Don’t F*ck with Linda
Since at least the early 1950s, the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast has been hosted by the state senator from Massachusetts’ First Suffolk District. Generation after generation, the hosting duties passed from one Southie Irishman to the next, including legendary Senate President William Bulger, current U.S. Congressman Steve Lynch, and, most recently, Jack Hart. Along the way, what started as a sharp-elbowed roast among the city’s Irish-American political insiders has been transformed into a very public show of power: a made-for-TV spectacle attended by the state’s biggest officeholders and office-seekers, all armed with scripted punch lines. The host not only basks in the glow of the cameras, but, more important, controls who speaks, when, and for how long. It is the political event of the year.
Like the breakfast itself, the First Suffolk District has changed over time: Even though its state senator is still often referred to as the holder of the “Southie Seat,” Southie residents now make up just 20 percent of the district, with the remaining 80 percent coming from Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. It’s a transformation that’s been decades in the making, but it wasn’t until May 2013 that South Boston die-hards were forced to confront a new political reality. In a tight race, Linda Dorcena Forry, a black Haitian-American woman from Dorchester, beat Nick Collins, a proper son of South Boston, to win the seat. And with it came the right to host the Irish breakfast. On St. Patrick’s Day. In Southie.
With the spotlight ready to fix on her, Forry spent much of the week leading up to this year’s breakfast in rehearsals. On the Tuesday before the breakfast, she snuck away from the State House to practice traditional songs like “Wild Colonial Boy” in a meeting room at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. The song had her so worked up—“It’s hilarious! It’s about shooting!”—that she began firing gun fingers into the air, until she realized that doing so might not send the best message. During the rest of the week, she cooed the songs at home while tending to her four children. Finally, the day before the breakfast, Forry returned to the convention center for a dry run. Reading through her carefully prepared jokes, her biggest problem was that she couldn’t keep from laughing over her own punch lines.
Forry’s levity masked a very real tension. Even before she ran for office, she knew a black woman hosting the breakfast would be too much for some. During her campaign, members of her inner circle—even her husband, Dorchester Reporter editor Bill Forry—suggested that she forswear rights to host in advance, to remove that barrier some had to supporting her.
She refused to consider it. A few months after her victory, she started making calls to top South Boston figures to make clear that she would soon begin the extensive planning for the event. One of those calls was to Bill Linehan, an old-school city councilor from Southie who had filled in as host the previous year, while the Senate seat was vacant. The two had a friendly conversation, according to Forry, in which they agreed to discuss the matter more later. She says that Linehan—who declined to be interviewed for this article—ended the chat by asking that she not speak to the media.
A few days later, on September 6, Forry woke up to a surprise on the Globe’s front page: Linehan was quoted in a story about the breakfast, suggesting that he should host. Nick Collins, the Southie state representative whom Forry beat in her Senate race, also voiced support for him.
The article caused a political firestorm—Hollywood couldn’t have better portrayed South Boston’s pols as racist, sexist, parochial dinosaurs. Twitter and Facebook lit up with outrage while news outlets tracked the story, with mayoral candidates, and even Governor Deval Patrick, backing Forry and chiding Linehan.
Remarkably, Forry, Linehan, and Collins were all scheduled to attend a noon meeting that day at the South Boston convention center—the very place where the breakfast would be held—to discuss that building’s expansion plans. Old Boston and New Boston were on a collision course.
According to those present, the meeting itself was cordial. As they dealt with the business at hand, nobody mentioned the big Irish elephant in the room.
But afterward, as Forry, Linehan, and Collins walked to their cars, Forry stopped on the sidewalk and turned to her colleagues. Breaking into a broad smile, she asked, “Bill—what the fuck are you thinking?”
“And then you, Nick—what are you talking about?”
Linehan tried to defend himself, but Forry would accept only unconditional surrender. It didn’t take long. That afternoon, Forry’s office sent out a joint press release in which Linehan, like a hostage in a forced-confession video, announced that his remarks had been misunderstood, and he was looking forward to seeing Forry host.
Forry may be the fastest-rising political star of so-called New Boston, but her playbook comes straight from the Old Boston Irish masters. James Michael Curley, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Billy Bulger—all combined outsize personalities with sharp-elbowed, calculated political maneuvering. There aren’t many like that anymore, not among the city’s Irish-Americans, at least.
While many other faces of New Boston have fueled their political rises with issue advocacy and soaring talk of a broad social mission, Forry’s climb has been much more prosaic—filled with the type of quiet backroom work, relationship building, and well-traded favors most often associated with those machine bosses of the past. Her power has been gathered the old-fashioned way, and she guards it carefully. Just ask anyone who’s ever tangled with her. “She’ll give you this downward-eye thing, and a smirk, and her head tilts down,” says state Representative Mike Moran, of Brighton. “It’s her fuck-you look without saying fuck you.” Of course, as Linehan and Collins learned, she’s also pretty good at actually saying, “fuck you.”
Naturally, Forry has attracted fans and critics from all sides. To some progressives and minorities demanding rapid change, she’s too Old Boston. To some multigenerational Boston traditionalists, she’s too New Boston. But there’s only one question that really matters: As she accumulates power—and make no mistake, Linda Dorcena Forry is accumulating power—what will she do with it?
If you want to see that mix of Old and New Boston, visit the Forrys’ home in Dorchester’s Lower Mills neighborhood. A comfortable four-bedroom Colonial, pine green with white trim and a porch that needs work, it’s the same house that her husband, Bill, grew up in. His father has long been a key cog in the Dorchester political machine, and sitting in the dining room with Linda, Bill gestures around, as if conjuring the politicos who used to crowd into this room during his childhood. But the photos on the wall show something many of those old hacks would never have imagined: a happy mixed-race couple and their four children—the youngest of whom periodically bursts into the room to demand her mommy’s attention.
Linda’s story began in a less established part of Dorchester, but is one that would sound familiar to Boston’s Irish-Americans: Her parents came here from a troubled island nation and raised a large, tight-knit family through kindred ethnic connections, strong Catholic institutions, and an emphasis on work ethic and education.
Born in 1973, the third of five children, Linda Dorcena gravitated early toward leadership. Her younger sister Carline Durocher recalls that, whenever the Dorcena kids got their hands on a Snickers bar, Linda put herself in charge of divvying it up. It was important to her that everyone got an equal piece, Forry says, but she also liked being in control. She would always eat her own piece slowly, so the others would covet it after theirs was gone. It surprised nobody when she ran for, and won, her eighth-grade class presidency.
Forry came of age in the aftermath of Boston’s busing wars, in an increasingly diverse Dorchester. While buses rolled from Roxbury to Southie, roiling those communities, Dorchester was becoming a complex patchwork of overlapping ethnic mini neighborhoods. The city was brimming with urban programs meant to keep ordinary kids from slipping away, and to tap those with potential. Those programs didn’t always work, and they weren’t available to everyone—but their existence meant that when a young Haitian-American girl like Forry showed promise, she found a path to leadership that was paved with the establishment’s good intentions.
From an early age, Forry took advantage of Youth Enrichment Services (YES) and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. She went on YES-sponsored camping and skiing trips; helped coordinate multiracial dances with youth groups from other neighborhoods; and went to Disney World as a chaperone for a trip with the Boys & Girls Club. In 1992 she was senior class president at Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School. The harsher world around her—the tense, racially charged, drug-wracked experience of many of her peers—rarely intruded on her life. Instead, she was insulated, validated, and buoyed by a series of strong institutions.
She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, but her practical side led her to enroll in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. At BC, she continued to put herself in charge. She describes herself as the “mother hen” to her girlfriends, making sure that everyone got home okay from parties. “I would be the one saying, ‘I came with five, I’m taking five with me,’” Forry says. Her friends confirm that she remained her mother’s do-good Catholic girl, avoiding boyfriends, drugs, and alcohol.