In Boston, identity politics have been such a powerful influence in local elections that candidates have literally changed their identities. Early in his career, future US House Speaker John McCormack rewrote his family history to better align it with those of the local political bosses and to erase any hint of Protestantism. Among other revisions, his Scottish-Canadian father and Boston-born Irish-American mother became Irish immigrants. He was inspired in part by John Way, a Yankee Democrat who repeatedly failed to win office despite running on a staunch pro-Irish-Catholic ticket.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Louise Day Hicks, William Bulger, and others updated identity politics in Boston. Hicks gained popularity as a defender of working-class white interests against desegregation and what she called “civil rights infiltrators.”
And in 1983, the only time a black candidate made it to the final round of a Boston mayoral contest, an electorate sharply divided on racial lines handed Ray Flynn a landslide victory over Mel King.
This is not just history. At the State House today, senators and representatives from majority black and Latino communities tend to be black and Latino, while South Boston sends Beacon Hill its Irish and East Boston its Italians. The Boston City Council is another clear case in point, with districts represented along predictable racial and ethnic lines.
In a few weeks, when Bostonians go to the polls to narrow the field of candidates to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino, they will have a chance to break this pattern. With a diverse set of candidates to choose from, this is the city’s opportunity to transcend identity politics in its highest office.
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