There is little doubt in the minds of many political observers that there will be an undercurrent of "keeping the seat in Southie" — one coming not from the official campaigns, but in private conversations. That has the potential to get ugly, when South Boston's racially uncomfortable history mixes with a black, Haitian-American political opponent.
But the candidates themselves represent something very different. While it's fair to say that they fit the ideological stereotypes, with Collins the more conservative and Forry the more liberal, neither is classically parochial, and they consider each other friends. They worked together to save neighborhood libraries — his in Southie, hers in Lower Mills — and are doing so again on their Quality School Choice Plan. In fact, a photo from that Quality Choice announcement, with Forry just behind his left shoulder, is Collins's Facebook cover photo (although the top picture on his website shows a green-tied Collins marching in Southie's St. Patrick's Day parade).
"The days of identity politics are over, and that's the way it should be," says Collins, who has also partnered with Carlos Henriquez, Gloria Fox, and Liz Malia in the House. "We're all unified; we share the same core values."
Forry returns the sentiment, and adds that Hart set the standard by working throughout the district, whether fighting for the redesign of Ashmont Station or showing up at Mattapan community breakfasts.
And she says she'll be shaking hands at Broadway and Andrew Square, just as Collins will do in Dorchester and Mattapan. "There's much less of a difference between the neighborhoods than people think," Forry says. "People are trying to get by, trying to stay in the middle class, trying to send their children to good schools."
Both Forry and Collins say that there's a lot in common between the first- and second-generation immigrants of Dorchester and Mattapan — herself included — and those of South Boston.
Which likely won't stop a lot of voters from lining up for and against the Southie candidate based solely on location and ethnicity. But it might not fully define the race the way it once might have.
Which means it's up for grabs whether this special election will make 30-year-old Collins the leader of a new generation of South Boston political leaders, or if Forry will snap Southie's decades-long stronghold on the first Suffolk.
From 1994 to 2006, a Southie pol served as City Council president 12 out of 13 years. In 2011, the city came within 100 votes of having nobody from South Boston on the council at all.
That year, Michael Flaherty finished fifth in his attempt to reclaim an at-large seat, after running unsuccessfully for mayor in 2009 — a year in which not a single South Boston candidate even competed for the two open at-large spots, ultimately won by Felix Arroyo of Jamaica Plain and Ayanna Pressley of Dorchester.
Those two topped the citywide ticket in 2011, followed by John Connolly of West Roxbury and Stephen Murphy of Hyde Park — with Flaherty out of the money in fifth.
Meanwhile, District Councilor Bill Linehan barely survived a challenge from Suzanne Lee of the South End. Lee finished first in the preliminary, but Linehan won in November by 87 votes, out of more than 10,000 cast.