December 12, 2013

There is more to the controversy enveloping Boston City Councilor-elect Michele Wu than meets the eye.

In January, 28-year-old Harvard College, Harvard Law educated Wu takes one of four At-Large seats on the 13-member Boston City Council.

Wu’s unexpected support for South Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan’s bid to become Council President has ticked off a number of professional political progressives.

If social media traffic is any indication, it has also raised concern among voters who -- until now -- saw Wu as the embodiment of New Boston values.

There is nothing New Boston about Bill Linehan.

For starters, Linehan had the effrontery to win reelection to the Council by beating Suzanne Lee, another New Boston doyen (like Wu, also of Asian heritage) in two consecutive elections.

In terms of programs and policy, Linehan is a classic lunch-bucket Democrat out of the FDR, HST, JFK, and LBJ mold.

And if it weren’t for what one political insider calls “all that diversity stuff”, Linehan would be more or less one with the Clinton and Obama agenda. If Linehan were practicing politics in Oklahoma, he’d be branded a communist. In Texas, he’d be called a socialist. But here in Boston, he’s considered a conservative.

Linehan is Old Boston because – despite being generally supportive of gay rights – he continues to march in the shamelessly retrograde South Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.

Memo to Bill: Publicly consorting with self-styled bigots is not the road to city-wide acceptance.

More problematic for me, was Linehan’s ham-fisted attempt to muscle aside State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry from what most observers thought was her divinely ordained role as toastmaster for the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.

Traditionally, the state senator representing South Boston presides over the tired and clichéd festivities. 

Until Dorcena Forry won the seat earlier this year, no one can remember the last time anyone as culturally exotic as a Dorchester resident represented Southie in Beacon Hill’s upper chamber.

The fact that Dorcena Forry is Haitian-American injected an inescapable element of speculated racial conflict to the mix.

In the end, Dorcena Forry had no trouble whipping Linehan into shape.

(If I were Linehan, I’d ask myself if Saint Patrick’s day is worth all of this grief)

Linehan’s attempt to gerrymander part of Chinatown out of his council district in an attempt to protect himself from a future challenge by Lee didn’t do his reputation much good either.

This sorry little redistricting chapter was, however, understandable. It was the ignoble but perfectly predictable action of a politician trying to hold on to his job.

In terms of the larger political spectrum, Linehan has not been as racially sensitive as say, outgoing Councilor Rob Consalvo of Hyde Park. But neither has he been as nasty and objectionable as the late Councilor Jimmy Kelly of South Boston.

For an old-fashioned Southie guy, Linehan is an improvement on previous models.

So, why is New Boston Wu aligning herself with Old Boston Linehan?

It’s called coalition building: aligning yourself with an unlikely ally in the hopes of accomplishing more together that could be achieved individually.

Also, Wu and Linehan have Chinatown in common: it’s in Linehan’s district and it constitutes part of Wu’s base.  Add to the mix that Chinatown political boss Frank Chin supports both Wu and Linehan and things begin to make sense.

Linehan’s opportunity to grab the council’s presidency is a result of the inability of progressive councilors Tito Jackson of Roxbury and Matt O’Malley of Roslindale to get out of each other’s way.

Each wanted to the presidency, but Linehan put together what appears to be a winning coalition before O’Malley and Jackson could sort things out. As of this writing, Jackson is still pursuing the job.

Will Wu be bullied into switching her vote? Hard to say, but my bet is no.

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