Don’t F*ck with Linda

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Linda Dorcena Forry

Photograph by Jason Grow

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.

Linda Dorcena Forry

Photo by Erik Jacobs

Meanwhile, she got involved in efforts to pressure BC’s administration to do more on minority issues and for Boston kids. She was active in two student groups: There was DIVERSE, a group that worked within the system for incremental change; and FIST, a confrontational organization of radicals, including members of the New Black Panthers. Though Forry dabbled on the edges of FIST, she felt more at home with DIVERSE. It was a lesson, she says, for her later approach on Beacon Hill: She appreciates the need for rabble-rousers, but says they need someone like her to work with the power-holders toward real solutions: “I’m going to bring people to the table, and tell you exactly what [the rabble-rousers] have said.”

She also attended NAACP chapter meetings—at her very first one, she met a goateed white student from Dorchester, a year ahead of her at BC. Bill Forry had a similar worldview and an overlapping set of Haitian-American friends—before long, they became tight. After he graduated, Bill went to work for the Reporter, the newspaper his father founded in 1983. A year later, in 1996, Linda also came back to Dorchester, and reconnected with Bill as she started looking for work. Back on their home turf, their friendship turned into a romance. While Bill became immersed in covering the emerging new Dorchester, Linda got her chance to become part of that change.

 

Talk to anyone who knew her back then, and they’ll all say that Linda Dorcena Forry came out of the gates and took the inside track. Charlotte Golar Richie, a first-term state representative from Dorchester, was looking to add young talent to her staff. And Forry, needing a job, made sure Richie’s office was flooded with recommendations for her.

“She was wired from the moment I met her,” says Lily Mendez-Morgan, then Richie’s chief of staff. Forry worked mainly on constituent issues for Richie, which took her to dozens of community meetings a month. She was a natural at the kind of outreach that turned local activists into allies. “She walked that into Charlotte’s office, she didn’t learn it there,” Mendez-Morgan says.

Forry also took quickly to the campaign side of Richie’s organization. She became active in her local Democratic Ward Committee, with the help of her new state representative at the time, Marty Walsh. When Mayor Tom Menino hired Richie to head the Department of Neighborhood Services in 1999, she brought Forry with her to City Hall.

The following June, she and Bill got married, with the mayor in attendance. Like many party activists trying to become more useful for their political patrons, a year later Linda ran for a seat in her new Democratic Ward Committee. She was the top vote getter, and political insiders took notice.

Throughout her career, Forry has shown an insider’s instinct for seizing a crucial moment, and the biggest one came calling in the summer of 2004. Marty Walsh called Bill Forry and told him in confidence that House Speaker Tom Finneran, who represented Linda’s district, intended to resign later that year—and that she should consider running in the ensuing special election. At a late-season Red Sox game, after Finneran went public with the news, Bill and Linda debated whether to take on a campaign. In many ways, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Their son John Patrick was not yet a year old, and Bill’s mother, Mary, was fighting pancreatic cancer. But there was no question about Linda’s desire to step into the spotlight. Ever since her first middle school election, if there was a brass ring dangling above Forry’s head, she’d grab at it. “She definitely wanted to do it in terms of her career,” Bill says.

She jumped in, even as some wondered whether the white Irish-Americans in her district would accept a black woman. Catherine O’Neill, field director for that House campaign, who is white, says that one night in front of the campaign headquarters, two drunk white men kicked her car and yelled, “fucking nigger lover.”

But incidents like that were the exceptions. And Forry hewed a safe ideological path. She emphasized neighborhood issues and constituent problem solving, offering generic views on hot-button topics like education, jobs, and housing. She initially avoided taking a position on same-sex marriage, although she eventually came out in support.

It was a smart if politically cautious campaign, relying mostly on her personality and hard work. Though two other Haitian-Americans also ran, the community’s support coalesced around Forry. In the end, she romped, taking 47 percent of the vote in a five-way primary. Turnout, particularly in the Haitian-American community, dwarfed expectations.

Forry had stitched together a coalition of minorities and younger Dorchester residents who were looking for new leaders—of any race—who did not seem mired in Boston’s old, confrontational, tribal politics.

But that coalition can be easier to stitch together than to hold.

As a state representative, much like in her BC days, Forry preferred working within the system to challenging it—not always pleasing either young progressives or black activists. She rarely voted against House leadership under speakers Sal DiMasi or Robert DeLeo, for whom she helped whip votes during his 2009 speakership battle. Although Forry’s voting record is overwhelmingly liberal, she does not wear issue advocacy on her sleeve the way City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz do. She has taken roles on relatively low-profile committees, dealing with issues like small business, public service, and telecommunications. On many initiatives, she takes a long, tactical approach, which some say yields watered-down results, if any. She also generally shuns the press, which she seems to distrust—despite, or perhaps because of, her husband’s profession.

Black community leaders and activists say they like Forry, are rooting for her, and do not want to be named criticizing her. But in several candid conversations recently, one called her a “sellout” to the white political establishment. Another more politely told me that Forry is “not necessarily on the front lines” and “is not going to rock the boat” of the largely white establishment.

That skepticism has extended into the Haitian-American community. Back in 2004, many resented her running for state representative against Emmanuel Bellegarde, who they felt was more connected to the community, says radio personality and activist Jean-Claude Sanon, who supported Forry in that race. “People thought she would not stand her ground,” he says. “They thought she was more Irish than Haitian.”

Her collaborative approach might not be flashy, but it has made her effective, Forry argues. She boasts a significant roster of legislative accomplishments: among them, brokering a deal to pass a stagnant bill to protect temporary workers, and reform of the state’s Savings Bank Life Insurance Company. She also points to victories—like the hiring of minority-owned businesses for work on the convention-center expansion—that require cooperation with those sometimes viewed as part of the problem. “We need them at the table, too,” Forry says.

And she has occasionally taken on more high-profile battles, most notably fighting Tom Menino’s plan to close several libraries, including one in Lower Mills. “She works quietly and behind the scenes,” Southie state Representative Nick Collins says, “but when the time calls for throwing flames, she’s not shy.”

 

Forry’s shot at the State Senate arose in early 2013, when incumbent Jack Hart resigned. Despite the district’s changed demographics, many thought Collins, a South Boston native, had the advantage in the April 30 Democratic primary—especially with Southie’s own Steve Lynch headlining the ballot the same day in his U.S. Senate primary. It did not help that City Councilor Frank Baker, whom Forry had stuck her neck out to support in his race two years earlier, stayed neutral in the race. Much worse, Marty Walsh, Baker’s patron and close friend, stayed neutral, too. “I was livid,” Forry says. “But you know what? We’re going to win, and take mental notes.”

The night of the election, the Associated Press initially declared Collins the winner; that news quickly circulated among supporters huddled over phones at the Phillips Old Colony House, the site of Forry’s victory party. Bill Forry came out to caution the crowd that the media sometimes get it wrong.

In this case, they did. Two late-reporting precincts in the heart of Dorchester’s Haitian-American community came in with much higher turnout than expected—and gave more than 90 percent of their votes to Forry. Once again, New Boston had exceeded expectations. Forry won by 379 votes, out of 22,389 cast.

The victory catapulted Forry to a new level of power. But what does she intend to do with it? In a four-hour interview at her home this spring, I asked her several times about her plans, her path, and what she wants to accomplish. She seemed genuinely hard-pressed to answer. She claims to have no long-term plans, or particular higher office in mind. She speaks sincerely, but generically, of wanting to help people. Though she is well versed and thoughtful on specific issues, they are less important to her than a holistic view of how people live.

To a large extent, Forry the politician seems to still be Linda, sent by her mom to those urban programs, trying to do whatever good she can—and wanting to be put in charge so she can make sure it’s all done right.

Along the way, though, she’s also proven to be a quick study in the ruthlessness of old-school Boston politicking. As candidates desperately sought her endorsement in the once-in-a-generation race to replace Tom Menino as mayor in 2013, she found herself in a position to accumulate the kind of political chits on which careers are built. In her own just-completed primary, she had been livid when Baker and Walsh snubbed her—but now that was exactly what she did, too. Cold and calculating, she remained neutral in the preliminary round, watching from the sidelines while Richie—her long-time mentor—went down to defeat. In the final contest, a duel between two white Irish guys, Forry could have chosen to settle her score with Marty Walsh by endorsing his rival, John Connolly. Instead, she endorsed Walsh in October.

She ended up on the winning side, with an ally running City Hall. She showed the same knack at the end of 2014, as several candidates jockeyed to succeed Therese Murray as president of the state Senate. Stan Rosenberg, the Senate majority leader, was eager for her support. After a period of deliberation, Forry signaled her decision to him by catching his attention in the Senate chamber and—slowly—raising her thumb. In style and in substance, this was Boston politics executed to perfection. In the words of an old first-generation Irish-American ward boss: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”

 

On the morning of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, Forry entered the packed Southie ballroom to the theme from The Quiet Man, the quintessential old Irish-American movie. Grinning and clapping, she made her way to the stage.

“For those of you watching at home, do not adjust your television set,” Forry said. “There is nothing wrong with the picture on your TV. That is right, everyone. That’s right.” Pause. “I’m a woman!”

The audience howled at her wink-and-nod subversion of decades’ worth of the city’s racial tensions. They had come to cheer her on, turning the traditional South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast into a multi-cultural affair. The extended Dorcena and Forry families alone nearly filled two of the very long tables. Activists well known in the black community, such as Tru-See Allah and Tina Chery, were interspersed with the old Irish patriarchies and union leaders. Congressman Michael Capuano, who is known to loathe the event, not only attended but also spoke, as did both of the state’s U.S. senators, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. The governor of Massachusetts put in an appearance and grabbed the host before she could reach the podium: “This is what a Forry and a Patrick look like these days,” he quipped.

A week earlier, at a Democratic party ward caucus, Forry and City Councilor Ayanna Pressley had cracked each other up with ideas to “bring some black” to the event—but it quickly became clear that Forry was looking to take charge of the breakfast, not upend it. For one sketch, she had prepared a video in which Lynch, Hart, and Collins teach her the ways of Southie. The fish-out-of-water persona she adopted in the video was of a Dorchester yuppie, timid with strangers and ordering tofu instead of a hot dog—another subtle reminder not to pigeon-hole her and the New Boston she represents with any single, easy definition.

The video killed. Reviews from both inside the hall and from TV viewers were overwhelmingly positive. She went out of her way to show forgiveness to Collins, who had properly atoned since that September confrontation. Even as the show ran late and she had to cut acts—including one of her solos—Forry gave Collins time to perform his lengthy Beacon Hill parody song.

Bill Linehan, on the other hand, had declined Forry’s offer of a role in the breakfast, and jetted off to Ireland to march in a parade in Limerick. He was thoroughly roasted by speakers from both sides of the aisle, with Forry making him the literal butt of her jokes, comparing him to a horse’s ass.

A piece of the Snickers bar to Collins, but not to Linehan. Using her power to reward good behavior and punish bad. Forry knows how to work the levers of power as well as any politician who’s strutted Boston’s streets. But where her ambition will take her is anyone’s guess. Beacon Hill speculation is that, within two years, she could be anywhere from in Congress to running the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Forry herself doesn’t seem to know. But you can bet that, whenever she decides to reach for that next rung up, she’ll be well prepared and well rehearsed. And if anyone tries to get in her way—remember, she usually wins, and, like she said, she takes mental notes.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2014/06/24/dont-mess-with-linda-dorcena-forry/