Adrian Walker

What matters in Southie

A week ago, Suzanne Lee spent a fascinating afternoon at Castle Island in South Boston. She was with a crowd of hundreds celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

The event was organized by Medicine Wheel Productions, a terrific social service agency in Southie that uses art to promote inclusion. “You had people from all walks of life who came to Castle Island to commemorate the speech,” Lee said Sunday. “That is the part of South Boston that does not get highlighted. I was glad to be there for that, and to see how far we have come.”

That progress is important to her. Lee is running — for a second time — to represent South Boston, Chinatown, and parts of downtown and the South End on the Boston City Council. So she was an interested bystander as her opponent for the seat, incumbent Bill Linehan, made his ill-fated play to take control of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast from state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry last week.


“Why are we even talking about who is going to host an event that’s six months away?” Lee asked. “It’s just politics. And there are so many other issues.”

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Two years ago, Lee lost to Linehan by 97 votes in one of the closest council races of recent years. She never really stopped running for the seat after that, attending community meetings and talking to residents. A rematch with Linehan was a foregone conclusion.

Lee said her activism is an extension of the work she has done for years. “There is no separation,” she said. “I think that’s what makes this real, that this isn’t just something you do for campaigning. This is what you do normally.”

If elected, Lee, who lives in Chinatown, could become the first Asian-American woman on the City Council. It is possible she will have to share that distinction, given Michelle Wu’s strong bid for an at-large seat.

Linehan’s bid to be St. Patrick’s Day host was seen by many as a way to rally support among voters who might fear the encroachment of people who are, well, not Irish.


After his close race against Lee in 2011, Linehan became chair of the City Council’s redistricting committee, in which capacity he tried mightily to rid his district of Chinatown, as well as other areas where Lee drew heavy support. In the end, the district changed little, after fellow councilors balked. Linehan represents a shrinking population, and he knows it.

His power play for breakfast host fell apart in less than 24 hours. Nearly every politician outside South Boston insisted that the state senator who represents South Boston — not the sitting district councilor — was the rightful host. Linehan backed down in a joint statement with Dorcena Forry on Friday that said he would play a major but unspecified role.

Lee has spent a lot of time in Southie the past couple of years, and she said the people she talks to are not asking about a breakfast. What are they really concerned with? Development, for one thing. And the traffic that comes with it.

“People who live there took photos of everyday traffic and sent them to me and said, ‘This is what we’re talking about.’ And no one is really looking at that.” That is just a small example of the mixed blessings that development has brought to Southie, in many ways the city’s most changed neighborhood.

Most Bostonians probably do not care who hosts that tired breakfast. But this was never about a breakfast. This is about embracing change, or resisting it. For her part, Lee believes the city is ready to move on.


“We should be focusing more on how to bring everybody together,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been working on my whole life, how to bring people together and not to divide people. When you’re in a leadership position, you have an important role to bring the city forward.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.