Pure politics

The weirdly fascinating Suffolk Clerk’s race
By ADAM REILLY  |  July 28, 2006

PERENNIAL CANDIDATE: Hennigan must prove to voters that she’s running because she wants to be Suffolk clerk, not because she’s an unemployed hack.
Come September 19, Democratic-primary voters in Suffolk County will elect a new superior court clerk for criminal business: with no Republican running, one of two Democrats — ex-mayoral candidate Maura Hennigan or assistant clerk Robert Dello Russo — is sure to get the job.

Because the clerk’s post is administrative and technical in nature, there aren’t any big ideas to kick around as there are in, say, the governor’s race. Ask Hennigan and Dello Russo what they’ll do if elected, and you’ll get sensible but boring answers: reduce the backlog of cases, bolster community outreach, etc., etc.

So why is this campaign — one of the most obscure being waged this year — also one of the most intriguing? Chalk it up to its nakedly political character. Hennigan versus Dello Russo is a veritable case study in urban politics, with a well-known but isolated pol (Hennigan) squaring off against a rival (Dello Russo) who’s obscure but exceedingly well-connected. The outcome will hinge on which combatant makes best use of his or her key strength — and on how, exactly, Suffolk County’s power brokers involve themselves in the race.

What's her motivation?
When the Phoenix last checked in with Hennigan, the then Boston city councilor was waging what proved to be a doomed battle against incumbent mayor Tom Menino. Hennigan’s campaign had its high points — most memorably, she spanked Menino in their only televised debate — but anyone who craved a competitive race akin to the White-Timilty fights of yore was ultimately disappointed: Menino easily kept his seat, winning 66 percent to 31 percent.

The news was triply bad for Hennigan. She didn’t just lose the mayor’s race; she also lost her at-large councilor’s job, and racked up a fat campaign debt (approximately $700,000) to boot. Hennigan had spent most of her adult life in Boston politics — her childhood, too, as a child of peripatetic politician James Hennigan. And now she’s found herself in exile.

But maybe not for long. Last year’s mayoral run enhanced Hennigan’s already-high political profile, in both Boston and the other towns (Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop) that comprise Suffolk County. Unlike Dello Russo, who’s never held elected office, Hennigan is a familiar name to most voters — and in a little-noticed contest like this one, that may be enough to win.

Here’s the downside: Hennigan needs to convince voters that she’s running because she actually wants to be Suffolk clerk, not because she’s an unemployed hack looking for something to do.

It could be a tough sell, especially since Hennigan, like her father, is something of a serial candidate. (She’s also run for state auditor, and twice for state senate.) Her strategy is straightforward: basically, she argues that the clerk’s post — which opened up when John Nucci left for a vice-president’s post at Suffolk University — would let her do much the same kind of work she hoped to do as mayor. “It just seemed like such a great opportunity to me to work on some of the key issues that I’ve talked about during my career in public service, which are public-safety and criminal-justice issues,” Hennigan says. “And one of the issues that has been so much on the forefront, sadly, has been public safety and the escalating violence — the murder rate, the shootings, the hopelessness that so many people feel that causes them to go down these roads.” (Note the stealthy dig at Tom Menino.)

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Related: Campaign Trail of Tears, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Menino’s hit list, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Suffolk University, Bob DeLeo, Salvatore DiMasi,  More more >
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Forza Italia?
The Suffolk clerk's race should be a good indicator for Italian-American political clout. Old patterns suggest that Robert Dello Russo will do well in Revere and Winthrop, as well as East Boston and the North End. But as Sal Mattina's whisker-thin victory in this summer's District 1 city council race showed, those old patterns are increasingly unreliable. Gentrification is making the North End a little less Italian every day, and Latinos (many of whom can't vote) are ever more prevalent in East Boston and Revere. Italians are ascendant in local politics right now (see: Tom Menino, Sal DiMasi, Bob Travaglini), but their day may already be drawing to a close.
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