The Senator From Southie

Sister Pauline Ross greets state Senator Stephen F. Lynch at the door of the Marian Manor nursing home on Dorchester Street in South Boston. It’s a Friday afternoon and Sen. Lynch is making the rounds, as he does most Friday afternoons. Marian Manor is a long-term care facility run by the Carmelite nuns. It once was home of the Carney Hospital before the Carmelites took it over some 40 years ago. It is a homey, dignified, neighborly place that fits into South Boston as snugly as a church.

There are 366 elderly patients at Marian Manor and every one of them is a history book, or a novel. George Graney, 85, fits right in. He is a volunteer who lives around the corner, “three hundred and sixty steps,” he says, from the nursing home. Graney comes in to help the wheelchair-bound residents during their recreation period. He was one of the first firefighters to arrive at the scene of the 1942 Coconut Grove fire in Boston that killed 492 people. Two weeks before that disaster, he will tell you, six Boston firefighters lost their lives battling a fire in Maverick Square in East Boston, but their story was forgotten when Coconut Grove went up in flames.

“Watch out,” Lynch tells Graney, pointing at me. “He’s got a warrant out for your arrest.”

“On what charges?” Graney asks.

“Disturbing the peace,” Lynch says.

Lynch visits Marian Manor regularly. As a matter of fact, his wife, Margaret, used to work there. Lynch grew up not far away. And he lives nearby now, around the corner on G Street. Though his district includes more than South Boston, this is his stronghold. A lifetime of connections is what allowed him to replace the legendary William M. Bulger as the senator from Southie – and to do it by defeating Bulger’s eldest son and namesake, Bill Bulger Jr., in a special election three years ago.

Today Lynch is meeting with 16 residents for what is billed as a current events discussion. There is a lot of talk in this group about the working poor and welfare. Paul Ociepica, 76, a former social worker, holds up a Boston Herald with a story about the working poor “not making it in Massachusetts.”

“The working poor are having it hard. What do we do about it?” he asks Lynch.

Lynch explains what he is doing at the State House to help the working poor. He is supporting an increase in the minimum wage, he is in favor of providing training for low-paid workers so they can move up into better paying jobs. He talks about the $18 million that has been set aside for on-the-job training programs. “There are a lot of people employed,” Lynch says, “but the jobs are not paying a decent wage.”

Since this is Boston Herald country, a woman asks, “What about those on welfare sitting on their duffs?”

“Most people want to work,” Lynch says.

“What you’re talking about is your folks, my folks,” another resident says.

The implication is that “others” are sitting on their duffs–not the good people of Southie. There is a hesitant silence over this, but then, in sort of a moment of recovery, the discussion turns to poor people and immigrants who are working and who are making it in Massachusetts. In this very facility there is a woman from Jamaica who is working as a nurse’s aide and who has raised three children, has become a citizen, and has just bought a house. They all nod in affirmation of this American, this South Boston, success story.

“I congratulated her on becoming a citizen,” Ociepica says, “and I told her she could be my neighbor anytime.”

“We can make a difference,” Lynch says. “We can make a technician out of a mechanic. We can train people to become pharmacy assistants. We can get people out of low-paying jobs with no benefits. We can assist people in getting better jobs with more training. We can help the undervalued and underpaid.”

It sounds like a campaign speech and, in a way, it is, though Lynch is not up for election again for a year and a half. All of the people in the room would vote for him anyway. They know his wife, his father, her father, his grandfather, her grandfather.

South Boston Interests

Winning the seat former Senate President Bulger held for 25 years put Sen. Stephen Lynch in a pretty visible spot in Massachusetts politics. And he’s likely to stay visible. As Boston development interests have been eyeing vast undeveloped tracts in South Boston, especially in the Seaport District, Lynch has found himself in the media glare. South Boston along the waterfront is booming and soon people will kill to live there. The Ted Williams Tunnel is open, providing easier access to Logan Airport, and the new federal courthouse will anchor future development in the Fan Pier area. There will be a new convention center, new hotels, new office buildings, new homes, new roads and bridges, a new MBTA line – and new people. Two years ago, Lynch was seen on the evening news all around the state leading an angry community meeting. He spoke about “going for the throats” of those who would steamroll South Boston neighborhood interests. At the time, the anger was directed at Bob Kraft and his New England Patriots, who wanted to site a football stadium in Southie.

Fellow urban Democrat Sen. Robert Travaglini of East Boston says Lynch’s opposition to Kraft’s South Boston stadium plan “was a classic example of an inner-city leader who had the courage of his convictions, acting aggressively to protect his constituents.” Sen. Frederick Berry of Peabody, another fellow Democrat, says, “I knew he was a solid guy from the way he won his South Boston race. He is a real comer in Massachusetts politics.”

But Lynch also came under fire for the strong anti-Kraft language he used, and some saw him as another typical South Boston product, a defender of “parochial” interests who lacked a bigger vision about what was good for Boston. “He thinks it’s 1950,” one lobbyist says of Lynch. “He thinks you graduate from Southie High and get some factory job down the street and live happily after. Times have changed, and he has to change.”

What about it? I ask Lynch on the way out of Marian Manor, en route to another South Boston meeting. Are you too parochial?

“Parochial is good. We all know each other in South Boston. . .There is my district, and then there is the rest of the world.”

“Parochial is good,” Lynch says. “We all know each other in South Boston. We have a sense of continuity. What makes South Boston South Boston is the intergenerational continuity among families. We have a similarity of purpose. We are all linked to each other.” And that includes newcomers because, after all, newcomers “change their views after a couple of generations,” he says.

These days Lynch shows some regret about his fiery “go for their throats” speech, but not about his stance. He admits he used strong language. “I said that Massport and Kraft were going after the throat of the community and that we should go after their throats. I spoke those words in anger and, if I had paused for 10 seconds, I would not have said them,” he says.

Lynch is quick to point out, though, that the Boston Red Sox would be treated in the same fashion if the Sox were to try to build a new ball park in South Boston. “No way the Red Sox are coming into Southie,” Lynch says. “They will get the same treatment as the Patriots. In addition, they play 81 home games a year, and not the eight or 10 that the Patriots play.”

“I’ll tell you what else is not coming into South Boston and that is casino gambling. If I have anything to say about it there will be no casino in South Boston,” Lynch says.

Lynch envisions something other than a tourist trap as Southie’s future. It’s not a Yuppieville he wants, either. Like most people who grew up here, he wants it to be a place where blue-collar people can find jobs and can afford to raise a family. That’s why Lynch co-sponsors a workshop for first-time home buyers with the local First Trade Union Savings Bank one night at the James Condon Middle School on D Street. Fittingly, Condon was a former state representative from Southie. Around 120 people show up, all of them renters. Lynch knows practically everyone in the room and he can see the level of fear in their eyes. As property values rise, they fear being left behind or left out. They do not own their homes and feel that they never will. “But you can do this,” Lynch says. “You can buy a home. I grew up in the projects and I bought a home. You can, too. My first mortgage was 14 percent. You can do this at six-and-a-half percent.”

“It is almost a cultural thing,” he says later. “We rent because our parents rented.” But that’s the past. What about the future? South Boston will feel the pressures of the outside world in coming years. Fear of gentrification is in the air. You can bet the longtime residents here want somebody tough to represent them. One of the challenges facing Lynch, a son of Southie, an ironworker-turned-politician, is to be tough, and at the same time to help guide the inevitable changes, in a place that doesn’t look too kindly on change.

Life as an Ironworker

Steve Lynch became an ironworker because his father was an ironworker. Fran Lynch, now 77, spent 40 years in construction. Anne Lynch worked nights at the post office. They had six children; Steve, the only son, and his five sisters.

He grew up in the Old Colony housing project. “Growing up in the projects was rough,” Lynch says. “Families were hard pressed. But there were very few single-parent families, as there are now. Everybody had a mom and dad. And we did not have the problems young people have now with heroin, cocaine, and AIDS. The problems now are more severe.”

He attended parochial school at St. Augustine’s before attending South Boston High School. It was while he was in high school that he began working with his father in construction, quickly gravitating to iron work. “I always wanted to be an ironworker,” Lynch says. “I loved it. I spent 20 years on the high iron and I loved it. Basically it was like a sport. I was too young to feel the danger. I never developed a fear of heights. I never had a fear of the iron. It is a young man’s profession, without a doubt.”

Lynch, 43, met his wife, Margaret, at a softball game and went with her for 10 years before they married five years ago. They are expecting their first child in September. Lynch is Irish, but he has never been to Ireland. His ancestors came over from Ireland so long ago (before the famine of the 1840s) that he has been known to play Irish songs on his car cassette deck to learn the words prior to attending an Irish event.

Many political figures at the State House, Democrats mostly, have pictures of John F. Kennedy or Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey in their offices. Politicians from South Boston might even have pictures of Speaker John McCormack or his nephew Edward McCormack. Not Lynch. Lynch has two framed photos on the wall behind his desk. One is a picture of a group of ironworkers sitting on a steel beam eating lunch high above the world of Manhattan. It is 1932 and they are putting together the steel for the Chrysler Building. The other picture is of a lone ironworker walking along a steel beam in 1977. The worker is Lynch, 21 years old, somewhere high above Norwood, Massachusetts.

If he had a political hero, Lynch says, it was probably Teddy Roosevelt. “He is my idea of a great American. He was a New York assemblyman in the early 1890s and he used to take time to travel to the West. He knew it was the closing of the American West and he wanted to see it before it was gone. He could think in those historic terms. He recognized the time he was living in,” Lynch says.

Like his hero Roosevelt, Lynch took time to see America. But unlike the Rough Rider, Lynch did not ride horses through the Dakotas and Montana. Instead, he rode steel beams on high-rise jobs in New Mexico and Illinois, New York and Indiana, Wisconsin and Maine. You got paid when you worked. If you did not go up and grapple with the steel you did not get paid. Each payday he and his father would send money home to support the family, his mother and the brood of sisters. When times got bad and there was no work, there was no money to send home.

On his first day on a job in New Mexico, Lynch saw a fellow ironworker named Walker plunge 30 stories to his death. On another occasion another worker fell and was impaled on a steel rod. “I’m happy to say he survived and is doing well,” Lynch says.

“You know, it is always a contest between the coal miners and the ironworkers over who has the most deaths on the job,” Lynch says. “When the coal miners have a ‘cave-in’ they get caught in a group. Ironworkers die one at a time.”

Becoming a Politician

In 1979 his father was diagnosed with cancer and the road work came to an end. Lynch returned home and enrolled at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Working days and attending classes at night and on weekends, it took him eight years to earn his bachelor’s degree. His major was construction management. Concerned about workplace safety, Lynch won a seat on the executive board of the Ironworkers Local 7. Three years later he became president.

Meanwhile, Lynch began law school at Boston College. He graduated in 1991 and passed the bar. Lynch soon became a familiar and welcome figure around the housing projects in South Boston, representing clients for free before the Boston Housing Authority. Talk naturally began about running for office, which he did in 1994, defeating incumbent state Rep. Paul Gannon for a seat in the House. Lynch had served in the lower chamber for just over a year when then-Gov. Bill Weld named Senate President Bulger to be president of the University of Massachusetts, thereby creating the Senate vacancy that would be filled in a special primary in the spring of 1996.

“Working the iron toughens you up for life. Everything else becomes non-threatening. It is a good test.”

Lynch was not as flashy as Sen. Bulger (but who was?). He was not flashy at all. But being an ironworker and president of the ironworkers union had taught him a lot. “Working the iron toughens you up for life,” Lynch says. “Everything else becomes non-threatening. It is a good test.”

Many people assumed that the powerful aura of Bulger, who served as Senate president longer than anyone else, could be transferred to Bill Bulger Jr. But Lynch says he was not worried about winning the contest. In the Democratic primary that spring he collected 8,519 votes, to Bulger’s 5,348. A third challenger, Patrick Loftus III, got 1,379.

Ah, but there was one source of trepidation Lynch admits to. Winning the South Boston Senate seat meant he would inherit Bulger’s famous annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast of corned beef and cabbage. He would not only inherit it, he would have to host it, and that meant taking the microphone and telling jokes, and having the politicians and the guests convulsing with laughter, as Bulger, the master storyteller and jokester, did every year.

“This caused me headaches and sleepless nights,” Lynch says. “This would be a real test of my success as a state senator, whether I would flop or not. Here I am, an ironworker, and he’s the comedian, and a tough, tough act to follow.”

Actually, Lynch had appeared at Bulger’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast once, as a newly elected member of the House. “Bulger let me up to tell one joke, and I was scared to death. I was on after Ted Kennedy. Bulger turned to me and said, ‘Are you ready, kid? Good, because you’re on next. Get up and tell your joke and sit down.’ And that is what I did. It was good advice,” Lynch says.

When Lynch ran against Bulger’s son, he did not attend the St. Patrick’s Day event, which was just two weeks before the primary. Bulger says he mailed Lynch an invitation. Lynch says he never got it. In the following year, it was Lynch who was hosting the breakfast, quite successfully after all, despite his misgivings. It helped that he had Bob Kraft as his guest, who, after dropping his South Boston stadium plans, good-naturedly served as Lynch’s foil.

The Powers That Be

There were those who had some misgivings about Lynch when he first entered the Senate. He was one of only a handful of legislators who came into the State House having already lived a life. This guy was not going to worry about missing a roll call or about voting wrong on an issue. This was a guy who had the audacity to run against and beat the boss’s son, the boss to whom influential senators owed everything, including their chairmanships and the extra pay and perks that went with them. But they bit their tongues because, although Lynch is not physically imposing, he looks wiry, tough, and balanced. Actually, he looks like a suit that has been left out on the clothesline for a weekend, clean and weather-beaten. And he was self-effacing, a rare characteristic at the State House. When asked how he won he would say, “I worked like a dog. I think they elected me because they felt sorry for me.”

One thing that might have complicated matters was that Senate President Thomas Birmingham had backed Lynch’s opponent in the special election. Birmingham, who knew both candidates, supported Bill Bulger Jr. because he owed the senior Bulger for handing the Senate presidency to him. So he broke precedent and got involved in the Democratic primary.

Both Lynch and Birmingham are labor lawyers, and before either was in the Senate, or in politics for that matter, Birmingham represented the Ironworkers Local 7 when Lynch was the union president. Their paths to labor law were different, however. While Birmingham, like Lynch, comes from a working-class background, he was a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Harvard University Law School. Lynch, meanwhile, knew what it was to work with his hands before his hands opened a law book. “I wasn’t shocked when he won,” Birmingham says.

“I did support Billy Bulger Jr. in that race, but I was not anti-Lynch,” Birmingham says. “And there was no bad blood left over from that time.” To show that there wasn’t, Birmingham appointed Lynch as Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Commerce and Labor. Both of them refer to the committee as the Committee on Labor and Labor, a little labor-lawyer humor that must send chills down the spine of big business.

All was not sweetness and harmony in the Massachusetts Senate, however, as Lynch learned how things worked in the upper branch of the Legislature. For example, there was the bothersome case of the citizens’ revolt against dumpster din. A bill filed last year as a good government measure by Beacon Hill Democratic Rep. Paul Demakis would have provided strict new regulations for rubbish collection in the city of Boston. The trash collectors come around early in the morning – usually around 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., to beat the morning rush hour. It seems that people on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay complained about the noise the trucks made so early in the morning. So a home-rule petition was filed with the Boston City Council to prohibit trash collection in Boston before 7 a.m. The council approved it and Mayor Tom Menino signed it with no great fanfare and sent it up to the Legislature for approval.

The bill was adamantly opposed by the rubbish collectors, who argued that the costs of trash collection would skyrocket. There would be horrendous traffic problems as the trucks battled with commuters at 8 a.m., the streets would be jammed as the trucks blocked streets, the cost to the taxpayers would go up because of increased overtime pay. In addition to all this, owners and officials of rubbish collection companies are known to be big campaign contributors.

The bill sat in the House for eight months before it was surprisingly approved and sent to the Senate 10 days before the 1998 legislative session was scheduled to end last summer.

Lynch supported the bill because he believed it would enhance his political position in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, both of which are part of his district. “He thought it was a lock,” one Democratic senator said. “He said it was important to him politically. It was a good government bill that would make people happy because it would cut out all the noise these guys make early in the morning.”

The rubbish collection industry, meanwhile, contacted Birmingham and other Democratic leaders in the Senate and pointed out how the bill could drive up costs. They promised to police themselves carefully and be more responsible if the bill were killed.

Up to this point Lynch had had a good legislative year, getting pretty much what he wanted out of Birmingham and the legislative leadership, and he had only token opposition for re-election. Still, he wanted the bill. On the last day of the session he went to Birmingham and asked that the bill be released from the committee where it was being held. “He pleaded with the President,” one Senate source said.

The Senate leadership had the votes to kill the bill if it came up in the Senate for debate. But that was not the point. The leadership did not want the bill debated so late in the session. Such an apparent “good government” bill, if killed, would make some senators voting against it look bad in the upcoming campaign.

“This was a test for Lynch,” a Senate source said. He met again with Senate President Birmingham and other members of Birmingham’s leadership team. “If you’re going to be part of the team you’ve got to back off this bill. It’s a bad bill,” Lynch was told. Lynch backed off. The bill died in committee.

He passed the test. Politics, in the real world, involves not just standing up in a battle but knowing when to back down.

Southie is My Hometown

Still, like most politicians, Lynch would rather be known as a stand-up guy, a politician who does not waver when it comes to his basic beliefs. And that is how most observers see him. “Steve Lynch will stick to the core of his beliefs,” former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn says. UMass President Bulger is now on friendly terms with Lynch. “I admire Steve Lynch’s fidelity to his constituency,” Bulger says. “He has the respect of people who have convictions and who stick to them.”

And what is the core of Lynch’s beliefs? He says he favors support of the family, the neighborhood, the community, and the Roman Catholic Church. He is pro-life on abortion and pro- death penalty. He is opposed to forced busing, and has been for 25 years. U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity and The Boston Globe brought busing to Boston in 1974, and neither has been forgiven since, and probably never will be. “Judge Arthur Garrity destroyed the Boston school system, and if he believes differently, he’s dreaming,” Lynch says. A strong believer in neighborhood schools, Lynch sees little connection between South Boston High and the community ever since busing came about. “Few South Boston kids go to South Boston High School,” he says. “Busing has severed that community tie.”

But most of all he is a South Boston Democrat. He believes in helping the poor and taking care of the old. He is a politician who believes that it is the duty of government to help those who are in need, and finds it his job to discover those who are in need.

Lynch is put off by any talk about what his political future might hold in store for him. But that has not put off others from talking about it. His admirers see three political paths Lynch might follow. One is to eventually run for mayor of Boston when Tom Menino gives up the office. The second is to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley when the popular congressman retires. The third is to remain in the state Senate and work his way up the leadership ladder and ultimately become Senate President, as Bulger did, and as the late South Boston Sen. John E. Powers did before Bulger.

“I am just in my first full term in the Senate,” Lynch says. “I have to show people I am willing to work, willing to produce.” Besides, he says, “Joe Moakley is absolutely the best, and Tom Menino is doing a good job for the city.”

Lynch is conscious of his South Boston image, and that is why he spends a lot of time at meetings in other parts of his Senate district – in Dorchester, Chinatown, Roxbury, the South End, and the Back Bay. “I am expected to be at all the meetings in the communities,” he says. “It didn’t happen before because the Senate President [Bulger] had so many demands upon him. In some ways he was captured by the State House. I am not.”

Meet the Author
“Parochial is good,” as Lynch puts it. “When you talk about your sense of community, that’s parochial. Parochial is not necessarily bad. We’re all parochial. There is my district, and then there is the rest of the world.” Lynch sees himself as a caretaker. He will take care of his constituents who now find themselves in the midst of fundamental neighborhood change. But just as his ironworking career took him far beyond South Boston, his career as a political leader will push his boundaries, too. It is true that Lynch travels the district more than Bulger did. Maybe he will rise to power one way or another, as Bulger did. But as with Bill Bulger, as with most successful leaders who are grounded in this insular piece of land that juts out into the harbor, Lynch will usually see things from the South Boston point of view. You can take the boy out of Southie, but not too far out.

Peter Lucas has worked as a political reporter and columnist for the Boston Herald Traveler, The Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald. He is currently director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.