Flynn's glory days may be too far gone to help congressional bid

May 27, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

BOSTON -- On a bright Friday morning, Ray Flynn shows up at the hiring hall of the International Longshoremen's Association to pick up the union's endorsement.

It was voted a couple of weeks ago, but it is necessary to have a press conference to announce it. As it happens, the only press on hand is one out-of-town reporter but, what the hell, in politics you go through the drill. So William McNamara, vice president of the ILA, says the union "will never forget what he did as mayor of Boston for the working people of the city of Boston."

That is the key for Ray Flynn as, at 58, he seeks a seat in Congress -- whether enough voters in the Eighth District remember the glory days 10 years ago when he was a mayor who built a national reputation as an advocate for the homeless and a local reputation as a hands-on politician who showed up at every fire or police emergency.

There has been a lot of water over the dam since those days. After 10 years as mayor, Mr. Flynn left in 1993 to become U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, a posting in which his performance was, as he himself recognizes, unorthodox and controversial. He also left behind an investigation of his campaign finances that resulted in two members of his staff going to jail.

Mr. Flynn came home last fall intending to run for the Democratic nomination for governor, an uphill climb for anyone so firmly identified with Boston. In this case, it was made even more arduous by a long article in the Boston Globe detailing his performance in Rome and describing a pattern of drinking that, it said, led to excess on more than one occasion.

There never had been any secret about the mayor's penchant for pub crawling. Many reporters have had the experience of spending an evening with him at Doyle's, a tavern in Jamaica Plain, where he drank stout and held court. Indeed, he often seemed to be doing a lot of mayoral business during such an evening as one patron after another -- a delegate from the black patrolmen, an ambulance driver with a beef, an old friend seeking a job for his daughter -- slid into the seat next to him for a few minutes of earnest conversation.

At the time, however, everyone marveled at how Ray Flynn could follow such a regimen and still get up early the next morning to run several miles before putting in a full day at City Hall. He had built that special stamina, one theory went, in his days as a basketball star at Providence College. But the Globe described two incidents in which Flynn was seen drinking so heavily it became obvious.

The article caused enough of a stir so that CBS' "60 Minutes" carried a segment on it that cast Mr. Flynn in a somewhat better light. Delivering the endorsement of the Iron Workers, president Joseph M. Quilty thanked the program for "for showing what people really thought" of Ray Flynn.

Whatever the impact of the Globe article, it became less pertinent when Joseph Kennedy announced he would retire from Congress and Mr. Flynn dropped his gubernatorial campaign to seek the Eighth District seat. He went from being a long shot for governor to at least a nominal favorite, confirmed by both public and private polls, in the September congressional primary.

Mr. Flynn's principal opposition right now appears to come from Marjorie Clapprood, a former state representative and radio talk show host whose greatest appeal may be to social liberals who suspect Mr. Flynn because of his opposition to abortion rights. Another in a large field with potential is George Bachrach, a former state senator who ran creditably against Joe Kennedy in the latter's first campaign in 1986.

But the operative question is whether the district once represented by John F. Kennedy and then Tip O'Neill is still in the market for a throwback like Ray Flynn who says he wants to go to Congress "to speak for working people and the poor."

"They say things are going well but not for everyone," says Flynn. "We want to make sure these issues are represented in the Congress."

The former mayor knows that the kind of populism he advocates is not a powerful influence in a Congress controlled by Republicans and heavily made up of Democrats embracing the center. But, he says, he is ready to be "another voice" for the constituents who elected him mayor 15 years ago.

And if he is to manage that, he needs the Longshoremen and the Iron Workers. "These are people who have been with me all along," he says as he drives toward the hiring hall, "and they'll stick with me."

fTC Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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