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Caught up between new, old Southie

Maureen Dahill’s story has become a striking symbol of the growing pains of a neighborhood struggling to maintain its traditions in the face of gentrification

Maureen Dahill ran for state Senate hoping to unite her neighborhood — and became a deeply divisive figure as a result.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Maureen Dahill ran for state Senate hoping to unite her neighborhood — and became a deeply divisive figure as a result.

As the rest of the political world in Boston swirled, Maureen Dahill sat on her couch in South Boston, curled up in her pajamas, battling a miserable cold and staring at the TV. She told herself she was glad.

It was the night of the mayoral election, an important moment in the city’s history, and had things worked out back in April, when Dahill ran for the 1st Suffolk Senate seat, she would have been at the center of the swirl. But as it was, the cold fit her mood.

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It wasn’t just that she had lost the race. Her campaign had gone so exquisitely wrong that in the seven months since the election she had also become a villain in the neighborhood where she was born. As one online critic put it, she was “the most hated woman in Southie.”

Dahill had something much sunnier in mind when she got into the race. Her pitch was to build a bridge between the new South Boston, the young professionals who have colonized in the neighborhood in the last 15 years, and the old South Boston, the one the 42-year-old Dahill grew up in, the one that has become bitter over all the new condos scrubbing out the old Southie.

From the start of her campaign, there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building. But it was her presence in the race they hated the most, and when it was over she had fulfilled their prophecy and had taken enough votes from the other South Boston candidate, their candidate, to allow the prized “Southie seat” to fall into the hands of someone from outside the neighborhood for the first time in more than half a century. It was viewed as an act of treason.

So as she sat there on the night of the mayoral election, watching Marty Walsh give his victory speech, Maureen Dahill was glad to be far away from the fray.

Then, her phone rang.

Ready for a fight

Dahill knew what she was walking into. And the second the word got out that she was considering a run for the “Southie seat,” many tried to stop her before she started.

For 66 years, the 1st Suffolk Senate seat was considered a neighborhood birthright, the symbol of the ascent of the South Boston Irish to a powerful political class. Since 1947, a succession of neighborhood pols, most famously William Bulger, held it uninterrupted.

The growing number of young residents is changing the nature of South Boston, long a bastion of working-class Irish-Americans.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

The growing number of young residents is changing the nature of South Boston, long a bastion of working-class Irish-Americans.

Southie then was a virtually unstoppable voting bloc and a geographic monoculture with a clear identity and a fervent insularism to keep it that way. Nothing galvanized the working-class Irish like fighting off outside influence, as it did in the fight over court-ordered school busing in the 1970s.

But what they’re fighting now is a simple accident of geography. Southie sits on prime real estate, right next to downtown, right next to the ocean, with a completely new neighborhood in its old industrial waterfront. As real estate prices have climbed, the old Southie has left, and the youthful invasion has taken over.

Before, there were 24 Little League teams in the neighborhood. Now there are four. Two Catholic schools are left. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the number of residents younger than 18 dropped by half, and the number of twentysomethings doubled.

But the Southie seat remained, a reminder that South Boston still had something left of its old clout. When Jack Hart resigned the seat abruptly in January to take a job at a private law firm, Nick Collins, a 31-year-old state representative, was seen as his natural successor. But there was worry behind the scenes because Linda Dorcena Forry, a popular Haitian-American state representative from Dorchester, was planning to run. And the numbers said that two Southie candidates were too many.

A blog blows up

In February 2012, as a cold winter wind whistled around the windows at the Seapoint restaurant, Dahill stepped to the podium and launched into her first campaign speech.

It was a standard affair, family and friends and balloons, and she spent the first part of her talk establishing that she was an authentic Southie girl, born and raised. Often when people meet her for the first time, they look at her — she has worked in the fashion industry for years, has a taste for bright print dresses, and wears a short, schoolboy haircut — and ask: Where are you originally from?

But the core of Dahill’s speech was about one thing: her blog.

“Caught in Southie,” and what it stands for, was essentially the platform for her campaign. She and a friend launched the website in 2009 as an inside joke, a way to “catch” the attention of Southie people who had moved away. But it morphed into a neighborhood magazine, edited by Dahill. “Caught in Southie,” she said in a proud voice, “has long been credited with bridging the gap between new South Bostonians and lifelong residents of South Boston.”

What she didn’t say is that it had also been a source of intense controversy. Some time before, Dahill’s husband, a Boston firefighter named Peter Gailunas, blogged in defense of the young people who had taken over M Street Beach.

The neighborhood’s two community newspapers had lashed out at the newcomers, accusing them of creating a fraternity-house atmosphere, with drinking and rowdy behavior. In his post, Gailunas said the newcomers were no more guilty of misbehavior than generations of Southie youth who tipped cold ones at the beach, and he accused the complainers of an anti-yuppie bigotry.

A few weeks later, when Gailunas and Dahill were walking past the firehouse on East 4th Street, a firefighter, a buddy of Gailunas’s, hit them with a joking jab that had the language of war in South Boston. He called them “yuppie sympathizers.”

Growing antipathy

The weeks that followed Dahill’s announcement speech were full of enthusiasm. She printed signs and mailings, hired a political consultant, and erected a massive billboard at the busy intersection of L and Broadway that featured an 8-foot-tall image of Dahill in one of her signature dresses. She and her supporters knocked on doors and held stand-outs, the whole thing wrapped in the giddy optimism of a first-time candidate.

The campaign season for the special election just happened to coincide with the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, the main event on the Southie social calendar, and she hit all the events, shaking hands, trying to persuade old Southie to get on board.

Then one day, on the way to a function, she pulled up to her childhood home on East Broadway to pick up her father, Richie. She was on the phone when he got in the car, and as soon as he picked up on her end of the conversation, his face changed. She was speaking with a reporter about a press release she had just issued declaring her support for allowing gays to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, something the parade’s organizers had gone all the way to the Supreme Court to block.

“I could tell by looking at him that he was worried,” Dahill said of her father. “He realized it was a very brave move, but he didn’t want his daughter sacrificed. He was proud of me. He just wished it wasn’t me.”

Dahill simply felt it was the right thing to do. Her brother, Richie, a Boston police sergeant, is a gay married man. She said she got plenty of positive feedback in the neighborhood, but some were “very upset, very vocal, and very mean-spirited,” she said.

Raising the issue also did nothing to endear her to the other local elected officials, who tended to avoid the subject and were none too happy to get calls from reporters asking where they stood.

She received angry e-mails, and aggressive, anonymous comments on her blog. As she continued to make her way to St. Patrick’s Day events, she often felt ostracized. At one, the emcee denounced her in front of a large crowd.

At others, she would see people she’d known her whole life, “and they would literally turn their back,” she said. “They’d see me coming and go to the bathroom. They’d engage in conversation with someone else. It got to the point where even my own family was like, ‘Why did you have to bring that up?’ ”

A crushing defeat

Election Day came under a sparkling April sky. She spent the morning shaking hands, and when afternoon rolled around and the neighborhood went quiet, she snuck off to vote. Her precinct on L Street was nearly empty.

She checked in at the desk, and she was surprised the poll workers showed no recognition when she stated that her name was Maureen Dahill. It was the sort of thing she didn’t realize she was expecting until it didn’t happen. It felt like something, but she put it out of her mind as she picked up her ballot and walked to an empty voting booth for a special moment.

She lay the ballot down, carefully filled in the oval next to her name, and allowed herself a moment to take a mental Polaroid, to feel pride in the fact that she had followed through and put herself, and what she stood for, up for a vote.

Enthusiasm for Maureen Dahill’s state Senate bid began to wane after she spoke up in support of allowing gays to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Enthusiasm for Maureen Dahill’s state Senate bid began to wane after she spoke up in support of allowing gays to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

As she carried her ballot from the booth, she greeted the only other voter in the precinct, a woman she knew from the neighborhood, another mother about the same age. They had run into each other a few times since February, and the woman was always upbeat and supportive of Dahill’s campaign.

They exchanged pleasantries, and just as the woman said “Good luck,” Dahill saw it.

She swears she wasn’t looking for it, but the woman’s ballot passed through the light in such a way that Dahill caught a split-second glimpse, just long enough to see that the oval was filled in next to a name that was not hers.

Her head began to spin, and it did not stop for a long while. She felt betrayed and foolish, and she was hit with a sudden conviction that her idea had failed.

And in that moment, she was forced to finally turn and face another reality, something else old Southie had predicted. Had she also lost the “Southie seat?”

That night as the polls closed and returns began to roll in, she was a nervous wreck. She took home just 7.3 percent of the vote — crushed in the polls, even in the “yuppie” precincts in South Boston — getting a total of just 1,600 votes. But she kept telling herself everything would be fine if Nick Collins won, if Southie kept the seat.

Early in the evening, her wish seemed to be answered. The Associated Press called the race for Collins, and Dahill, like most of the rest of South Boston, let out a huge sigh of relief.

But a short time later, with new returns coming in, the AP pulled the prediction. And in the final tally, Dorcena Forry defeated Collins by 379 votes.

When Dahill saw the final numbers, she went into a panic.

“What am I going to do?“ she said repeatedly, uncontrollably, as her campaign staff tried to talk her down. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”

Reignited controversy

After the election, Dahill spent days in her pajamas. She was petrified to show her face, knowing that so many would blame her for spoiling the election. In her mind, she kept replaying her father’s words after the final returns had come in: “You better get home quick because they’re going to be coming down here with fire and pitchforks.” He meant it as a joke, trying to get a smile out of a child in a tough spot. But in all jest there is truth.

“That fear took over,” she said. “It can be crippling. ‘What if I have a run-in with somebody at Rite Aid?’ ”

As weeks turned into months, the furor subsided, and Dahill got to the point where she was no longer worried about who was talking about her behind her back after she said hello to them at Castle Island.

Then the spite returned, when a controversy erupted over who would host the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.

Traditionally, the breakfast was hosted by the sitting senator from South Boston, the person in the “Southie seat.” Now that Dorcena Forry had won, she assumed she would step into that role. But Bill Linehan, a city councilor from South Boston who was interim host when Hart resigned, argued that the breakfast should remain with a South Boston politician.

Bulger and Lynch supported the idea that it should be the senator, but Nick Collins supported Linehan.

Neither Linehan nor Collins mentioned race in making their argument. But Dorcena Forry did, as did many others. Right or wrong, it looked to some that some white men in South Boston did not want a black woman hosting the breakfast.

It became a black eye for the neighborhood, and a whole new wave of acrimony came at Dahill. She had forced them into the fight, and now it was her fault that for the first time in history, the host of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast would not be able to sing “Southie is My Hometown.”

A fickle machine

As the mayoral campaign reached a fever pitch, Dahill watched from the sidelines. Southie’s prounion machine threw its weight behind Martin J. Walsh, the union candidate.

But Nick Collins, who still had his seat in the House, went the other way and endorsed John Connolly, Walsh’s opponent, which had Collins caught up in all sorts of drama as election night rolled around.

It was just another reason Dahill was glad to be on her couch on election night.

When her phone started ringing, she couldn’t speak. Her cold had become so bad that her voice was gone. In retrospect, she was glad that she could not say anything at that moment.

The calls were from people inside the Southie political machine, people who had worked fervently against her, Dahill said. Now that they had helped deliver a new mayor, they had a favor to ask.

They wanted her to think about running against Nick Collins.

Billy Baker can be reached at william.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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