News & Events

Politics salts the labor breakfast

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff  |  September 8, 2009

From little-known city councilor candidates to veteran congressmen, a crush of politicians worked the Back Bay hotel ballroom as if it had been a small-town diner, glad-handing union bosses and chatting up the rank and file.

But like the blue “Labor for Kennedy’’ campaign placards that hung from the head table, the lingering presence of the late Edward M. Kennedy held sway over yesterday’s Greater Boston Labor Council breakfast, from the labor-friendly speeches that paid homage to his legacy to the breathless chatter over who might succeed him as US senator from Massachusetts.

More than 500 union leaders, political figures, and activists packed the Park Plaza Hotel for the annual event, which typically kick-starts the election season with a suite of spirited speeches and campaign jousting. This year, with the political world atwitter over a likely scrum to fill Kennedy’s seat, the Democrat-dominated breakfast took on an almost rally-like feel, with a distinctly partisan edge in the pivotal battle for organized labor.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, the only Democrat to officially enter the Senate race, looked to take advantage of her unopposed status for a head start in the three-month dash to the Dec. 8 primary, posting sign-holding supporters on every street corner around the Back Bay hotel and handing out campaign buttons and pamphlets.

In a speech, Coakley touted her record on enforcing the prevailing-wage laws and stated her support for proposed legislation that would help unions organize, and a “viable public option’’ for health insurance.

“We’ve been able to find the money to bail out Wall Street and big insurance companies,’’ she said. “We should be able to find the money to reform our health care system.’’

In an early indication of how health care politics could color the primary race, another possible Senate contender, US Representative Stephen Lynch, was barred from speaking at the event over his skeptical stance toward a new government insurance program. Lynch, who has taken out nomination papers for the race, told reporters he will probably announce his candidacy in the coming days, and spoke with guests outside the ballroom.

“I probably won’t fit in in the US Senate, but in a lot of cases, the people of Massachusetts don’t want a senator to fit in,’’ he said. “They want them to stand out.’’

But other speakers, recognizing their audience’s political leanings, came out in strong favor of a government-run health plan. When US Representative Michael Capuano voiced his full-throated support for what he called an “honest-to-God’’ public option, the crowd roared its approval.

“When it comes time to make the tough decisions, that’s when you start to figure who’s with you and who’s not,’’ he said.

In a speech that railed against the Bush administration, US Representative Edward Markey earned cheers by declaring, “Health care is not a privilege. Health care is a right.’’

Several speakers also urged state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an interim senator to serve until the Jan. 19 special election, saying that another Democratic vote could prove critical to passing a major overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

“There is too much at stake not to be at full strength in the Senate,’’ said Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

At times, the speeches were mere backdrops to the rumors flying pell-mell around the room about who would ultimately throw their hat into the ring, and who would prevail. The fevered speculation over the race for the state’s first open Senate seat in a generation was tinged with a sense of loss over Kennedy, whom one labor leader called “our great champion.’’

In one of several tributes to Kennedy, who died Aug. 25 at 77, Haynes said Labor Day did not feel right without the senator, whom he called irreplaceable, and urged others to carry on his legacy.

“The cause of working people needs to be front and center,’’ he said, naming higher wages, retirement security, and collective bargaining rights as leading priorities.

“Kennedy was always there fighting and always there pushing for us, often when no one else was,’’ added Louis Mandarini, president of the labor council.

Other speakers said it was difficult to celebrate the holiday after a year that has battered many workers’ pensions and left millions out of work. More than 5 million people nationwide have been jobless for more than six months.

Though the shape of the Senate race dominated conversation, candidates for City Council and mayor scrambled to get their share of the attention.

Councilor Sam Yoon, who is running for mayor, made his way from table to table chatting with guests like they were old friends. Nearby, City Council candidate Tito Jackson and his cheery staff shook every hand they could find.

Everyone in the room wore a political button for some candidate or other, even the tuxedoed wait staff.

Andrew Ryan and Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed to this report.