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Voices: Perspective

Southie rules no more

BY: Michael Jonas


THE IDEA THAT SOUTHIE RULES may be popular these days in the world of cable TV reality shows. But in the political realm, where the small, insular neighborhood has long held outsize sway, the final chapter may be closing on the idea of South Boston as a powerhouse of political might.

That pronouncement comes with the news that Jack Hart, the neighborhood’s longtime state senator and a well-liked figure in state and local politics, is resigning his seat to take a job with a Boston law firm. Elected officials come and go, and sudden opportunities pop up that make continued service in office difficult. What makes Hart’s announcement jarring is the fact that he was seen as a leading candidate to take the reins as Senate president when the body’s current leader, Therese Murray, is term-limited out of the top spot two years from now.

The idea that a Southie pol would walk away from elected office with the possibility of that powerful post looming just ahead would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But the nature and reach of political power isn’t what it used to be. When Billy Bulger reigned over the Senate, he joked defiantly that MBTA stood for Mr. Bulger’s Transportation Authority, so extensive and well-known was his practice of getting assorted minions planted in jobs with the T.  For much of the 20th century, politics and the public sector provided an entrée into the middle class for Irish immigrants, other newly arriving groups, and their descendents. The Irish did not control the levers of power in Boston’s boardrooms, but their surging numbers gave them growing clout at the ballot box.

Today, Irish-American sons of the city like Jack Connors are titans of the business world and among Boston’s biggest powerbrokers. Meanwhile, the patronage pipeline running through the public sector, while hardly shut off, is coming in for fresh scrutiny. Pursuit of higher education and private-sector networking, not a call to the local state rep, are the more promising paths to upward mobility.

Hart, a South Boston native who told NECN’s Jim Braude on Tuesday night that he was raised with politics “in my blood,” seemed poised to potentially follow in the footsteps of Bulger and John E. Powers, another Southie pol who also held the Senate president’s gavel.   “It would seem to me if there’s anything that a kid from Southie wants to grow up to be, Senate president” would be it, said Braude. “How do you say no to that?”

Hart found a way.

 “It’s about the money, right?” asked Braude.  “It’s partly about the money.  It’s mostly about the money,” said Hart, a 51-year-old father of four.

None of this means elected offices aren’t still vital parts of the civic fabric, or that South Boston isn’t a place still steeped in politics. Steve Lynch, the congressman about to make a run in the coming special election for US Senate, hopes to show that the neighborhood isn’t done launching local pols onto bigger stages.

But politics in Boston isn’t the center of gravity it once was. For proof, look no further than the waning enthusiasm for the annual St. Patrick’s Day political roast, where Hart and Southie senators before him held court.  Add the growing difference in pay between a good law practice and even the top of the legislative pay scale, and it becomes even easier to see why Hart decided it was time to go.

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