The crowd of politicians and power-brokers had yet to warble the first notes of “Southie is my Hometown” at the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast when a tongue-in-cheek speech highlighted the upheaval underway in Boston’s political landscape.
The annual roast, held in South Boston, is traditionally hosted by the state senator who represents South Boston, who for decades has been a man from South Boston — even though the majority of voters in the district now live outside the neighborhood.
But with the resignation earlier this year of John A. Hart Jr., the office known as “the Southie seat” is up for grabs. And the shamrock-studded event could be hosted next year by a woman — possibly a woman of color from another neighborhood.
“My, the city is changing,” mused James E. Rooney, a South Boston native who is now executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, and who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Boston mayor.
The remark elicited some chuckles.
But it underscored the tensions inherent in a race for the First Suffolk state Senate seat that is being seen as a face-off between the city’s Irish-American political old guard and its burgeoning multiethnic, multicultural identity.
The race features three Democrat candidates: state Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, 39, a Haitian-American from Dorchester; state Representative Nick Collins, 30, a former Hart aide from South Boston; and Maureen Dahill, 43, a fourth-generation South Boston resident who runs a community website, Caught in Southie, that seeks to attract the younger, more affluent people who have moved into the neighborhood in recent years.
Which candidate prevails in the April 30 primary will depend largely on who is best able to overcome the low turnout that usually plagues special elections in Boston. To get out the vote, the candidates are trying to extend their appeal outside their comfort zones.
Dahill is portraying herself as a South Boston native who dares to upend the local establishment, a political newcomer who can attract people who feel left out of city politics.
Collins argues that he is more than just the latest in a long line of Southie pols; he has been collecting endorsements outside South Boston, including from a group of community leaders and advocates for minorities in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.
Forry, who is married to Bill Forry, the managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter, is playing up her crossover appeal as an eight-year representative of one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.
As a result of population change and several adjustments to the boundaries of the First Suffolk state Senate district, the latest of which was in 2011, the majority of its voters are in Dorchester, Forry’s stronghold .
“I want to tell people that this is not a Southie seat, this is the First Suffolk Senate seat,” Forry said after a recent campaign event at Phillips Old Colony House in Dorchester, where she appeared with a group of elected officials from the city in front of a diverse crowd of about 200 backers. “I am here to represent people from Southie, from Dorchester, from Mattapan, from Hyde Park.”
Forry emphasizes her support of small business, efforts to create economic opportunity and jobs, and measures to reduce gun violence and domestic violence. She has received the endorsement of of a broad spectrum of organizations: carpenters, health care workers, floor coverers, pile drivers, Planned Parenthood, MassEquality, the National Association of Social Workers.
Collins has also picked up endorsements from trade unions and community leaders. He touts his success in helping to create a permanent daytime drug squad to fight narcotics-related crime in South Boston.
He would follow in the tradition of previous South Boston denizens to hold the office, from former US representative John Joseph Moakley, to William M. Bulger, the longtime state Senate president, to US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, who will face off against a fellow congressman, Edward J. Markey, in a US Senate primary that day.
At a recent campaign event at the Harp and Bard in Dorchester, Collins disputed the notion that his appeal was limited to the old guard in his neighborhood, or to any ethnicity.
“I’m not just going for the young vote in South Boston, I’m going for the young vote in Dorchester, in Mattapan, in Hyde Park,” Collins said. “I’m a whole different generation.”
The election of Forry or Dahill would signify a first: No woman has represented South Boston in the Legislature. Dahill said that she would speak for “a huge, vibrant community of women who have never had a woman represent them.”
Dahill, who says her background in small business gives her an advantage over her opponents, is trying to turn her status as a political newcomer with old South Boston roots into selling point.
Both she and Forry called for the the neighborhood’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade to include gay and lesbian groups, and refused to march when it did not. But Dahill said she believes that coming from her, the message was stronger.
“I am somebody coming from the culture who said, ‘Hey, you need to give this a good shake-up,’ ” Dahill said.
Dahill, who is married to a Boston firefighter, said she is counting on support from “new South Bostonians” as well as “working mothers and blue-collar families.” She said she has been discouraged from running by “old-school Southie people who feel like I’m going to divide the vote and lose the Southie seat.”
“I say it only makes me want to run more,” she said on a recent Saturday as she and supporters waved signs in bustling Perkins Square. “It makes me realize that it’s time that we change the way we do things around here as far as politics and if anything it makes me more fired up and I’m going to win it.”
Jim Spencer, a strategist for Dahill, said a major factor in this race is turnout. Boston sees healthy voter turnout in presidential votes. According to city election data, 65.9 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots in the November general election.
But in primaries for special elections, turnout plummets. In the Democratic primary for the special US Senate election after the death of Edward M. Kennedy in 2009, only 15 percent of voters in the First Suffolk district cast ballots, Spencer said, quoting the Democratic Party’s voter file.
The candidate who wins the April 30 primary will be the one who is able to overcome voter apathy, said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former city councilor who studies voting patterns.
“Getting out the vote is absolutely essential,” he said.