Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Jim Kelly: Identity and Politics

James M. Kelly died Tuesday morning at age 66, after a long struggle with cancer. In the 1970’s, he was the South Boston anti-busing leader, combative in his leather jacket. In his weekly newspaper columns, he was the outspoken champion of conservative values, even in national politics. As a Boston City Councilor for 23 years, he was the master of serving constituents. He held cookouts for them every summer and sent them Christmas cards by the box load, each of them signed in his own hand.

At-large Councilor Michael Flaherty remembers Kelly in the Saint Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day parade, greeting familiar faces and wearing his South Boston identity with relish.

“You’d see him with has scally cap and his shillelagh when he was walking up Broadway,” said Flaherty. “He was floating.”

He could also sting. There were the verbal clashes with liberals in the City Council Chamber. There were even showdowns with Ray Flynn, another anti-busing leader from South Boston who, as mayor, was under federal mandate to break down racial barriers to public housing in South Boston and Charlestown. Kelly wanted developments in South Boston to be for people from the neighborhood, almost all of them white. The federal government said that meant more time on the waiting list for people of color willing to accept the first vacancy.

Kelly’s most contentious battle with the next mayor, Thomas Menino, was over “linkage” money for affordable housing from anticipated developments on the South Boston waterfront. Kelly wanted to corner the money for South Boston. But, during the 1980’s, when Flynn and the City Council approved linkage for the whole city, Kelly had been opposed and even called the mandatory payments “extortion.”

“He has very conservative principles,” said Flynn. “At the time, if you were for linkage, you were almost a socialist.”

At a time when there was less worry about gentrification in South Boston, according to Flynn, there were other reasons to stick up for developers: campaign contributions, and the jobs for people in trade unions who did the building. Even while he was on the Council, Kelly continued to serve as Recording Secretary for the Sheet Metal Workers Union, Local 17. And his opposition to rent control frustrated the same affordable housing advocates from around the city who supported Flynn.

“We didn’t have anything. Jimmy didn’t have anything. And for us to have this visionary outlook, this world view—it’s a little unfair,” said Flynn.

In South Boston, the outlook would have been unpopular. Even rent control was rejected in 1994 by South Boston voters (48.7% to 35.9%), who went the way of the state (though not the rest of the city).

"That's what Jimmy Kelly did: he represented his neighbors," said Flynn. "Who was he supposed to represent? The people of Berkeley, California?"

In the 1980’s, Kelly also found himself in conflict with a future state senator and legal adversary over public housing, Dianne Wilkerson, who was trying to join a Democratic ward committee representing parts of South Boston and Dorchester. She accused him of resisting a party mandate for racial inclusion. According to former Boston School Committee member and long-time director of the METCO voluntary school desegregation program, Jean McGuire, Kelly was an advocate with "blind spots," who failed to see common problems that went beyond neighborhood or racial lines.

“He was tenacious, and he felt he was the voice of the poor, and that black kids shouldn’t have to go to their schools,” she said. “The racism he felt was very thinly veiled.”

During the 1990’s, there were harsh words at Council meetings between Kelly and the district member from Dorchester and Mattapan, Charles C. Yancey. But there were also the visits to the book fairs Yancey held in his own district every year since 1987.

“He was at every one of our book fairs from the very beginning,” said Yancey. “He always supported us with books and money.”

And Flaherty says Kelly was a staunch supporter of spending in parts of his district outside South Boston, even holding off support for the mayor’s budget until there was money for improvements at a park in the South End.

“His focus was District Two,” said Flaherty.

Among those who served with Kelly, and Boston’s last two mayors, there was strong agreement about his dedication to constituent services. That took up even more of his time in his 7 years as Council President. The role gave him control over committee leadership and the council agenda, and it made him the main contact with the Mayor’s Office, even about service requests from other councilors.

“He’d be the first one to pick up the phone to make something happen for them,” said the new Council President, Maureen Feeney. She also remembered Kelly’s steady attendance at hearings on zoning appeals for development projects.

“Jim was a guy that could get things done,” said Flaherty, “and that’s why a lot of people in the Council, especially the younger guys, gravitated toward him.”

And, despite conflict over policy, mayors and department heads delivered when Kelly asked for help.

“I admired that,” said Flynn. “I respect him for doing that, because that was the politics that I grew up with and the people before me grew up with. That was the political tradition.”

Menino spoke briefly about Kelly before his State of the City address last night. “We disagreed on a lot of issues,” he said, “but his commitment to his constituents was tremendous, and his word was worth everything he had.”

Colleagues say Kelly persisted even as his health declined, passing on appeals for constituents as late as last Saturday.

“Even when his body was being ravaged, he continued to serve his district,” said Feeney. “For me, that was so selfless, that he could put everything aside to do the work of the people he loved so much.”

According to Roxbury Councilor Chuck Turner, attention to constituent services might also be the best way to engage voters of the future, especially given the Council’s limited powers to make laws and affect spending.

“It says to people that someone who’s in a position of what they see as power is willing to use that for them, and not just their friends,” said Turner.

“If we want people to really have a desire to participate,” he said, “then we can’t just do things in the old way that’s uncaring. We have to show that government cares.”