier,” Kelly said Wednesday, speaking for the restaurant and the neighborhood where Walsh grew up and still lives, just a short walk from McKenna’s. “Everybody who comes in here is behind him 100 percent. He deserves it more than anyone I could think of.”

For Walsh, McKenna’s has been a kind of second home, a respite from the political grind where he can be part of the neighborhood for a while, customers said.

George Kelly, 79, playing lotto at McKenna’s Cafe, has known Walsh since he was a boy, and knew his father before that.

Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

George Kelly, 79, playing lotto at McKenna’s Cafe, has known Walsh since he was a boy, and knew his father before that.

Yet the popular Savin Hill Avenue breakfast spot has also served as Walsh’s political base, a casual campaign stop from which he built a citywide coalition, and could well become a kind of satellite City Hall.

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For a politician whose success rested in no small part on a blue-collar, everyman appeal, the unpretentious McKenna’s, where the bulletin board is filled with local announcements and the early bird special costs just $4.75, is a perfect fit, regulars said.

“This is the base of operations for the neighborhood,” said Patrick Wynne, 39, as he finished his lunch. “This is our hub.”

‘Everybody who comes in here is behind him 100 percent.’

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Like many McKenna’s customers, Wynne has known Walsh for years and said he was thrilled by his victory Tuesday. Wynne said he owed Walsh a great debt.

When he was struggling in his mid-20s, Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, helped him get sober. Over the years, Walsh has helped many people from the neighborhood, he said.

“He knew I was having problems,” the 39-year-old recalled. “He’s that in touch with the neighborhood.”

Walsh’s mayoral victory was a “Cinderella story,” he said.

At the counter near Wynne, George Kelly, 79, sipped a bowl of beef stew. He had known Walsh since he was a boy, and had known his father before that. For Savin Hill, especially the Irish-born, it was a banner day, he said.

“It’s just fantastic,” he said. “I’m very proud of him. We all are.”

Across the room, Walsh’s Irish relatives were having lunch. Even when Marty Walsh was not at McKenna’s, his family was, they joked. But rest assured, Walsh would never abandon McKenna’s just because he won an election, they said.

“He’ll still be coming in,” said Margaret Mannion, Walsh’s aunt from Galway. “He’s a people person. That’s not going to change.”

Helena Kelly served breakfast Wednesday to Margaret Mannion, Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh’s aunt from Galway, Ireland. Many of Walsh’s relatives are regulars at McKenna’s Cafe, a restaurant near Walsh’s home in Savin Hill.

Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

Helena Kelly served breakfast Wednesday to Margaret Mannion, Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh’s aunt from Galway, Ireland. Many of Walsh’s relatives are regulars at McKenna’s Cafe, a restaurant near Walsh’s home in Savin Hill.

The daughter of Lorrie Higgins, Walsh’s longtime girlfriend, has worked at McKenna’s for years, employees said.

Sitting at a booth, Josephine Mahon, a Dorchester native who now lives in Weymouth, said she understood what Walsh saw in McKenna’s. It was a warm, comforting place, she said, a place that “felt like going home.”

But his regular visits also send a key political message, she said. It shows that he is loyal, and knows where he comes from.

“People know he stays close to his roots,” said Mahon, 74. “That’s what did it for him.”

Throughout the closeknit neighborhood, where red Walsh signs dotted the landscape, residents savored Walsh’s win with evident pride. Walsh will soon have a whole city to worry about, but he will always be from Savin Hill, many said.

“This is Marty Walsh country,” said Joshua Stroman, 28. “People are definitely happy today.”

Near Walsh’s Tuttle Street home, neighbors shared their personal connections to the mayor-elect.

Lindsay Ward, 26, said her parents know Walsh well, and that Walsh once helped her get a job at the Franklin Park Zoo.

“He has my heart.” she said. “He’s the best. The whole neighborhood is so proud of him.”

Brian Schmitz, wearing a Savin Hill sweatshirt, said he had known Walsh since they were kids and could hardly believe he had grown up to be mayor.

“It’s absolutely fabulous,” said Schmitz, 42. “He’s going to do a lot of good for the neighborhood.”

Walsh’s win was more than just a point of local pride, he said. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, the son of Irish immigrants, Walsh saw firsthand the challenges many families face, an experience that surely helped him connect with voters, he said.

“This neighborhood has shaped him into the man he is,” Schmitz said. “He’s a standup guy who’s been through a lot, and because of that he’s in touch with the people.”

While Walsh assembled a broad coalition to secure victory, Savin Hill provided a deep base of support.

Some people said they voted for his opponent, Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, but not many, and his campaign signs were few and far between.

“I voted for Walsh, my daughter voted for him, my whole family voted for him,” said John Gould, 84, as he picked up around his Romsey Street home.

But it was at McKenna’s, where Walsh stickers graced the small flowerpots on the counter, that Walsh’s victory seemed to resonate deepest.

“This is the neighborhood place,” Helena Kelly said as she grabbed a customer’s change. “This is Savin Hill.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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