White, middle-aged, and Irish Catholic, born and raised in South Boston, his father a former mayor of the city no less — you’d have a hard time crafting a figure more emblematic of Boston’s old power structure than City Council President Ed Flynn.
And yet today’s Boston has embraced a new power structure, as reflected in both the election of an unabashedly progressive mayor, Michelle Wu, and a historically diverse council that continues to tack to the left.
Against that backdrop of a changing city, it’s fair to ask how Flynn, a relative political centrist, ended up as president of the council. Indeed, by his own admission, it’s a question Flynn has frequently asked himself.
His answer is circumspect.
“I think the councilors trust me,” Flynn, 53, offered recently, sipping a ginger ale in a West Broadway cafe.
During an hourlong interview, Flynn, bundled up in a sweater against the early March chill, a US Navy ball cap sitting atop his head, stayed true to his reputation as understated and deeply controversy-averse.
The former probation officer and Navy veteran is at best lukewarm about the notion of this profile you’re reading. He would rather attention be paid to his fellow colleagues, his staff, and those who work in the council’s central office. Anybody but him, it seems. It’s an unusual tactic for a man in a field where officials jostle and scheme for media attention.
“I don’t necessarily like articles about me,” said Flynn. “I’d rather promote my colleagues. I want them to be successful.”
He is definitely not, for instance, interested in talking about the palace intrigue behind his council president selection.
Rumors churned throughout City Hall that Kenzie Bok, a Harvard-educated and progressive councilor who chaired the city’s integral ways and means committee during the previous term, had secured enough support to become council president. That was before Flynn and two other councilors supposedly switched course, withdrew their support from Bok, and joined a coalition of mostly newcomers to back Flynn.
That bloc of councilors, the speculation goes, gave him the votes he needed to land the post. Flynn won’t confirm or deny any of it, saying that he has a policy of not repeating personal conversations with colleagues to the press, nor does he publicly criticize other councilors. That means detailing the promises or pledges that were made to other councilors to secure their support is off the table as well.
“I’m not going to comment on conversations on the council presidency or with colleagues,” he said. “The only thing I would say is I’m fortunate my colleagues elected me as president.”
In 2007, when Flynn first ran for the council, he lost. A decade later, he won his current seat and cruised to reelection both in 2019 and last fall, running unopposed both times. His district includes South Boston and Chinatown, and parts of the South End and downtown.
Now in his third term, he is the ceremonial leader of the the 13-member council. The post grants him the power to select committee assignments for the body’s members. A council president can create new committees if he or she so chooses, and, typically, the president presides over full meetings of the body. The president can also choose which council committee receives, reviews, and discusses specific proposals before the body.
And, if the mayor is unable to serve for any reason, or if the position becomes vacant, the council president steps into that role, which is exactly what happened last year when Martin J. Walsh headed to Washington, and Flynn’s predecessor, Kim Janey, became acting mayor.
Flynn is council president at a time of change, not only for the body but for the city, as it looks to emerge from an unprecedented public health emergency with a young, history-making mayor at the helm.
Flynn said he has a good relationship with Wu, known as a progressive stalwart, and has emphasized the importance of working with her new administration. Recently, he publicly backed a controversial measure Wu proposed that would further limit the hours demonstrators can protest at a residential house.
Flynn said there were occasional demonstrations outside his father’s home over various issues, including budget matters, during Raymond L. Flynn’s 1984-to-1993 mayoral stint. But those protests did not feature the level of vitriol that has recently been directed at Wu, he said.
“This level of disrespect of Mayor Wu is very concerning to me,” said Flynn.
Like Wu, Flynn has also been on the receiving end of recent heckling. Antimaskers disrupted two recent council meetings over which Flynn presided. On another recent day, a group of antivaccination and antimask protesters followed him from his home to his car, shouting at him, calling him racist, questioning his Roman Catholic faith, and imploring him to repent. Flynn ignored them, stoically walking in the rain.
“Are you a communist, sir? Are you a traitor?” yelled one woman at Flynn, according to video footage of the encounter.
Flynn has called the comments typical of the protesters who have demonstrated outside his house. He ascribes to the adage that thick skin is helpful for an elected Boston official; you can’t take things personally, even when that becomes a difficult ask, he says.
“You have to be disciplined enough to not let it get to you.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is still front of mind for Flynn, who claims to have held the first public meeting regarding the virus in the United States, at the Josiah Quincy School in early 2020. Flynn recalled an Asian high school student who, at that meeting, told officials how a train car had recently emptied out when she got on because the other riders associated her with the novel coronavirus. The story affected Flynn, driving home that Boston would not only be hit by the pandemic, but also by a wave of anti-Asian hate, something Flynn has condemned throughout the public health crisis.
Now, Flynn, a father of two, is focused on Boston’s pandemic recovery. The city, he said, should provide more financial support to restaurants that are still reeling from the past two years of restrictions. He would like to see more funding dedicated to after-school programs, including sports, and added that food access for the city’s students must remain a priority.
“You can’t be an excellent student if you’re worrying about food on the table,” he said.
In Boston’s political circles, Flynn is known as an amiable hard worker who is locked in on the nuts and bolts of city governance and constituent services. This is a councilor who called for increased fines for parties that flouted pandemic rules in 2020 and who recently pushed for a hearing regarding illegal dumping and pest control in the city. Hardly the sexiest issues in city politics, but for Flynn they are quality-of-life problems that are important to Boston residents.
That’s not to say Flynn never takes a stand. As the city continues to wrestle with how best to reform its Police Department, Flynn has called for hundreds more officers to be hired, saying the city is growing and many are retiring. It’s a stance that has drawn criticism from Boston’s more progressive corners.
One upcoming test for Flynn and the rest of the council is the looming budget season. This year’s process gives more power to city councilors, but Flynn said he is not concerned chaos will ensue, as some critics have predicted. He said he expects the council to work in a professional manner and “get the job done.”
“I see the body working well together,” he said.