State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, the highest-ranking elected black official in Massachusetts, said Thursday that she is stepping down to take a private sector job, a move that took Beacon Hill by surprise and raised concerns about the loss of a powerful voice for people of color.
Dorcena Forry had emerged over the past decade as a charismatic leader, a symbol of the city’s evolving political landscape, and a significant force in the state Democratic Party’s future. The most prominent Haitian-American politician in Boston, she stunned the city’s political establishment with her 2013 election to a South Boston-Dorchester seat held for decades by Irish-Americans.
“I will be leaving the Massachusetts Senate effective Friday and joining an incredible opportunity,” she said in a statement to the Globe. “After nearly a quarter century of government service, including my 13 years as an elected official, I have decided the time has come for me to explore a new and challenging way to continue my work to build a more equitable and accessible economy in our city, state, and region.”
Dorcena Forry has been hired by Suffolk Construction as the Northeast region’s vice president for diversity inclusion and community relations. The company is run by John Fish, one of the city’s most powerful business leaders. Suffolk does business nationally, but is best known locally as the builder of Millennium Tower in Downtown Crossing and the Wynn Casino in Everett.
“I’m shocked,’’ said state Representative Frank Moran of Lawrence, who heads the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. “She was very promising in the Senate. She climbed the ladder very quickly. We were hoping she would be the future Senate president.”
State Representative Russell Holmes said he had spoken with Dorcena Forry last week as she weighed the move and felt assured she would stay on in the Senate.
“My first reaction is disappointment. She played such a critical role. But I guess she has to do what’s best for her family,” said Holmes, a past president of the black and Latino caucus.
Both Holmes and Moran said it is going to be difficult to fill the seat she is vacating with a person of color.
“It’s a seat that we definitely do not want to lose,’’ Holmes said.
Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, the lone Hispanic in the Senate, described Dorcena Forry as a phenomenal colleague whose departure will be a great loss to the Senate and a gain for Suffolk Construction.
“Linda made enormous contributions to our Commonwealth over the last decade, in community development, in housing, in immigration policy, and higher education. And her presence made a real difference for women of color and first-generation Americans — lighting the way for so many of us to run for office and serve our fellow Bay Staters,’’ Chang-Diaz said in a statement.
Dorcena Forry leaves a Senate chamber struggling to regain its footing. Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg stepped aside as president in December after the Globe reported that several men, some of whom had business before the Legislature, alleged sexual abuse by his husband, Bryon Hefner.
Dorcena Forry was one of four senators who immediately began to solicit support among their colleagues to replace Rosenberg, but she collected only a handful of commitments. Meanwhile, a large bloc of Democratic senators have made it clear they want to hold out for Rosenberg’s possible return if he is cleared of any wrongdoing and if they are assured that he has sufficiently separated from Hefner.
Dorcena Forry’s decision to step out of politics sets off a scramble for her seat — a race that could include her top opponent in her initial Senate campaign, state Representative Nick Collins of South Boston.
It could also provide an option for City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has three times topped the City Council ballot and has been actively looking at challenging longtime US Representative Michael Capuano in what would be a bruising uphill fight. Pressley lives in the Ashmont/Adams area of Dorchester, which is in the First Suffolk District, represented by Dorcena Forry.
Another name that has circulated is state Representative Evandro Carvalho, who also lives in Dorchester.
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the local NAACP and who has collaborated with Dorcena Forry, said she is not surprised that Suffolk Construction would be interested in the senator’s skills and talents, adding that she will bring a unique perspective to the company’s largely white and male leadership.
Most important to Sullivan is that Dorcena Forry’s departure amplifies the lack of black and Latino representation in state government.
Dorcena Forry served in the House from 2005 to 2013, during which she led the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
In her race for state Senate, she eked out a victory over Collins, marking the first time in over a half century that the seat would not be held by a South Boston, Irish-American Democrat. Since the 1940s, when John Powers was first elected to the Senate, Joseph Moakley, William Bulger, Stephen Lynch, and Jack Hart have held the seat.
Dorcena Forry’s election initially set off a huge debate about who would chair the traditional St. Patrick Day’s breakfast in South Boston. The sitting state senator has always hosted the party — and that person had always been a white man from Southie. But the old guard balked at Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American from Dorchester, as host.
Against the advice of some of her advisers, she insisted on hosting the breakfast and has now become the regular emcee. Just this week she sent out invitations for this year’s March breakfast.
In her new role at Suffolk, Dorcena Forry will develop “long-term talent-acquisition strategies and tactics,” the company said.
“We are thrilled Linda has joined our team and will share her strong leadership and passion for workplace diversity and help make our vision of inclusion a reality and permanent, sustainable practice throughout our entire organization,” said Fish, the company’s chairman and CEO.
Dorcena Forry and her husband, Bill Forry, managing editor for his family-owned, Dorchester-based Reporter Newspapers, live in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester with their four children. Bill Forry’s family was active in Boston politics.