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Tom Keane

Lynch’s primary dogfight

By Tom Keane
September 13, 2010

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STEPHEN LYNCH is a pariah to much of the Democratic establishment. Yet should he win tomorrow’s primary, Lynch may be positioned as perhaps Democrats’ best hope for beating Senator Scott Brown two years from now. The congressman and the party might want to consider making amends.

Lynch has never played well in the political sandbox. In 1996, when state Senate President Billy Bulger was retiring from office, he fairly anointed his son, William Jr., to be his successor. For decades the brothers Bulger — politician Billy and criminal Whitey — had held sway over the town. Lynch, in what seemed a disrespectful move — and one that caused some to worry for his safety — announced his candidacy. The race turned into a near-referendum on the family’s influence over the neighborhood. Lynch’s overwhelming win was like a catharsis. From then on, the influence of the Bulgers was a shadow of what it had been.

That unwillingness to do what he is supposed to do has marked Lynch’s political life. He is a prolife Democrat, a position that is anathema to the party’s orthodoxy. He reportedly doesn’t get along all that well with the House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And he has bucked the party on a number of high-profile issues, including, most notably, health care reform.

His refusal to automatically support the president’s plan a year ago (saying that he wanted to read the bill before committing to vote for it) caused enormous backlash from labor bigwigs, effectively killing a planned run for the Senate seat opened up by Ted Kennedy’s death. It is also the reason why Lynch, uniquely among Massachusetts’ nine incumbent congressional representatives, now faces a serious primary challenge.

Lynch’s opponent, Mac D’Alessandro, is New England political director for the SEIU, and it’s easy to read his candidacy as yet another rebuke from union leaders. He’s run an aggressive and well-organized campaign, attacking Lynch from the left and impressing many, including the Globe’s editorial board.

For his part, Lynch has been low-key. He’s participated in just two short debates. Lawn signs — even in hometown South Boston — are scarce. His television ads have been soft-focus bio pieces, designed to promote a positive image rather than rebut D’Alessandro’s sharp hits.

All of this, of course, reflects the tried-and-true tactic of ignoring one’s opponent. D’Alessandro doesn’t have Lynch’s resources; at the end of August, he had but $178,000 in the bank while Lynch had more than $1 million. So he has to rely on free media. But if there aren’t any clashes between the two, there isn’t anything to report. And if there isn’t anything to report, D’Alessandro has a hard time getting himself known.

Assuming Lynch wins, the focus of many in his camp will turn to November 2012, when Brown’s Senate seat comes up for election. Lynch has made hay lately that if he, rather than Martha Coakley, had been the nominee last January, Brown would not be senator. I suspect he’s right.

Unlike the many politicians trying to jump on the Brown bandwagon, Lynch’s lone wolf persona is not of recent manufacture. His discomfort with the health care bill, remember, came well before Brown’s election. On top of that, Lynch connects well to the population that gave Brown his win: disaffected union workers. He’s one of them (literally; he was an ironworker) and as much as his relationship with union leadership may be frayed, his connection to the grass roots is strong.

At the same time, on most issues (including gay rights, the environment, economics, and even — excluding his vote on the bill — health care), Lynch actually doesn’t stray that far from the party mainstream. He may not be as lock-step as the rest of the delegation, but he’s certainly no Republican.

Lynch’s challenge two years from now, however, will be the same one he faces tomorrow. Democratic primaries are playgrounds of the left. Unless the field is crowded (which is what happened when he first ran for Congress in 2001), a centrist like Lynch can easily lose. That would gratify Democratic liberals. It would likely gratify Scott Brown as well.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer and former city councilor, is a guest columnist. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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