The Great Divide

Steve Lynch, state senator from South Boston, is foraging for votes in a sleepy residential neighborhood near Dedham Center. It’s hot, and a lot of people aren’t home when Lynch knocks on their doors this midmorning. Still, things are starting to look up.

Despite a series of embarrassing news stories about his checkered financial background, Lynch remains a top contender in this month’s Democratic primary for the Ninth Congressional District seat because of his strong base in the district’s vote – rich Boston precincts. No one doubts he’ll come roaring out of Southie with a huge margin over his suburban competitors, state senators Cheryl Jacques of Needham, Brian Joyce of Milton, and Marc Pacheco of Taunton. But Lynch will also be competing for votes in affluent suburban reaches of the district where soccer moms and their spouses hold positions on social issues from the death penalty to abortion and gay rights that are contrary to Lynch’s anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and pro-capital punishment record.

Surprisingly, this morning’s door-to-door search for suburban support has already yielded several signatures on Lynch’s nomination papers, not to mention the warm reception from Davis Riordan, an Abbott Road homeowner painting his front door who scrambles off his ladder to greet Lynch, exclaiming: “I know you from Southie.”

“Money in the bank,” murmurs a Lynch aide, and a grin spreads across Lynch’s mug, weathered from his years of outdoor labor as an ironworker. This may be the land of half-million-dollar homes, award-winning public schools, and bucolic refuge from city noise and crime, but that doesn’t mean an urban pol like Lynch can’t find kindred spirits here. After all, another unmistakably ethnic son of Southie, Joe Moakley, went unscathed by serious challenge or criticism during 15 terms as the congressman from the Ninth. Moakley was pro-life, too, but managed to salve that and other potential ideological chafing among his suburban constituents with the balm of his famous personal charm.

Now more than ever, Boston’s southwestern suburbs are well stocked with former city dwellers like Lynch, who saved their quarters or sold the three-decker to some affluent yuppie developer, trading it in for their own slice of sun-kissed Dedham, Braintree, or Milton. “There really isn’t that much in the way of differences” between the district’s urban and suburban precincts, Lynch says, relaxing, after meeting Riordan. “People are all concerned about the same things.”

Not quite all, as Lynch discovers when he rings the doorbell of Riordan’s neighbor, Donna Lang.

“I’m Stephen Lynch, running for Congress, asking for your support,” Lynch says politely.

“Oh, yes,” responds Lang. “How do you feel about the death penalty?”

Lynch swallows hard. He’s been a reliable vote for capital punishment in the state Senate, a position that reflects the majority view of his crime-weary constituents in Southie. But like Dorothy waking up in Oz to realize this isn’t Kansas anymore, Lynch’s run for Congress has landed him in a decidedly different political place.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” he says with a slightly sheepish downward glance that telegraphs fast-thinking spin on the way. “I think we should probably have a moratorium on the death penalty. In light of all the new evidence that’s come out, people cleared by DNA evidence, it would be reckless to continue under the assumptions that we’ve had.”

“Okay,” nods Lang, and, to Lynch’s obvious relief, she brings up her next topic; the summertime saga of philandering California Congressman Gary Condit and his young intern. Asked about the exchange on capital punishment moments later, Lynch brushes it off. “Most people have a particular issue,” he says. “For every one that’s said to me, ‘What about the death penalty?’ or ‘What about life?’ I’ve had ten that have said, ‘What about these utility rates?'”

We’ll learn whether Lynch’s analysis of what voters really care about is right when Democrats and independents go to the polls September 11 to pick Moakley’s successor. Most likely, given the history of special elections as sheer tests of ability to drag people to the polls, the result will hinge on whether or not Lynch can pile up enough votes in Boston’s southern-tier neighborhoods to simply overwhelm the turnout on his opponents’ leafy turf. But if the race should come down to a handful of votes, look for the outcome to be the latest tremor emanating from the long-standing fault line of Massachusetts politics: the friction between city and suburb.

It’s a division older than the Declaration of Independence. The likes of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau debated the contrasting merits of urban and rural life. Across the country, political power has long since shifted from big-city bosses to well-educated, relatively affluent suburban voters who often look askance at urban values. In Massachusetts, the suburbs clearly have the numbers; just 44 percent of the state’s population lives in cities, according to the latest census. And the last quarter-century of metropolitan Boston politics alone provides a litany of urban/suburban dustups over everything from water rates to housing policy and school desegregation.

No wonder state Representative Cory Atkins was thrilled to see House Speaker Tom Finneran come out with a congressional redistricting plan this summer that liberated her rustic Acton, Concord, and Boxborough fiefdom from a Fifth District “driven” by the interests of Lowell and Lawrence into districts with a “like-minded” suburban tilt. Brian Joyce, informed of Lynch’s exchange with Donna Lang, was similarly euphoric. After all, suburban support for Joyce’s opposition to capital punishment helped him win his Senate seat in a 1998 special election. “I have been very clear and unequivocal that I oppose the death penalty,” crows Joyce. “During a high-profile special election where the people don’t know you, they often go to these hot-button issues.”

The record shows that Joyce knows full well how to push one of the hottest buttons of all: suburban resentment of urban political clout. In a mass mailing and print ad campaign targeted at suburban voters during the final days before the special primary preceding the election, Joyce argued for changes in a state formula for distributing public-school aid that favored Boston at the expense of the suburbs. “THEY WANT TO KEEP TAKING OUR MONEY AND GIVING IT TO THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS!” screamed the ad. “DON’T LET THEM DO IT!” His opponents, Joyce wrote – both Boston city councilors – opposed a change to the education funding formula that would benefit suburban schools and taxpayers.

“It was an amazing piece of literature for someone looking to run in a district that has a piece of Boston,” recalls one of the aforementioned city councilors, Maureen Feeney. “It was almost like a subliminal message – us against them.”

Four years later, education funding reform is still the top legislative priority of the Suburban Coalition, a lobbying group that includes representatives from scores of suburban and rural communities. “Certainly, there is a potential for [urban/suburban] conflict,” acknowledges Jerry Wasserman, a Needham selectman and coalition leader. “You do see the sides line up.”

Education policy is a polarizing issue in other ways as well. Lynch’s ardent support for public aid to nonunion charter and private schools plays well in urban precincts where many parents are eager for alternatives to the faltering public schools. But it’s the chance to attend decent public schools that drew many of Lynch’s former neighbors to the suburbs in the first place. “Now that they have the opportunity to use public schools, they’re invested in them,” notes Feeney.

Chances are that Marc Pacheco, a fervent critic of charter schools, will take every opportunity to remind those voters of Lynch’s affinity for such fearsome reforms. Pacheco has already carved out a suburban crowd-pleasing niche as a critic of “urban sprawl,” warning a Stonehill College conference on the issue of the need to “protect and preserve the precious and pristine areas of southeastern Massachusetts.” Not to be outdone, Cheryl Jacques, asked what voters in the Ninth District want, spits out a litany of buzz phrases with tailored soccer-mom appeal: “They are looking for someone who will protect women’s rights and environmental rights and fight the NRA.”

Those phrases all applied to Feeney, who did fairly well in some suburban precincts and fell only a few hundred votes short of Joyce in the 1997 primary. But her moderate record did her no good in the 1998 rematch, as Joyce piled up a huge suburban majority. “They saw this as an opportunity to elect ‘one of our own,'” says Feeney. “Flat out, that was it – ‘We’ve got our senator.'”

If the suburbs are into flexing their electoral muscle these days, it’s only fair; the cities always have. “If I had my druthers, sure, I’d love to have three congressmen from Boston,” admits Mayor Tom Menino, officially neutral in the Ninth District race. Between paying some of the nation’s highest water rates to help subsidize the Boston Harbor cleanup and ponying up for the Big Dig – Joe Moakley’s pet project – suburban taxpayers have long been paying the bills run up by urban political clout.

Former Big Dig chief Andrew Natsios recalls how, in his days as a Holliston state representative, he got standing ovations from his constituents for “kicking the crap” out of Boston. And the Big Dig’s drain on state funds that might have paid for long-deferred road and bridge repairs out in the hustings is a prime target of suburban political anger. “It’s a despised project,” says state Senator Robert Havern, a Democrat from Arlington.

Over three decades of genial, generous constituent service, Moakley was able to defuse any potential backlash against his sponsorship of such city-centered initiatives. And as former Quincy state Senator William Golden points out, previous migrants from Boston “felt strong ties with city neighborhoods and had a continuing sense that people who shared those same roots would represent them well.” But these days Ninth District suburbanites tend to be people who have fled the city’s poor schools, transient population, and crime, often bringing bitterness and regret along with their other baggage. “They moved out for a reason, and that was that they had nothing to do with the city,” says Golden. “There is a sense that while Boston is still a great place to work, it’s not a place they share much with anymore.”

That’s why Steve Lynch, a tough, proven fighter in the mean streets of South Boston politics, spent most of his summer trudging along lush suburban lanes with no sidewalks. Are there enough Davis Riordans in Dedham, Canton, Medfield, and the rest to give him the suburban toehold he needs to pad his urban nest egg? Or will the explicit and implied appeals of Jacques, Joyce, or Pacheco to suburban hopes and fears catch fire with the district’s Donna Langs and swamp Lynch’s concrete-and-three-decker beachhead?

“It’s unfortunate that some would try to pit people against one another,” sighs Lynch. “My positions will play with some and not with others. But you just have to tell people where you are.”

And, he might have added, pray they don’t decide you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be.