Ray Flynn

updated 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A visitor to Boston, casually exposed to the local media, could easily conclude that Raymond L. Flynn is one of those ancient Hindu deities who once roamed the earth, assuming a hundred guises, appearing in a hundred places and finding innumerable ways of doing good for the human race. Consider just a few examples. As this year began, a major blizzard struck the city, and television stations revealed Flynn, MacArthur-like, commanding the city's dig-out from the fo'c'sle of a snowplow. This summer a desperate man climbed one of the towers of Boston's Chelsea Street Bridge, intent on casting himself to oblivion. The next morning's papers told how Flynn, 45, had clambered into a fire department cherry picker and, while dangling 85 feet over the water, persuaded the man to come down. Alert readers already knew about the time Flynn had taken in a homeless man to sleep on the couch in the living room of his own ramshackle South Boston house; about the time he arranged for a black family, burned out of its home, to be put up at a city-owned Beacon Hill mansion; and about the late nights on housing-project playgrounds, where he has shown ghetto kids the basketball style that earned him a starting spot at Providence College and a place, briefly, with the NBA champion Boston Celtics. In what is normally a cynical press, stories about Ray Flynn read like hagiography—and that is curiously apt. Boston is a city that has always made politics something of a religion, and Ray Flynn occupies the top job in its political hierarchy. He is His Honor the Mayor.

As this year, the first of his incumbency, draws on, he is also rapidly becoming an icon. The national attention that Ray Flynn has been attracting comes from the fact that he is a Paul Bunyan of a politician—the son of a housemaid and a longshoreman—whose life seems to evolve in a series of anecdotes rather than a string of decisions and policies. An oral tradition of Ray Flynn sagas has developed, as every neighborhood—sometimes, it seems, every citizen—retails stories about the time the mayor dropped by to talk about the city and its problems over pasta or a bagel or a beer or some soul food. "If there's one out-standing characteristic that the mayor has, it's an understanding and an empathy," says Alana Murphy, whom Flynn appointed to direct the city's Commission on Women. "He's one of the very few men who can understand what it's like to be a single parent not able to get into a job-training program because there's no day care."

If a single, dramatic event can reveal the foundation of a man's character, then perhaps the moment that bared Ray Flynn's soul came in October 1979. Flynn, then a Massachusetts city councillor, was walking up Beacon Hill toward the State House when he noticed a mob of whites pursuing a black couple who had apparently enraged them by simply eating lunch on a bench on the Boston Common. The young man, an upholsterer, was holding off the mob with a knife from his workbag and trying to shield his girlfriend at the same time. With no hesitation, Flynn, the tough South Boston Irishman who had been a leader of the city's antibusing movement, thrust himself between the mob and its quarry. "I don't remember much about that day," Flynn said quietly, after being prodded recently. "I'm told I said 'If you want to get to them you'll have to go through me first,' but I just don't remember."

It now seems ironic that Flynn first came to prominence for his opposition to a court-ordered plan for school desegregation in Boston. As a teenager he had starred on an integrated city-wide basketball team, and as a young man had traveled the country preaching the liberal gospel as an aide to Hubert Humphrey. But he correctly predicted that the court decision forcing poor whites in South Boston and poor blacks in Roxbury to bear the burden of integration alone, without involving more affluent areas, would lead to violence—which he tirelessly worked to prevent. Last year, when he ran for mayor, his campaign was based on the populist themes that have been his credo throughout his political career. He promised to take control of the city away from downtown business interests and return it to the predominantly blue-collar neighborhoods. Since his election last November Flynn has demonstrated a high-visibility, hands-on style that contrasts sharply with the pensive remoteness of his development-oriented predecessor, Kevin White.

It is a blazing hot morning at the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center in Boston's largest black ghetto. Ray Flynn and a group of health professionals stand sweltering at a lectern before a knot of reporters. In the background several young black mothers, tiny babies in their arms, have interrupted their visits to the center's pediatricians to see what the fuss is about. "Today," Flynn is saying, "the city of Boston faces a critical public-health problem—an upswing in the rates of low birth weight and infant mortality." There are stumbles and miscues as he reads from a prepared text. With that sharp South Boston accent, formed by his ancestors a century ago when their West of Ireland brogue collided with Yankee English, Ray Flynn will never be an eloquent orator. But the passion of his speech is unmistakable. He reels off some appalling statistics: Between 1981 and 1982, according to a Harvard study, infant deaths in the poor sections of his city rose by 46 percent, while federal aid to expectant mothers dropped by 70 percent. "This isn't some damn giveaway government program," he explodes later in private, with rare profanity. "We're talking about the life and death of infants in our cities."

There is in Ray Flynn a fervor, almost religious in nature, that sometimes makes him seem more a visionary than a politician. He is a simple man, not erudite but compassionate. People engage his attention easily. He sees a vanload of students in wheelchairs at a community center, and he is all over them instantly with smiles and handshakes and the promise of tickets to a Red Sox game. He is open and happy with people, but impatient with the administrative tasks of a mayor. When he sits down to a pile of correspondence in his office, his mood rapidly darkens. "Look at all these letters I have to go through today," he says, in what seems a clear invitation to a visitor to be gone. Yet he will read each letter personally and deal with it. Then he will personally sign each of hundreds of certificates to be given to schoolchildren completing a summer program. The notion of delegating to his staff the reading of letters from his people never occurs to Flynn, and no machine will sign the diplomas that his schoolchildren will take home and hang on their walls.

More than almost any other major politician in America today, Flynn has about him the air of the believer, the little boy who actually listened to the homilies in church and has grown up into a man who now thinks he can translate them into public policy. But the canonization of Raymond Flynn is not imminent, and he will have to prove that he can deal with a host of problems, from profound to inane, before his administration can be pronounced a success. Already there are complaints about the frequency of his media appearances, which some local officials regard as grandstanding, and there are deeper problems as well. Former city councillor Lawrence DiCara sees it this way: "We have a deficit in the range of $50 million, and we have to do something about it. Racial harmony is a priority as well...but if the city can't pay its bills, it can't establish programs to deal with racial tensions."

This summer Flynn lost a close vote in the state legislature that would have authorized him to raise local taxes. Now, he admits, he will have to make further cuts in an already straitened budget. The outlook is not enhanced by the fact that many in the city's business community regard him as a financial naïf. "He's had difficulty getting his act together," says one critic. "A great majority of his staff is inexperienced in government; there's one faction that wants to bring about a social revolution and another that's just happy to be employed." Flynn has appointed several assistants with financial backgrounds, including a black city treasurer who had served as vice-president of a local bank. Yet it is still possible for one prominent Chamber of Commerce member to say of him: "With all this talk about neighborhoods, he just doesn't understand business."

Despite such challenges to his mayoral credentials, Flynn is in some respects almost uniquely equipped for his office. If one of the fundamental tasks of a leader is to set a tone for the conduct of the people's business, then Raymond Flynn has succeeded brilliantly. "I believe that in the past few years the people of this city were literally depressed," says Lisa Chapnick, Boston's commissioner of traffic and parking. Now the city, so recently riven by racial strife and class divisions, is beginning to show aspects of peace. Under Flynn's personal sponsorship, an all-white housing project has been integrated, not merely without incident, but practically without comment, and inner-city kids found jobs this summer in the offices of big businesses, which their parents have always viewed as the enemy.

Overall, a remarkable amity prevails in the city—an amity prompted, in large part, by the new mayor's efforts to raise the level of public discourse and understanding. One afternoon, pausing for a moment in his city hall office, Flynn reflected on his theory of government: "I could walk out of here right now and say, 'Okay, folks, education, and whether or not this is going to be a racially peaceful neighborhood. Does anybody disagree?' They'd say, 'No, Mr. Flynn, none of us disagrees,' and I'd say, 'Okay, we've got Hispanics, we've got blacks, we've got Irish, we've got Polish, we've got Lithuanians, we've got women, we've got men and there's no disagreement here—the only question is how we do it.' Or I could walk into that same room, or any room in America, and say, 'Listen, folks, we're going to talk about abortion, then we're going to talk about school prayer, then we're going to talk about school busing.' I would rather work with people and get a consensus on the economic issues that unite this city." This is the hallmark of Flynn's politics. He is a hard-playing athlete, an aggressive campaigner, yet in public life he will avoid confrontation at almost any cost; his is the politics of reconciliation.

There is an unmistakable tension about Ray Flynn, as if a hidden drive spring, tightly wound, impels him to constant motion. It can sometimes make a visitor uneasy in his presence, but it may be the secret of his success. "I almost flunked out of college my freshman year because I couldn't keep up with the other guys," Flynn recalls. "But I did it. I studied when they would be sleeping or watching television. I never met anyone in my life who could outwork me." Later, some 15 hours into a 20-hour day, he says, as if there were any doubt, "I have an enormous energy level. I love what I'm doing, and I just don't get tired."

Although Flynn was not a natural athlete, his stoical commitment to practice propelled him early on to the captaincy of the Providence basketball team, then on to a season in the Eastern League before he was called up to the Celtics in 1964—and cut a few weeks later. Throughout this period, and during one year as a coach at Stonehill College in the far suburbs, he never made his home anyplace but South Boston. Today with his wife, Catherine, two sons and four daughters, he lives in a wood-frame house on an asphalt-topped alley in a tidy but unprepossessing blue-collar neighborhood. A pane of glass is broken in an inside door, plastic rosaries hang from pegs in the kitchen. Although Flynn can wax rhetorical on some issues, his explanation as to why he has never sought a tonier address is terse and to the point. "I never wanted to move," he says. His family's privacy—and his own—is sacrosanct to Flynn, and his reserve in discussing them is almost unbreachable. When he does talk about them, movingly and with deep emotion, it is on the condition that nothing he says may be printed.

Another of the mayor's marathon days is coming to an end. It has included the usual round of impromptu visits to Boston neighborhoods, precious little office time and, at dusk, a press conference in the Brighton section of the city to announce that a police department sexual-assault unit will be headquartered there, in an area that has been terrorized by an increase in the number of rapes in the past year. Several hours later Ray Flynn drops off a companion in his city-owned car (his 11-year-old Dodge is in for repairs) and turns to his sleepy 15-year-old daughter, Julie, in the backseat. "Let's get a bite," he says. "What time does Wendy's close?" Later in the evening, with Julie safely at home, Flynn has another idea. He takes a composite sketch of the suspect in the Brighton rapes, and drives to the adjoining suburb of Brookline, where he shows the composite to policemen who are hunting the rapist. Brookline police soon capture a man who is charged in the case. And Ray Flynn, who has never learned that one man can't solve all the problems of his world single-handed, seems one small step closer to doing it.

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