Bowing to an avalanche of political pressure, City Councilor Bill Linehan has agreed to relinquish hosting duties at next year’s South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast to state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American from Dorchester who will become the first non-Irish-American host of the storied political roast.
The pair issued a joint statement Friday afternoon, saying they have agreed to end their standoff and allow Dorcena Forry to lead the festivities.
“It is evident there has been miscommunication surrounding this event,” Dorcena Forry said in the statement, adding, “I look forward to the South Boston delegation playing a major role in the event as they have done in the past.”
Linehan, who had argued the breakfast should be hosted by a South Boston politician, said, “I look forward to working with Senator Forry on presenting the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast next year. . . . I am confident that we can present a quality event that makes us all proud.”
The resolution followed mounting criticism of Linehan’s refusal to allow Dorcena Forry to host the event, as officials from the governor to the mayor to the mayoral candidates said she was the rightful emcee.
The controversy shined an uncomfortable spotlight, at least momentarily, on racial tensions that many hoped Boston had left behind. It touched a raw nerve from the halls of the State House to the walking paths of Castle Island.
Some in the neighborhood, however, defended the idea of keeping a South Boston host for what they view as an Irish cultural event.
“There’s something to be said for holding onto tradition,” said Helen Butler, 72, a lifelong resident. “That breakfast is a South Boston tradition. Would it be Castle Island if you picked it up and moved it someplace else?”
Historically, the breakfast has been hosted by the state senator from South Boston, a lineage stretching back to the 1940s that includes J. Joseph Moakley, William M. Bulger, and Stephen F. Lynch, the current US representative.
The neighborhood’s grip on the state Senate seat was so strong that it came to be known as the “Southie seat,” even though it includes parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
In May, Forry, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, won the seat. She assumed the victory earned her the right to host the breakfast, which draws many of the state’s political figures for a round of busting chops and butchering Irish songs.
But Linehan, who hosted the event this March while the state Senate seat was vacant, contended that he should stay on as emcee because, “it’s always been someone from South Boston,” even if that person has not always been a state senator.
State Representative Nick Collins of South Boston, who lost to Dorcena Forry in the race for the state Senate seat, agreed with Linehan that a South Boston politician should be the emcee.
The dispute generated a wave of support Friday for Dorcena Forry, whom many in the political world said symbolizes the evolving political climate in a city and a neighborhood that have undergone sweeping changes over the last several decades.
“It will be different, but Boston is changing, South Boston is changing,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said after a ribbon-cutting in Faneuil Hall. “Let’s have a change in leadership over there, and let’s have Linda Dorcena Forry be the mistress of ceremonies.”
Councilor Michael P. Ross, a mayoral candidate, issued a statement before Dorcena Forry and Linehan resolved their differences, saying Collins and Linehan’s views “harken back to an old, divided Boston.”
“South Boston’s better than that, and Boston’s better than that,” he said.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who is also running for mayor, said the resistance to giving Dorcena Forry the microphone represented “backward looking politics,” and added, “The breakfast is about having fun and celebrating Irish heritage. You don’t need to be Irish to do either one.”
But Representative Martin Walsh of Dorchester, another mayoral candidate, rejected the notion that Linehan’s claim to the breakfast recalled a darker time in Boston.
“He grew up in Southie and his whole life he’s enjoyed it,” said Walsh, a former union official who is hoping to make the neighborhood a political stronghold in the upcoming mayor’s race. “There’s a tradition here, and a history here and you stick with the tradition and history.”
At the same time, Walsh said, “If the state senator wants to host the breakfast, then the state senator should host the breakfast.”
Councilor John Connolly, a mayoral candidate who has been endorsed by Collins, sided with Dorcena Forry, as well.
Governor Deval Patrick, a regular attendee at the roast, said: “I think that the people of the Commonwealth and the people of South Boston are much, much further ahead than sometimes they are represented.”
“We’re always breaking down barriers,” Patrick said in an interview outside his office, “and I’m excited about Linda Dorcena Forry — and she’s pretty funny, so it will be a pretty good breakfast.”
Dorcena Forry said she looks forward to being the host.
“In the weeks and months to come, the South Boston delegation— myself included — will discuss the various ways that we can collectively make next year’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast a success,” she said.
However, she has no plans to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade that follows the breakfast because the parade continues to ban gay groups from marching. During her campaign for the Senate seat, Dorcena Forry supported the idea of dropping the prohibition, and said she will continue to boycott the parade until it is made inclusive to all.