THOUGH ITíS hard not to see potential for a racial showdown in a HartĖSt. Fleur match-up, neither candidate is having it. "I donít want this race for the special election or the race next year to become an us-versus-them scenario," says Hart.
Adds St. Fleur: "I think since September 11 weíre really facing a new America. Playing the pitting-people-against-people game is really un-American."
That said, itís hard not to notice the distinctive backgrounds the two candidates would bring to a race against each other. Hart is Irish-Catholic. St. Fleur is a Haitian immigrant. Hart jokes about having a "mixed marriage" ó his wife is from Neponset. St. Fleur was one of the only blacks, let alone Haitians, to attend the then-largely-white St. Patrickís elementary school in Roxbury in the late í60s and early í70s, as well as the then-largely-white Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School in 1980. Hart vows he will reach out to people in Dorchester and Mattapan where he is not well known. St. Fleur has already done so: she forged her political career by cobbling together ethnic coalitions ó whites, Cape Verdeans, African-Americans, and Asians.
Both politicians say they would honor the traditional St. Patrickís Day breakfast. For Hart, that means linking himself to the Irish-Catholic pols ó Bulger, Moakley, Lynch ó who have proceeded him. For St. Fleur, that means finding green in her Caribbean heritage. Invoking the island of Monserrat, which celebrates St. Patrickís Day each year, St. Fleur points to the island nationís green-and-black flag ó the islandís hills are said to remind many of Ireland. "I would love to be able to celebrate, and I would respect the tradition," she says of the annual breakfast. "We might create new opportunities for reaching out."
As far as strategies go, Hart appears to be mapping out the same plan Lynch employed in the Ninth Congressional District race. Lynch, the South Boston politician, morphed into the candidate for all of Boston ó winning especially strong support in the Irish and white sections of Dorchester. (Lynch did so well in these areas, in fact ó far out-polling Joyce, who, after all, already represented these voters as their state senator ó that Joyce was reportedly eager to relinquish them in the Senate redistricting plan.)
"Hopefully, people will see me in the same manner [as Lynch] ó as someone who can plug the gap," says Hart of his ability to represent a district that extends beyond South Boston. Hartís allies are already making the case that their candidate can represent the entire newly drawn district much as Lynch could represent the entire Ninth Congressional District. "Jackieís uncle represented Ward 13 [Dorchester] in the House. Jackie has real solid Dorchester roots," says Brian Wallace, co-author of the true-crime yarn Final Confession: The Unsolved Crimes of Phil Cresta (Northeastern University Press, 2000) and a would-be candidate for Hartís old seat.
St. Fleur, meanwhile, has a proven ability to build coalitions of different ethnic groups. Her talent for reaching across racial and ethnic lines could help her ó maybe not this January, but certainly in September in the newly drawn district. "We need to recognize weíve come a long way and not live by the stereotypes that people have tried to shove down our throats," says St. Fleur of the potential to build coalitions among different communities. "I think itís uncharted territory."
BUT SOUTHIE politicos donít seem focused on these differences. Instead, to the extent that theyíre worried about the new district, their concern centers around geography, not race. Some activists privately seem far more alarmed by the possibility that someone from Dorchester could one day control the seat ó be it St. Fleur, Walsh, or City Councilor Maureen Feeney ó than by the chance that it could be held by a person of color. If a pol from Dorchester ever held the First Suffolk seat, South Boston would find it much more difficult to exercise influence over waterfront development ó a hot-button issue in the community these days.
"Wouldnít the mayor want to get his hands on the Senate district thatís facing the waterfront," speculates one South Boston political observer. "His options [under the newly drawn district] are a lot more than they were a month ago." Indeed, to the extent that Hart has any broader notoriety throughout Boston at all, it is due to the fact that he, along with Lynch and City Councilor James Kelly, signed the now-infamous Memorandum of Understanding with the city, which promised South Boston 51 percent of all linkage money from private developers (an amount some 40 percent higher than what neighborhoods typically receive). When public outcry arose over the agreement, Menino walked away from the deal. Kelly eventually filed a lawsuit against both the city and Menino personally, but Hart and Lynch declined to join it. That move helped Lynch finesse the matter in his congressional campaign and may help Hart do the same.
"We started out with good intentions to build housing for people that needed it in that neighborhood," says Hart of the deal. "I donít care who builds the housing and I donít care where the linkage money goes as long as we relieve the pressure on the elderly and others that need relief in terms of housing. Thatís the real goal here."
Regardless, Hart currently has the upper hand in the campaign to replace Lynch. Most say heíll easily beat St. Fleur in the January special primary election. After that, he may face a challenge from Republican Walter Campbell, according to the chair of Bostonís Republican Party, Bill Mallard, who is also the Republican state committeeman from the First Suffolk District. But Campbellís base in the currently drawn First Suffolk is even smaller than St. Fleurís.
Regardless of who else runs in the near or distant future, a match-up between St. Fleur and Hart could be good for the city ó provided it proceeds without racial ugliness. Thereís no question such a contest would be one of Bostonís biggest political racial tests in at least a decade. And it could tell us just how much the city has really changed.
Seth Gitell can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: November 22 - 29, 2001