The fight between Markey and Lynch for a US Senate seat is mere child’s play against the ‘good old days’ of Irish politics
By Peter F. Stevens
It won’t be like the “good old days” of Boston Irish politics. No matter how many stiff jabs that Ed Markey and Steve Lynch launch at each other in their Democratic duel for John Kerry’s former US Senate seat, the contest between the pair of “neighborhood guys” will prove Marquis of Queensbury compared to yesteryear. In no way will the race resurrect the wild roundhouses, uppercuts, and below-the-belt shots that once erupted in virtually any Boston political brawl that featured heavyweights as James Michael Curley and John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, as well as such contenders as James Ambrose Gallivan.
Every time that many of today’s pundits cry crocodile tears at the “lack of civility” and at the name-calling nastiness in today’s races, don’t believe a word of it. What many in the media and the public secretly crave is a contest such as Boston’s 1918 mayoral election.
That fray proved one of the most rancorous and most memorable in the city’s annals as Curley was challenged by Gallivan, “Honey Fitz’s” man; Peter Teague, another congressman and the choice of “the Mahatma,” powerful ward boss Martin Lomasney; and Yankee politician Andrew J. Peters. Gallivan, assessing his chances against Curley, spat a line neither Markey nor Lynch will utter: “I’ll tear the hide off him.”
James Gallivan was a man who made headlines in his era in large part because he and “Himself,” Curley, tore into each other with fiery bursts of character assassination.
Born on Oct. 22, 1866 to James and Mary (Flynn) Gallivan, James A. Gallivan proved a top student at Boston Latin and was accepted at Harvard. According to the New York Times, “Besides being an able scholar, he was so proficient as a second baseman [some accounts say first baseman] that the big leagues were open to him when he gained his bachelor’s degree in 1888. Instead, he became a newspaper reporter.”
As a reporter, Gallivan learned the ins and outs of the raucous ward politics of late nineteenth-century Boston, and, in 1895, he decided to enter, rather than just observe, the political action. The twenty-nine-year-old Gallivan ran for the state representative’s post from South Boston and won.
Within three years, Gallivan had claimed a seat in the Massachusetts Senate, earning the spot of minority leader. He served as street commissioner of Boston from 1900 to 1914 and, in the fall of 1914, was elected to Congress as a Democratic representative to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James M. Curley to become the mayor of Boston.
Gallivan became known in Washington as one of the most flamboyant members of the House. He was one of the so-called “Wet Bloc,” legislators opposing the temperance movement’s snowballing crusade to ban “demon alcohol” in every corner of the nation.
In 1918, Gallivan listened to Boston friends who urged him to run for another office—the one currently held by Mayor Curley. There was little question that Gallivan could carry a large share of the Irish vote, especially in South Boston, where his wife, the former Louise Burke, had also been raised.
On the campaign stump, Gallivan chided the patronage of Curley and asked, “Who put the ‘plum’ in plumbing?” The reference was to Curley cronies who had been awarded lucrative city contracts.
Curley responded with verbal blasts that Gallivan was “a desperado of American politics,” an “egotist” and a “slacker.” The incumbent charged that Gallivan was a congressman who should attend to his duties in Washington rather than run for mayor of Boston: “Will Gallivan be in the nation’s capital…when the bill for national prohibition is considered?” asked Curley.
A Gallivan ad in the Boston Post countered that Curley “stands for the worst things in American politics.” In turn, Curley derided Gallivan as a “Hessian” and “jitney [period slang for a bus or van] messiah.” Curley also claimed that there was a good reason for Gallivan’s opposition to the proponents of temperance: “I thought it might be providential to call the attention of the electorate to Jimmy’s elbow-bending.”
Curley added: “Congressman Gallivan has two degrees. One from Harvard and one from the Washington Institute for Dispsomaniacs [someone with a craving for alcohol].”
When the votes were tallied, neither Gallivan nor Curley emerged the victor. Peters, with the other candidates carving up the Democratic vote, won the election.
The local voters who had come out for Gallivan in his failed mayoral gambit returned him to Washington again and again as the congressman from the Massachusetts Twelfth District. On April 3, 1928, the congressman passed away from what was described as “underlying heart disease.”
Later, a political observer would joke that in the end, after all the campaign battles, Curley became a bathhouse [in South Boston] and Gallivan a road [Gallivan Blvd. in Dorchester].
It is safe to say that neither Markey nor Lynch will embrace the old-school tactics of their Boston Irish political “ancestors.” Curley, Honey Fitz, Gallivan, Lomasney, and company might well have fallen down laughing at the so-called nastiness of the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren race and chortled, “You call that tough?”