Stephen F. Lynch was fuming.
Massport had just approved Governor William F. Weld’s plan to build a stadium for the New England Patriots on the agency’s land along the South Boston waterfront. In doing so, Massport had ignored residents who feared it would flood the neighborhood with traffic and rowdy tailgaters.
Lynch, then the state senator from South Boston, stormed into the office of Massport’s director, Peter Blute.
“You come after my people, and I’ll come after your throat,” Lynch warned.
Blute, a former defensive end at Boston College, shot back back at the wiry former ironworker: “I’ve been in smaller rooms with bigger people.”
The two never came to blows, but the 1997 confrontation, confirmed by both men, shows that when it comes to defending what he sees as his district’s interests, Lynch takes it personally.
Over 18 years in public life — seven in the state Legislature, 11 in Congress — he has never written a law on a sweeping policy issue, or sought the limelight through press releases or news conferences.
Instead, he has developed a reputation as a toiler and a bit of a loner focused on fighting for labor unions and bringing brick-and-mortar results back to the neighborhoods he represents, helping to launch a rehab clinic and a charter school in South Boston, and to protect Veterans’ Affairs hospitals from closure in Brockton, West Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain.
After voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002, he also made more trips overseas than nearly any other member of Congress — 14 to Iraq, eight to Afghanistan.
The trips have not prompted Lynch to propose major changes in war policy, but were intended instead to boost troop morale and to monitor reconstruction projects like the water filtration plant that he toured in Sadr City in 2008.
It is that type of work — on the ground, in Bridgewater, Braintree, or Baghdad, rather than in the corridors of Congress — that has become the hallmark of Lynch’s career.
It represents a sharp contrast with his rival for the Democratic Senate nomination, Representative Edward J. Markey, who has been heavily involved in national policymaking on telecommunications, energy, and the environment for three decades. But it is an approach Lynch promises to continue if he is elected to the US Senate.
“I do have a singular focus, which is that I don’t work for Nancy Pelosi, and I won’t work for Harry Reid,” Lynch said over eggs, toast, and bacon at My Diner, a no-frills South Boston joint just blocks from Mul’s Diner, the more popular breakfast spot where most politicians campaign in the neighborhood.
“The most important relationship I have is with the people I represent,” Lynch said. “If something’s good for them, I’m for it. If something’s not good for them, I’m against it.”
Unlike Markey, Lynch has labored mostly on the back benches during his 11 years in Congress, with little to show in the way of big legislative accomplishments.
Lynch argued he has never had the standing to push bills into law.
“Look, legislative success requires two things,” he said. “It requires you to be in the majority, and for almost all of my time in Congress, we’ve had a Republican speaker. So that’s been a roadblock for me to get legislation through. Number two, you have to be a senior member of Congress. You have to be a chairman.”
Lynch’s views on social issues such as gay rights and abortion have also shifted dramatically over the years, sparking praise from some who say his worldview has broadened and criticism from others who argue that he puts political expediency ahead of core convictions.
A product of the Old Colony housing project in South Boston, Lynch was an ironworker for 18 years, and at 30 was chosen as the youngest-ever president of Ironworkers Local 7 in South Boston, a post that helped vault him into elected office. He then went on to become a labor lawyer.
He served from 1994 to 1996 in the state House, and from 1996 to 2001 in the state Senate, fighting for unions and taking on community complaints.
He battled to keep an asphalt plant out of South Boston, to keep young people with criminal records from moving into public housing, and to upgrade the badly outmoded signals that control the flow of buses and trains, arguing that those improvements should be prioritized over flashier expansions of the MBTA.
“He would get so frustrated and go nuts,” said former state Senator Robert A. Havern,an Arlington Democrat who was Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee.
“He’d say, ‘You’re building chichi stations and you’ve got to do this before somebody gets killed,’ ” Havern said.
Lynch also helped lead the charge against the Patriots stadium, even threatening Blute’s throat over the project.
“Governor Weld was trying to go around the neighborhood and cut us out of the process, and that was not a happy time,” Lynch said. “I was on the verge of losing my temper, which is not a good thing.”
On social issues, Lynch was staunchly conservative.
In 1994, during his first run for the Massachusetts House, he described himself as an opponent of legalized abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action, and as a supporter of the death penalty.
The main reason he cited for entering the race, he said, was his concern that the incumbent state representative, Paul Gannon, had not done enough to keep gay and lesbian groups out of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Blasting Gannon for being “reluctant to incur criticism from the liberal media,” Lynch promised that, if elected, he would uphold the “traditions of our community.”
Once in office, in 1996, Lynch pushed a so-called “gay panic” amendment to the state’s hate crimes law, which would have allowed those accused of attacking gay victims to defend themselves by saying they were provoked by “lewd and lascivious” conduct by the gay person.
Two years later, he tried to broaden a bill that would have extended health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of gay public employees to include any relatives of those employees living in the same household. Gay rights activists called the change a hostile attempt to sink the bill by making it too broad and too expensive to implement.
In 2001, while running for Congress for the first time, Lynch said, “Hey, I’m prolife and I’m proud of it. This is who I am. I’m not going to flip-flop.”
Over the last decade, however, Lynch has changed his views.
He now vows to protect Roe v. Wade, and calls himself a supporter of gay marriage and affirmative action, and an opponent of the death penalty. In Congress, he has signed on to the effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and voted to overturn the military’s policy banning openly gay service members.
He said recently that his history as a social conservative has been “overstated on all counts.” But liberal advocates from that era remember otherwise.
“He had been viewed in the 1990s as an archenemy of the gay community, and now he’s viewed as a supporter,” said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “It’s a significant change.”
Havern, who sponsored the domestic partnership bill, said Lynch underwent a “troubled evolution” on social issues.
“He grew up more socially conservative, and the world around him was changing,” he said. “And he was right in the middle of it at the time. He had one foot in the old camp, and one foot evolving.”
On economic policy, Lynch has always been a fervent union ally. In the Legislature, he pushed to raise the minimum wage and fought attempts to slash the ranks of union mechanics, laborers, and cleaning staff on the commuter rail.
But his conservative social stances alienated some of his colleagues.
“He had very close ties to labor, and was very good on labor issues,” said Thomas F. Birmingham, a labor lawyer like Lynch who was president of the Massachusetts Senate in the late 1990s. “But other than that, he was a lone wolf.”
In 2001, after J. Joseph Moakley, the revered congressman from South Boston, died in office, Lynch entered the special election to replace him. He beat three fellow state senators in a hard-fought primary held amid the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Lynch arrived in Washington two months later, in the shadow of Moakley, at a time of national crisis. He crashed on an air mattress in Representative Michael E. Capuano’s apartment in Washington, and hired Kevin Ryan, Moakley’s chief of staff, to help him navigate Congress.
As he had in the Legislature, Lynch began with a focus on local issues.
Taking a page from Moakley’s playbook, he met with town managers and selectmen in his district, fielding requests for federal aid and asking, “What can I do to help?”
Often described as intensely private, Lynch found a low-key social life far from the beltway party circuit.
While Markey made the rounds of black-tie balls and charity banquets, Lynch played poker at the home of Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island. Early in his tenure, he sometimes hit the House gym with Representative Paul Ryan, who later became the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.
“Paul is a workout freak,” Lynch said, adding that he has not exercised with the Wisconsin congressman in recent years and is more likely to fly back to Boston than socialize in Washington after sessions. “But I’m a gym rat when I’m down there.”
Lynch said his three proudest accomplishments in elected office have been centered around his district. When a rash of teen suicides hit South Boston in the late 1990s, most of them related to Oxycontin and heroin abuse, he helped establish Cushing House, a drug rehabilitation clinic for teenagers.
When South Boston families were moving out of the city rather than send their children to neighborhood schools, Lynch worked with two graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to launch a charter school, South Boston Harbor Academy, in 1997. Although the effort cost him some support from teachers’ unions, the school, now called Boston Collegiate Charter School, boasts some of the state’s best MCAS scores.
And when three Veterans Affairs hospitals in his district were threatened with closing after Sept. 11, 2001, he worked with Senator Edward M. Kennedy to keep them open.
Perhaps Lynch’s most substantive legislative accomplishment came in 2009 after Democrats took control of the House.
Though not known for immersing himself in policy minutia, Lynch delved into one of the most complex pieces of legislation that year, the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill. As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, he toughened part of the bill that created special clearinghouses to review risky derivatives. Lynch’s change limited banks to a 20 percent stake in those clearinghouses, to avoid conflicts of interest.
The final version of the law watered down that limit, but it was still a critical addition to the bill, said former representative Barney Frank, who chaired the House Financial Services Committee.
“He’s a good lawyer and a smart lawyer,” Frank said. “He made himself an expert on derivatives.”
Despite that work, Frank said he was frustrated because Lynch had “one of the worst voting records” on the committee. Lynch missed 30 of 426, or 7 percent, of the committee’s votes, when Frank was chairman, from 2007 to 2010.
“Those were critical votes and I was, frankly, a little troubled,” said Frank, who has endorsed Markey for Senate. “Some of these votes were close, and there were a couple of times I said to Steve, ‘Gee, how do I put pressure on other members of the committee when you won’t show up?’ ”
Lynch said he does not recall Frank ever confronting him about his absences and defended his record on the committee.
“I wasn’t missing votes,” he said.
Some of Lynch’s hardest work has come on a less glamorous committee, where he fights to protect the postal service from cuts.
The subject is personal for him, as it often is for those that rise to the top of his agenda. Not only is Lynch the top Democrat on the postal subcommittee, his mother, two aunts, and two sisters were postal employees.
So after the Sept. 11 attacks, Lynch toured every post office in his district, and walked the route with a letter carrier, to express solidarity with postal employees who were under the threat of anthrax attacks. More recently, he has tried to fend off attempts to cut postal wages and benefits.
“He was one of our best friends,” said George Gould, who was legislative director for the National Association of Letter Carriers from 1979 to 2007. “He has a natural, personal, honest, positive feeling about unions, and about workers who belong to unions. And it’s not just a political position. He obviously believes it.”