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Larry Donnelly: When politics is the business of an Irish-American political family

In the first chapter of his new book, Larry Donnelly describes how politics ran in the veins of his family.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“WELCOME TO THE family business, kid!”

My father bellowed out these words from our front door and they rang in my ears as I strolled somewhat apprehensively down the street I grew up on, armed with a clipboard, two pens and several sheets of officially headed paper from the town clerk’s office.

I was on a mission to obtain a mere 25 signatures from neighbours in order to get my name on the ballot for the lowliest of elected positions in Massachusetts local government: representative town meeting member.

I was just 22 years old, having completed an undergraduate degree and moved back to my family home while pursuing a Juris Doctor (Doctor of Law) degree in Boston. Politics had long been my passion, euphemistically, and my obsession, in reality, from an unusually young age. And this was the first actual foray ‘in the arena’ for me.

It was something I had long been encouraged to do and had expressed a serious interest in, but the idea of it had always been far more romantic than the drudgery – setting out to knock on familiar and unfamiliar doors, looking to obtain the assistance of those who answered on that Saturday in the winter of 1997.

Although Dad never sugar-coated what any political candidacy entailed, I had shrugged it off as no big deal beforehand. Like many children, sons in particular, I should have listened more carefully to my father.

Dad had more experience than almost anyone in this regard. His mother’s side of the family had been involved in electoral politics in the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts since emigrating from the west of Ireland around the start of the 20th century.

My father’s great-uncles, Frank and Johnny Kelly, were legendary graduates of the old school. As a unit, they were once described as rather unsavoury characters, who the then-ruling Boston Brahmin in WASPish class ‘feared would get control of [what had always been their] city and run it into the ground’.

The Boston Brahmins were the descendants of mainly British landowners who were among the first people to come to the ‘new world’ and who retained a stranglehold on wealth and power in the city. They were often sceptical of new immigrants, the Irish in particular.

Frank was, in his era, the youngest-ever Boston City Councillor elected. He later served as the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General of Massachusetts. Johnny was also a Boston City Councillor and was eventually chosen lay his peers to be president of that body.

In the next generation, Dad’s younger brother, Brian Donnelly, my godfather, spent three terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, seven terms in the United States House of Representatives and subsequently worked closely with Ambassador Madeline Albright at the United Nations, prior to being appointed United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago by President Bill Clinton.

In short, politics really was the family business and, since I was young, I had – with no small amount of ambition or ego – envisaged myself as the one destined to carry on a proud tradition. One thing Dad constantly stressed was the respect he had for politicians who started at the bottom and worked their way up. As such, he wouldn’t have me trying to parlay what was a strong name brand into skipping entry-level politics.

In truth, however, there was another, far bigger obstacle to my going to the front of the queue. It was one of my own making. And it’s one that may shock those who have heard me talk or read what I’ve written about American politics over the past two decades.

I was a fully signed-up, card-carrying member of the Republican Party.

Strangely, it was my father’s oft-expressed disgust with the Democratic Party that at least partly led me to wilfully abandon a central institution in our lives and in the lives of so many others in the Boston Irish community.

Above all, it was the huge distance that had sprung up between the party and the other main institution for most Boston Irish, the Roman Catholic Church, which gave rise to the discontent. My father was far from alone in finding himself isolated from national and local Democrats who embraced the socially liberal agenda that rapidly gained currency front the 1960s on.

Our family may have been Americans, and proud of our Irish heritage and close familial ties there, but above all, we were Catholics. As such, it was very hard for us collectively to stomach the divergence between what leading Democrats, including Senator Edward Kennedy, said about abortion (to name one topic) and what our Church teaches us. As a young, practising Catholic, it enraged me.

And upon discovering what Republicans – Pat Buchanan was one whose speeches during his insurgent 1992 primary challenge to President George HW Bush and regular media contributions I found compelling – had to say, I gravitated to the GOP and joined the party shortly after my 18th birthday. This was my version of teenage rebellion. Sad but true.

Notwithstanding his own grievances with the mother ship, Dad deemed this an act of both unfathomable apostasy and colossal stupidity, given our family history and my desire to continue it. The path to a career in elected politics for a Republican in Massachusetts was then, and remains today, an exceedingly narrow one.

When his family discovered my political identity, either when it was whispered or became manifest in the arguments I tended to deliberately instigate, they muttered to themselves or solemnly shook their heads. At any rate, it put paid to any motions I might have other wise had about catapulting onto the scene. So I started at the bottom: trying to get elected to the non-partisan town meeting.

The New England Town Meeting has its origins in the 17th century. Puritans who went to the American colonies to pursue religious freedom wanted to have a forum in which to discuss and decide upon community-specific matters. In its purest form, the town meeting allows all citizens to directly deliberate and vote on legislation. An eminent Massachusetts historian calls it ‘the most derriocratic form of government one can imagine. It’s the closest to the people; it involves the largest number of people; it’s the roost open.’

Although it may sound odd to say, such an open system, in which all citizens have a vote, is arguably the easiest to manipulate and hence subject to criticism for being undemocratic in the context of a small town. Historically, wealthy and educated people could mobilise those of the same social class, and intimidate those whose livelihoods depended upon them, to attend the often lengthy proceedings and dictate what was decided in public votes, whether it was in the best interests of the majority of a town’s residents or not.

The Bostonian Cover Source: Gill Books/Larry Donnelly

For that reason, and because of the inherent tendency of open town meetings to be unwieldy, many towns across New England have adopted representative town meetings in which the members are elected. The Boston-abutting town where I grew up, Milton, Massachusetts, is one such municipality. The town meeting members still have to keep their ears to the ground in that there are 279 members, elected in ten precincts (small electoral areas), who serve Milton’s roughly 27,000 residents. That’s one town meeting member for every 97 citizens. It may not be direct democracy, but it’s reasonably close to it.

Milton itself was once a town known for being where wealthy and prosperous Protestants decamped to from Boston’s tony, but cramped, Beacon Hill and Back Bay sections to inhabit large, stately homes with salubrious surrounds to match. By way of example, the aforementioned first President Bush was born in one of these mansions, at the top of Milton Hill looking across Boston Harbor toward the city skyline.

Situated just seven miles from the bustling downtown and borclering the city’s Dorchester, Hyde Park and Mattapan neighbourhoods, Milton offers a perfect blend of easy access by both private and public transit to workplaces, educational institutions and amenities together with a less frenetic suburban lifestyle.

Slowly but surely, many Boston Irish settled there, displaced most of their Brahmin predecessors and assumed the town’s political leadership. Until very recently, it was the ‘most Irish’ city or town in the United States and is still near the top of a list which is dominated by Boston suburbs.

In particular, the less well-to-do Fast Milton, my home neighbourhood, was ‘taken over’ (to quote the less-than-complimentary greeting offered by one long-time resident to a friend’s father) from the 1950s onward by first- and second-generation Irish-Americans who had gained entry to the professions, as wealthy Irish-born men and women who had succeeded in a variety of trades. At least half of my friends’ parents were Irish emigrants, the overwhelming majority of whom hailed from Galway. Ireland and Irishness were inescapalale in East Milton and constituted a core element of our shared identity.

For instance, there may have been nods to religious and secular holidays at St Agatha School, which many of us attended. But St. Patrick’s Day was set aside for a lengthy programme of events during class time featuring Irish dancing, music and food. Jerseys touting our honaetown — or close-by towns and city neighbourhoods — usually bore shamrocks. Even in a multicultural society, it did not seem at all out of place, such was the prevalence of Irishness in our lives.

lt was in the midst of this perhaps over-idealised milieu, then, that I set off looking for signatures to secure a place on the ballot for the first time. And did I ever get an education in practical politics that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government couldn’t deliver.

The first door I knocked on was answered by a neighbour from an old Milton Protestant family who I knew in passing. Knees knocking and teeth chattering, I blurted out why I was there and what I was looking for. Whether it was with a snarl or a good-natured smirk I’ll never know, because my head was down in fear, he snatched the clipboard, scribbled his name and said something like: ‘I shoulda known you’d get in this game … you just better not raise my taxes if you get in.’ Elated with this success at the first door, I moved on.

I spent the entire afternoon at it. Some houses were empty; others were clearly occupied but my knocks and doorbell rings were ignored. The reactions from those who were good enough to open the doors ran the gamut. Several elderly people commented that it was nice to see a young person take an interest in the community and not only signed my nomination papers, but pledged to vote for me on polling day.

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On the other hand, one clearly stressed middle-aged man offered a harsh, yet fair in hindsight, series of observations and declined to sign the papers after sizing me up and listening to my well-rehearsed spiel: ‘You’re a full-time student with no clue what the real world is like; you live with your parents who still take care of you; you don’t have a mortgage; you don’t pay taxes; you don’t have the pressure of raising a family; you can’t represent me.’

Even though my father had prepared me for attacks, and my assumption was that the poor guy was having a bad day, it was still sobering and tough to take. But all these years later, his are the only words that I can repeat verbatim. From the moment I meekly and dejectedly walked down his front porch steps, the platitudes I had always mouthed about respecting anyone with the guts to put his or her neck on the line and invite the judgement of others became real in a very new way.

Having people willing to do so is the bedrock of our democracies. And that’s why I have so little time and patience for those who reflexively are critical, or even loathing, of politicians. Of course, there are some whose motives are less than pure and a small minority who are downright malevolent. In this vein, however, politicians, as a whole, are only a reflection of us all.

That day, I managed to garner approximately 50 signatures. My father had urged that I get double the required 25 in order to account for people who might not be registered to vote or who lived outside the precinct, but would sign nonetheless. Thankfully, upon returning the official documents to the town clerk’s office, more than 25 were certified and my spot on the ballot was guaranteed.

I drafted a press release — in hindsight, it was too long and too boastful — that was printed in the local newspapers, and photocopied hundreds of half-page fliers saying: ‘ELECT LAWRENCE P. DONNELLY – TOWN MEETING MEMBER — PRECINCT 6.’ My father and I pushed them through the letter boxes of registered voters in our neighbourhood. I also attended pre-election forums and showed up anywhere else voters were likely to be in decent numbers.

In those days, before social media, that was about all I could do. The response to my candidacy was generally positive – notwithstanding the persistent, disbelieving murmurs about my being a Republican. Because Milton town elections are non-partisan, it was not a disqualifying offence for most voters. Were it for a seat in the state legislature, it most likely would have been.

All that was left was preparing for the date of the election and ensuring that my family, friends and neighbours remembered that I was on the ballot and that I needed their help to win. Perhaps paradoxically, these types of elections, even though they have the most significant and tangible impacts on the citizens of a city or town in many ways, invariably engender the least amount of interest and lowest rate of participation.

Most average Americans are busy with work and family and don’t leave the time or inclination to read local news or engage with local issues. State, federal and national campaigns attract so much traditional and social media attention that they are hard to avoid and hence attract higher (though still low by international comparison) rates of participation. This is a pity, especially in that some could contribute significantly to their communities.

Despite the widespread apathy, we did the best we could and awaited the results to come in on local access cable television. And when all the votes had been counted, I was duly elected. I did not come first, but ran closer to the top than the bottom of the cadre of men and women who prevailed. Crucially, I was competing with a number of well-known incumbents and was among the strongest finishers of those elected for the first time.

‘Not bad,’ was my father’s understated reaction. My mother, as ever, was far more impressed.

It was a nice feeling to have won, albeit at the very ground floor. My law studies and other realities of life kicked in before I would represent Precinct 6 at the annual town meeting the following week. Still, it was an enjoyable evening that I look back on fondly to this day.

I remember saying to my dad that it could offer a platform to run for something else. Knowingly, he replied that such a bid would be futile unless I changed parties or undertook a run in order to be rewarded with a government job in return for offering myself up as a sacrificial lamb.

Nonetheless, as the ambitious dreamer I undeniably was, I couldn’t help but wonder if it marked the start of something big. Given my family history, it was only natural that I might get carried away with this political success. It was something we were fairly accustomed to.

Taken from Chapter 1 of The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. His new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – will be published by Gill Books on 15 October and can be pre-ordered here.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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