Boston's Ray Flynn: proving hands-on politics works On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 04, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

BOSTON — WAITING FOR his spaghetti at Joe Tecce's restaurant, Mayor Ray Flynn spends a few minutes picking the brains of a prominent businessman seated at an adjoining table. If he wanted to put through a payroll tax, Flynn wants to know, how would the business community react? Which buttons would he have to push? Who would give him the most heat?

Ray Flynn is not ready to break his pick on a payroll tax right now. But he is a politician who is willing to muse aloud about the options he may have -- even when the issue is as toxic as taxes are supposed to be these days. Picking brains, listening to complaints, talking about touchy issues -- all of these are part of the 51-year-old mayor's determinedly visible "management style" after eight years in City Hall. "He's everywhere," says a veteran of the political wars. "He's in every neighborhood and everybody knows him because they see him."

Two hours after dinner Flynn is at Doyle's in Jamaica Plain, a watering hole that, as you may guess, attracts a clientele including politicians of the Irish persuasion. But this time, drinking his stout, Flynn is talking earnestly with a high-ranking black police official about something quite different from payroll taxes. And two hours later when he drops in at Foley's, where the bar is lined with off-duty cops, there is an ambulance driver bending his ear one minute, a retired cop the next. If somebody has a beef with City Hall, it's no big deal to deliver the message.

One result of this conspicuous ubiquitousness is that Flynn is in an extraordinary political position in a city in which campaigns are combat. Running for his third term, he has no serious opposition and little prospect of any. Flynn's approval ratings are somewhere above 70 percent, and he has $1.5 million in his campaign kitty if repair work is needed.

It has not always been beer and skittles, however. Four years ago, for example, Flynn got into hot water with his home base in South Boston by announcing plans for the racial integration of public housing projects in devotedly white, blue-collar neighborhoods. The reaction was hot enough so that he failed to carry his base in Southie, but as he said then and says now, "If I had waited to announce it after the election, I'd have no credibility at all." And today, he says, "the best kept secret" in Boston is that the integration of those projects that began in July 1988 is working.

Flynn also was thrown on the defensive late in 1989. A young and pregnant suburban woman, Carol Stuart, was shot to death in the largely black Mission Hill area, and her wounded husband, Charles, reported their assailant had been a black male. Flynn ordered an intense manhunt that centered on black males -- only to have to apologize to the black community when later evidence pointed to Charles Stuart, and the husband committed suicide.

But Flynn seems to have ridden out most of the anger by paying close attention to race relations. And he has clearly enhanced his position with a proposal for a business development in overwhelmingly black and economically ignored Roxbury that will include, among other things, the city's main police headquarters and will require 50 percent minority participation. "The best social program we got going is a job," says Flynn.

As a politician Flynn has come light years from the days when, as a state representative, he was an outspoken although less than fanatic opponent of school busing to achieve racial integration. As mayor he has preached the lesson that "the poor kid from Southie and the poor kid from Roxbury have so much in common . . . It's not a race issue, it's a class issue."

Where all this leads Ray Flynn is impossible to predict. He has been a leading figure in the U.S. Conference of Mayors for years, and his political admirers here see him as a vice presidential possibility if the Democrats need an urban voice on their ticket.

That may be beyond reach. Too much talk about urban problems makes Democrats uneasy because it is so easy for Republicans to translate into an over-weaning concern for blacks. And after their experience with Michael Dukakis, any liberal from Boston, even one who opposes abortion, makes them nervous. But in a state in which anti-incumbent anger is pervasive, Ray Flynn has been proving that hands-on politics works.

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