Two Homegrown Populists—One Black, One White—Battle to Be Boston's Mayor

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Big, bald, bearded—and unmistakably black—Boston mayoral candidate Mel King, 55, surely was the most unusual personage ever to press the flesh in East Boston, a predominantly white, working-class section of the city. As Boston pols have done in innumerable campaigns, King shook hands, hugged babies and led a group of seniors in an off-key version of his campaign song—a populist ditty sung to the tune of Gimme That Old Time Religion. Later, though, King ran into trouble. Coming out of a church bazaar, he walked past a gang of white teenagers who taunted him with obscenities and racial slurs. "Bring on the KKK," they yelled as one of them lobbed a plastic ball at the candidate. King ignored them. "I will not get negative about this," he said.

The previous day King's opponent, white City Councillor Ray Flynn, 44, opened his 16th neighborhood headquarters, a storefront next to a burned-out building in predominantly black Roxbury. As he stood outside the tiny office, a earful of black teenagers slowed to yell at him: "Get out, honkie!" Flynn, too, ignored the taunts. "You lead by example, not by preaching," he said. "I don't want to see this city divided by race or class in this election."

Despite the best efforts of both Democratic candidates to play down race in a city polarized by almost a decade of often violent dispute over court-ordered school busing, the Nov. 15 election seems to be shaping up along racial lines. Although King's strong second-place finish in last month's all-parties primary was hailed as a symbol of ebbing racial tensions (no black in the city's history had fared so well), vote tallies in the election showed that the city's voters were far from color-blind. "Just look at the figures," says veteran Boston political columnist Peter Lucas. "King gets about 90 percent of the black vote and very few white votes. Flynn's support is almost totally from whites. It's not necessarily racist. That's just the way the electorate is: They vote for their own."

Apart from race the two candidates share uncanny similarities of background, personal style and populist politics. Both are the sons of Boston longshoremen, and both are quick to pay homage to their fathers' generosity. As a child, King once slammed the door on a beggar who followed him to his South End home. "My father came out, invited the man in and gave him hot tea and food," he recalls. "Afterward, he sat me down and said, 'You always share what you have.' " Flynn tells similar tales from his South Boston childhood: "My father would come home, cash his check and go for a walk in the neighborhood," he says. "By the time he returned home, half his pay had been given away to poor people on the street." As youngsters, both saw their families forced to go on welfare—King's father died when Mel was 13, and Flynn's father was hospitalized with tuberculosis for three years when Ray was in his teens. Both escaped poverty through athletic scholarships: King played football at Claflin College in Orangeburg, S.C.; Flynn was a basketball star at Providence College (and briefly played with the NBA's Syracuse Nationals). After college both returned to their old neighborhoods to work with kids—King as a high school teacher and youth worker, Flynn as a basketball coach and probation officer. Both married—King's wife, Joyce, is a director of the Boston YWCA; Flynn's wife, Catherine, is a housewife—and both raised six children.

And, of course, both men began to play the sport that rivals the Red Sox for popularity in Boston—local politics. There, it seemed, they parted company. Serving together in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for most of the 1970s, King and Flynn were poles apart. King wore dashikis and jumpsuits, uttered kind words for Fidel Castro and earned a reputation as a black radical. Flynn, meanwhile, seemed the typical Boston Irish politician, crusading against the ERA, abortion and, especially, school busing.

Busing was the preeminent issue of the mid-'70s in Boston, where mobs of whites attacked buses of black students in Flynn's native South Boston. The issue remains a key difference between the two men. "Flynn was not supporting the [court] order and was not acting in the interests of all the children," charges King, who saw two of his own children bused to white schools. Responds Flynn, whose children were not affected by the court order: "I am opposed to busing but not to blacks. I was there trying to calm the situation."

Flynn's record seems to bear out his claim. Unlike many demagogues of the era, Flynn tried to soothe the tensions that busing aroused. Two courageous acts set him apart from other antibusing politicians. In 1979 Flynn fought his way through a group of white toughs on the Boston Common to rescue their black victim. In 1980 he was the only white elected official to attend the funeral of a 14-year-old black shot to death by a white policeman after a car chase. "Here was a chance for a South Boston Irish politician to show that there are people who care," he explains. "I'd do the same thing again."

Since then, Flynn and King no longer have seemed such political opposites. While they still disagree on such questions as minority quotas and abortion rights (King is pro, Flynn anti), they share common ground on the economic issues that affect their mostly low-income constituencies. Both support a shift of money and power from Boston's downtown district into its decaying working-class neighborhoods.

Along with their politics, King and Flynn have the same populist aesthetic—at least in their choice of vehicles. Flynn drives to campaign stops in a 1975 Dodge station wagon with a plastic statue of the Blessed Virgin and a side mirror that dangles by a wire. King pilots a beat-up Ford pickup with a tail pipe that hangs perilously close to Beantown's potholed streets.

Such funky touches contrast glaringly with the imperial trappings of outgoing Mayor Kevin H. White, whose high-roller style led a local paper to dub him "Mayor Deluxe." In his 16 years in office White has presided over a remarkable revitalization of the city's downtown. In the last few years, however, corruption has racked White's political machine, sending his popularity plummeting. In May he announced that he would not seek reelection.

The smart money was betting on—and contributing to—handsome, former radio personality and School Committee President David Finnegan, 42, to replace White, but the smart money was wrong. The voters opted for Flynn and King, two of the most left-leaning candidates. "Both men banked on decades of work in the neighborhoods," says Lucas. "The electorate showed that it wanted a change."

They will probably get a change to Ray Flynn—nearly three-quarters of Boston's voters are white and Flynn is leading in local polls by as much as 13 percent. Accustomed to the role of underdog, King is basing his hopes on a "Rainbow Coalition" of blacks, Hispanics, gays, students and liberal whites—"people who are tired of tension, tired of hostility," he says. Even if he isn't elected, King will have left his mark on the city by making its black community a political power. "The major victory of the King campaign," says new Democratic presidential aspirant Jesse Jackson, who has made campaign appearances for King, "is self-respect."

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