Dorchester's congressmen front and center in Senate drama

Two congressmen are readying to face off over the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat, and Dorchester could be caught in the middle.

Congressmen Michael Capuano (D-Somerville) and Stephen Lynch (D-South Boston) have pulled nominations papers for the race and promised formal announcements later. In the meantime, State Attorney General Martha Coakley has announced her candidacy, wasting little time plunging herself into campaign mode and aiming for a fundraising goal of $1 million by mid-September.

Capuano and Lynch, who were burning up the phone lines this week with supporters after former Congressman Joseph Kennedy said he wasn't running, share Dorchester, with Capuano representing part of the neighborhood's northern and western precincts, and Mattapan while Lynch's constituents live along the coastal areas between South Boston and Milton.

"Lynch and Capuano have to battle for Boston," one local political operative told the Reporter.

That's putting some local politicians and activists in the awkward position of potentially coming out for -- and against -- people they personally know and have frequently worked with on numerous local issues.

"This is a very challenging time for anybody who holds public office, because we have multiple colleagues in the race," said one local official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Now we're going to find ourselves really torn. It's not just about personal relationships. It's going to be about who brings home the bacon."

Others are unabashedly lobbying for their respective candidates. State Rep. Martin Walsh, a Savin Hill Democrat, said he is solidly behind Lynch, widely considered the Massachusetts delegation's most conservative member. Both have deep union ties.

Walsh backed Lynch in the 2001 special Congressional election -- held on Sept. 11, the same day as the terrorist attacks -- after the death of Congressman Joseph Moakley from leukemia. Lynch was also supported then by Jack Hart, then a state representative who took Lynch's Senate seat, and District 3 Councillor Maureen Feeney.

Before his election to Congress, Lynch had held his state Senate seat for six years, winning it in 1995 in a special election after then-Senate President William Bulger stepped down. (Noting Lynch's winning streak in special elections, the aforementioned anonymous local official dubbed Lynch "the king of special elections.")

This time around, Hart and Feeney aren't saying whom they will endorse, with Hart, a South Boston Democrat, saying neither Capuano nor Lynch's campaign is official. Feeney is close with state Senate President Therese Murray, a strong Coakley supporter; and Feeney and Murray were ardent backers of Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, and were angered by a number of local endorsements for eventual victor Barack Obama.

State Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry and Willie Mae Allen did not respond to requests for comment.

For his part, Walsh, who is widely expected to run for Lynch's Congressional seat should Lynch win Kennedy's seat, carries a special designation: he's the only politician who has defeated Coakley in an election.

Walsh and Coakley, then a former Middlesex assistant district attorney, were among the candidates in the 1997 special election to replace state Rep. Jim Brett, who was retiring.

Asked if he had any advice for Lynch on beating Coakley, Walsh quipped, "I'm keeping that a secret for Stevie." He then added, "Be prepared in a debate, I'll tell you that. Martha's a great debater."

But some are warning that Lynch's labor support from the liberal side has eroded, pointing to the less-than-warm reception he received at a health care rally on Boston Common this week. That was mainly because of Lynch's reticence towards including a "public option" into health care reform to compete with private insurers, which might make a Democratic primary difficult for him.

Capuano, elected to his seat in 1998 after serving five terms as Somerville mayor, has his supporters, too. Judy Meredith, a well-known Dorchester human services activist and lobbyist, said she has known Capuano for more than 20 years.

The seat was previously held by Joseph Kennedy, the same one who bowed out this week, citing his desire to continue "my work at Citizens Energy Corporation."

Now a top lieutenant to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Capuano won his seat after a 10-candidate primary that included former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, Mayor Thomas Menino's predecessor. "Everybody underestimated Michael," Meredith said. "What we need is someone who has the experience and the gravitas, who knows their way around Capitol Hill," she added.

Capuano's appearance at the recent Greater Boston Labor Council's breakfast was among the better-received, and, by some accounts, the most aggressive.

"You have to ask: Are you with me in word alone or are you willing to fight alongside and for me?" Capuano said, citing support for the federal stimulus bill -- which Lynch opposed -- among other issues, according to the State House News Service.

Asked later if he was singling out potential rivals, he told the independent Beacon Hill wire service, "I would argue that just like anything else, any time you get a field of candidates in any race, they may share philosophy and that is the most important issue," he said. "But the next question is, okay, do you share my philosophy and are you willing to fight for it, or is it just talk? And people have to make that judgment all the time."

Still, the political operative quoted above asserted the race was Coakley's to lose. "Even waiting a few days, they're going to be behind the eight ball," he said, calling the number of nomination signatures needed -- 10,000 -- "horrific," adding, "she has played this right."

Other candidates are reportedly mulling a run, leading to a field in constant flux as the week moves along. They include Congressmen Ed Markey and John Tierney, and Gloucester attorney Ed O'Reilly, who unsuccessfully ran against U.S. Sen. John Kerry last year.

On the Republican side, State Sen. Scott Brown (R-Wrentham) and former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan are considered potential contenders.

A primary is scheduled for Dec. 8, with the special election set for Jan. 19.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.