Vote-hunters stalking West Roxbury
Face time pays well in a place of high turnout
By Corey Dade, Globe Staff, 10/13/2003
It comes with the ending of summer. The sun fades, the leaves fall, the children return to school, and as shoppers make their way on Saturday mornings to the Roche Bros. grocery store in West Roxbury, they walk right into the new season.
Every city election year, customers enter the supermarket's vestibule to find a gaggle of City Council candidates pumping hands and seeking their support. Other years, it's a group of legislative candidates. This is Ward 20, fertile ground in the most politically fertile neighborhood of Boston.
''Campaign signs,'' West Roxbury resident Liam Day said, ''pop up like flowers.''
Now as candidates prepare for the Nov. 4 general election, the eight finalists in the at-large City Council race invariably will visit West Roxbury, or they should. In the preliminary election on Sept. 23, the percentage of voters at polls in West Roxbury was nearly twice that of the city as a whole. Together with South Boston, whose turnout always rivals West Roxbury's, the two communities accounted for 9,087 votes, or 25 percent of citywide total.
The 36,267 votes cast in the preliminary represent the lowest citywide total in 18 years, at 13.6 percent. By comparison, 5,055 people in West Roxbury turned out, or 23 percent of the neighborhood's registered voters. In South Boston, 4,032 people voted, or 22 percent.
The two neighborhoods are expected to carry similar heft next month -- as they did in the last nonmayoral election, in 1999. That year, West Roxbury and South Boston combined for nearly 30 percent of the preliminary vote and more than a quarter of the general election vote.
''It's home to some of the most reliable voters in the city, and like any candidate who knows their stuff, you need to spend a lot of time knocking on doors and talking to voters in Ward 20,'' council president Michael F. Flaherty said.
Flaherty and other candidates say they beat pavement through every Boston neighborhood, and list other high-volume destinations: Johnny's Foodmaster in Charlestown; CVS Pharmacy on Gallivan Boulevard in Dorchester; Dudley Square in Roxbury.
West Roxbury, however, is a world apart. The large suburban neighborhood has remained stable and affluent. It has one of the larger populations of senior citizens, a faithful voting group. And the place is chock full of bureaucrats, police officers, firefighters, judges, lawyers, and others with ties to politics.
Notable neighbors include William ''Bo'' Holland, a top aide to Mayor Thomas M. Menino; Bill Hannon, the city's purchasing director; and Rich Driscoll, the city's deputy director of human resources. Each man traces his time in City Hall back to the Kevin H. White administrations of the 1970s and early 1980s. The former mayor, whose daughter Patricia H. White is a candidate this year, grew up in West Roxbury.
''It's paid dividends that candidates come and campaign here,'' said council candidate Matt O'Malley, who survived the preliminary by capturing more than a third of his citywide vote total in his native Ward 20. ''We're given the upper hand, should we need a pothole filled or an abandoned car removed.''
Candidates say they tend to spend more time in West Roxbury than South Boston because its voting habits are slightly more left-of-center and less monolithic. No one understands that better than Flaherty, a South Boston pol trying to broaden his base into southwest Boston communities.
In the heart of West Roxbury, Centre Street is candidates' row. Flaherty placed his campaign headquarters there for the first time. Up the block, closer to Roche Bros., Councilor Maura Hennigan has her campaign office, covered with her signs. Diagonally across the street, White plots strategy in her office. And next door, District Councilor John M. Tobin Jr., born and raised in West Roxbury, plans his reelection.
''It's part of the landscape, part of the decor of Centre Street,'' resident Anne Donaldson said. ''You get used to it. It's like . . . if you live in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras you get used to the crowds.''
But location isn't enough. All politics in Boston still are rooted in relationships, and several of the candidates are counting on their personal connections to West Roxbury, or those of their advisers. Flaherty, for instance, is relying in part on his aide, Joseph O'Keefe, a political junkie and a native of West Roxbury, to help penetrate the neighborhood. It appears to be working. Flaherty carried Ward 20, which includes portions of Roslindale, with 18.6 percent in the preliminary for the first time.
White, who exceeded expectations in her first run for city office by placing third, can look to her aunt, Carole White, a member of the Ward 20 Democratic Committee and owner of a real estate firm on Centre Street that has sold scores of houses in West Roxbury over the years. White finished fourth in the ward, with 15 percent.
Hennigan lived in the neighborhood and represented it as district councilor for 18 years. Her father, James W. Hennigan Jr., owns an insurance company there and was a state senator for the surrounding district, as did his father, James Sr. In the 2001 election, Hennigan won Ward 20, but came in third last month.
Simply growing up there can provide an advantage. O'Malley has no office there; as a native of the ward, he can work from home. His 14 percent of the ward on Sept. 23 propelled the 24-year-old newcomer past perennial candidates and into the final election. O'Malley, who worked at Roche Bros. as a teen, said, ''As I got older and I went to Kelleher's or the Corrib Pub for a beer, there would be two conversations: one, the Red Sox, and the other would be local politics. It just runs so deep in our blood.''
Kelleher's, a venerable watering hole in nearby Roslindale, has its own historical political lore. Governor William F. Weld once bought a round for the house after losing a bet with Governor's Councilor Kelly Timilty over a Harvard-Holy Cross football game. Kelleher's is owned by John G. Kelleher, who is, of course, a former state representative.
Corey Dade can be reached at [email protected]
This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 10/13/2003.
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