Race for Mayor | The Candidates in Close-up

Looking for the outrage

Crisscrossing city, Flaherty wants voters to imagine change, trust that he can deliver it

Mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty, center, talks with Natasha Dallas, left, and Minnie Tyson. He was in Roxbury meeting voters. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff) Mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty, center, talks with Natasha Dallas, left, and Minnie Tyson. He was in Roxbury meeting voters.
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / October 28, 2009

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It’s a warm, sparkling mid-October afternoon in Grove Hall, in the heart of Roxbury, and Michael F. Flaherty Jr. is casual, at least by his standards: He has taken off his midnight-blue suit jacket and turned up the sleeves of his white shirt, but just one turn. His striped tie remains tightly knotted.

He waves to cars driving up and down Blue Hill Avenue. He pops into Kings and Kweens hair salon, where he trades a fist-bump with the owner and talks to several women who emerge from under the hair dryers to talk, one of them urging him to provide better SAT preparation courses.

He is a man in motion. In nearby Dudley Square, Flaherty collars potential voters, one by one, on the sidewalk. Several of them have met and like Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and they say so.

Flaherty is clearly no stranger in Roxbury either. He is at ease in the neighborhood, as he shakes hands and presses people to imagine the possibility of change in a city governed by the same mayor since 1993.

“Does your mother drive the same car for 16 years?’’ Flaherty asks one young man. “Do you have the same computer you had 16 years ago?’’

Outside the Dudley branch library, Roxbury artist Ralph Beach asks Flaherty, “How do I know you’ll do any better?’’

Flaherty responds with a rapid-fire summation: schools, crime, housing, jobs are all crying out for fresh ideas, and he’s got them. “Give me a shot,’’ he says.

But beneath the easygoing, sometimes cheerful veneer he carries from parade to senior center to ward meeting, there is frustration. Despite all the problems Boston faces, it was Menino who tallied huge victory margins in the poorest neighborhoods in the preliminary ballot on Sept. 22. Flaherty is giving Menino the toughest challenge he has ever faced, but, still, it is Menino who has a lead in the polls, and the election is next Tuesday.

“I’m just a little - I guess the word befuddled is probably the appropriate word - as to how the mayor was able to do so well, particularly in the communities of color,’’ Flaherty says in a Dorchester living room. He recites a list of woes - failing schools, drugs, and gang violence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods - and blames the mayor.

“Why he’s given a free pass across the city, but particularly in the community of color, is really to my amazement,’’ he says. “What is it going to take to open people’s eyes up that we can do better, that not only do I want the job but I can do it better?’’

As residents snack on sandwiches, the candidate poses the question that has nagged him through the campaign: “Where’s the outrage?’’

‘Go hard or go home’
Michael Flaherty was always a defenseman, from his midget hockey days through his years at Boston College High School, an apt position. He enjoys backgammon and points out that defense is part of its strategy.

He is disciplined and practiced, earnest, often contained. He describes himself as “even-keeled, level’’ and says, “I tend not to let a lot of things bother me or get to me.’’

Anyone expecting a yarn-spinning Irish politician from South Boston is sure to be disappointed. He tells few jokes on the stump, as if it would show disrespect to waste people’s time.

Flaherty’s deliberate monotone can make his unofficial running mate - the wonkish Sam Yoon, another councilor at large - seem like a raging populist. Flaherty is at his best in small groups and one on one, when he always looks people in the eye, listens, and engages.

“I’m someone that has always subscribed to civility,’’ Flaherty says over turkey and mashed potatoes at Amrheins, the famed political hangout on West Broadway in his native South Boston, where patrons and waiters approach his booth to share neighborhood memories and wish him well. “Part of that is my law school training, my courtroom experience. If you lose, tomorrow is another day.’’

In the final weeks of this campaign, however, he is challenging Menino more often and more brusquely. He uses a sports coach’s slogan to keep his staff fired up: “Go hard or go home.’’

And Flaherty is going hard, dawn to midnight. One evening in a Faneuil Hall bar, at a campaign party thrown by classmates from his beloved Boston College High School, Flaherty takes aim at Menino’s management style.

“It’s about who you know; it’s about pettiness,’’ Flaherty tells his friends. “They’re not in the business of solving problems. They’re in the business of being juvenile, being petty, quite frankly, of being hurtful. I’m not going to tolerate it.’’

At Amrheins, Flaherty quietly vents that Menino’s people are working to discourage turnout by suggesting the campaign is over. “They would rather bully and intimidate and browbeat people and just grind people down, to the point where in the last municipal election only 13 percent of the people showed up,’’ he said. “ ‘Why bother? The cake is baked.’ [Menino] plays a role in the voter apathy piece of it. It’s voter suppression. It’s idea suppression.’’

Playing to win
Flaherty favors rough sports. He has a scar on his chin from having his four front lower teeth knocked out by a hockey stick when he was a child. And he points out that defensemen don’t only defend. He recalls that as a midget league player, he caught the other team in a line change, sprinted forward, and scored the goal that sent his squad to the national championship round.

On the day of his final televised debate with Menino, Flaherty makes it to his boxing gym in South Boston at 5:15 a.m. for a workout. He boxed in school and remembers with relish his dad taking him and his brother John to Las Vegas for big fights. He has coached hockey and Little League, and now his three children - 11-year-old Michael and 8-year-old twins Jack and Ella - all play hockey, too.

After the Columbus Day parade ends in the North End, as Flaherty relaxes over a buffet for his staff at Dolce Vita Ristorante, someone turns on the television and Flaherty’s eyes shift happily to the final Red Sox-Angels play-off game. He has to tear himself away to get to his next event (missing the Sox collapse).

His wife, Laurene rarely appears at campaign events. “I’ve just chosen my children,’’ she says. “I think what he does is great, and I wish I could be with him some of the time, even though I’m not really a political person, just to be there to support him.’’

The family visits Flaherty’s childhood home, a few blocks from his own, every Sunday night for supper with his parents. His mother, Margaret, organizes his senior events for him. His father, Michael Sr., a retired 12-term state representative and municipal judge, gives advice, but not assistance, telling Flaherty that he has to win his campaigns on his own.

“My father taught us to win like a winner,’’ Flaherty says, “and lose like a winner.’’

Flaherty’s brother John, and his aunt, Ellie Casper, are among several members of his vast extended family on his campaign team, and these days Yoon, who ran against Flaherty in the preliminary campaign but has now joined his team, is with him nearly everywhere.

But Flaherty‘s most telling companion is his volunteer driver, Steve Johnson, a 60-year-old retired Boston policeman who met Flaherty at a Roxbury polling station in 2008, when both campaigned for Barack Obama.

At first Johnson, who retired last year with 26 years of police service, worked the phone banks for Flaherty. But soon he was spending more time with the candidate, and now he drives him for eight to 10 hours many days in Flaherty’s black Mercury Mountaineer.

The contrast could not be starker: Flaherty is impeccable and organized; Johnson, who is a generation older, wears a frayed sweater, jeans, and sneakers. The candidate is white, the driver black. The bond between them is apparent.

“I talk to him all the time about relevant education, and he listens,’’ Johnson says. “And that’s what I really like about him, that he listens. It seems like he’s doing 88 things at once, and he probably is, but he’s listening.’’

Johnson, who went to the University of Massachusetts at Boston and then got a master’s in education at Harvard, stayed a beat cop all his life.

Now retired, he still lives in the Roxbury neighborhood where he grew up, and he teaches chess to young people there to build self-esteem. One summer night he took Flaherty to an outdoor chess game near Dudley Station.

“Steve got out of the car, and you’d think Obama showed up,’’ Flaherty says. “There was just a fondness. People said things like, ‘This guy saved my life; if it wasn’t for him I’d be dead or in jail.’ These are the kind of comments people make when I’m in his presence.’’

Stretching beyond roots
In some ways, the easy-going, respectful friendship between Flaherty and Johnson says more about the candidate than his policy papers. For one, it underlines how Flaherty long ago moved beyond the borders of Southie and plunged into the bigger Boston.

As a prosecutor in Roxbury for two years in the mid-1990s, and as an at-large city councilor dealing with citywide problems, Flaherty has grappled with the racial, class, and ethnic complexities of a sprawling city. He was the top vote-getter in the last two elections for the City Council. It is clear that Roxbury is familiar ground for Flaherty.

Flaherty prides himself on building bridges, not only to African-Americans, but to Latinos and other communities. As he campaigns in Dudley Square, a Somali activist spots him and gives him a hug. And he is particularly close to the Vietnamese community of Dorchester, which played a key role in his defeat of Albert “Dapper’’ O’Neil in the 1999 City Council race.

In a Dorchester church hall, Flaherty tells 50 or so members of the Vietnamese-American Election Committee that a Flaherty administration would offer “leadership that will be respecting all of our communities, not just some.’’

In reply, Joseph Nghia Truong, a committee leader, says Flaherty has earned the community’s respect over a decade of consistent involvement. “He always fights for human rights for the Vietnamese in Boston,’’ Truong says. “Every year he comes to our events. That’s why we love him and support him any way we can.’’

Flaherty is methodically building his case to a living-room full of Hyde Park residents in the home of the Rev. Christopher Womack, one of a group of black ministers supporting Flaherty’s challenge of Menino.

Flaherty goes straight at the stereotypes that dog him. He reminds them that he is just 40, despite his silver hair, and that he was only 4 or 5 years old when stone-throwing whites battled court-ordered busing in South Boston in the mid-1970s. And anyway, he points out, South Boston is no longer the isolated Irish immigrant stronghold that his father represented in the Legislature for 24 years. He says he supported gay marriage and endorsed Obama before any other elected official in Boston. He talks of high-tech innovations in policing and wrap-around school programs for early mornings and late afternoons.

He asks the room: How many people here know someone who has been shot and killed in Boston? Every hand goes up. He asks, how many know two? Five? Ten? How many know 20 victims? A few hands stay up.

He points out that he grew up in a housing project. As a prosecutor, he says, he worked hard to give youths a second chance, not throw them in jail. He vows to put former convicts to work for the city and to challenge Boston’s companies to do the same. He says the city needs better drug treatment programs and more effective ways to get former convicts back to work and adds that he will find creative ways out of the deadly cycle of crime and violence.

Later, at the Hyde Park meeting, he is only half-joking when he says with a smile that as assistant district attorney in Roxbury in the 1990s, “I was putting the law to you, but I was doing it in a very respectful and sensitive way.’’

If those in the room still doubt Flaherty’s progressive credentials, they get a brief but pointed closing pitch from an unlikely spokesman: Johnson. He gets up and says hello to several people in the room who know him, including some he had busted and others he had counseled when they got into gang trouble years earlier.

“Electing Michael Flaherty will mean that people who look like you will police you and teach you,’’ Johnson tells the room. Nodding to Flaherty and Yoon, Johnson declares, “If these guys get elected, they’re going to get it done.’’

Johnson says later that he had not planned to speak, but that “it was like trying to put the bow on the package; let me remind them, ‘I’m not the politician, and I’m telling you, it’s OK.’ ’’

Earlier, at the home of a black family on a gang-ridden street in Dorchester, Flaherty laments that “I get typecast by my ZIP code.’’

He says that as a prosecutor he was nicknamed “Freedom Flaherty,’’ so focused was he on avoiding needless jail terms for first offenders.

Pitching closing arguments
One afternoon, Flaherty drops into the La Newton School of Beauty in Grove Hall. Owners Murphy and Valerie Gregory tell him they are still on the fence. Murphy Gregory said Menino “has done some decent things for us personally over the last 16 years.’’ The area has improved, with the nearby Grove Hall Mecca shopping center. But they are annoyed about the neighborhood Christmas tree, which they say the city neglects each year.

“It’s about respect,’’ says Flaherty. He adds that just minutes earlier, in Dudley Square, organizers of this year’s Christmas party told him they had been told not to give out presents to children until Menino arrived with his annual parade, even though that would cost at least $280 more in overtime.

Johnson chimes in: “Give us the vote, and he’ll give you respect.’’

Flaherty turns toward the door, bound for a nearby strip mall to appeal to more voters. But first, he partakes in a bit of whimsy. He steps onto an old-fashioned scale, deposits a coin, and looks down at his fortune.

“It may take longer, but present ideas will succeed,’’ the machine tells him.

He laughs and strides out the door. In another moment, at another stop, more voters await.

James F. Smith can be reached at