Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kelly was hard not to love

by Kevin John Sowyrda

Jimmy Kelly and I were living proof that sometimes you have to make an enemy to make a friend. Having roasted him like a baked potato in an admittedly scathing column I wrote on the colorful councilor back in the mid nineties or so, I didn't anticipate that at a later date we'd be breaking bread together at a posh Boston luncheon club; or that we'd cultivate a mutual admiration and a genuine friendship which I think we both valued greatly.

I'll admit Kelly won me over, as they might say in journalism. But he didn't do it the old, Boston way. Kelly was not the phony political gadfly who used fakery and thinly veiled charm to assuage his political opponents, as I once was. He hailed from the Joe Moakley school of politics where you had political opponents, not enemies. Like his mentor Moakley, Kelly could brawl with you on the front burner issues of the day and then grab dinner with you in a flash, sincerely inquiring about your family and how things were going in your life. That's what appealed to me about Jimmy Kelly the most, and it's why I wish he had lived for many more years.

Jimmy Kelley was hardly the embodiment of social enlightenment of our times. He was the scrapper from Southie - not a student of the Old School, but its stubborn and determined headmaster. He was convinced that the "good old days" were best kept in perpetuity.

But Jimmy Kelley, despite his workaholic ethic and his phenomenal passion, was fighting a torrent even more powerful that his indomitable spirit and his unquestionable love for the City of Boston. Jimmy Kelley was swimming against the tide of change, a supremely powerful force even more compelling than the veteran councilor's iron ideology. America is more socially progressive that the world Kelly knew and cherished in the 1970's, when he first achieved political stature in the Hub. As much as he may have wanted the clock to stop, or atleast slow down, it was not so inclined.

And now let's be blunt. I'm sure there's a temptation for more than just a phalanx of Bay Windows readers to privately view Kelly's death, though tragic, as a political blessing for a community which was diametrically opposed to the councilor on issues of pivotal importance. My retort is that if Jimmy Kelly was a homophobe, I pray on bended knees that the remaining homophobes in our little, American kingdom emulate Kelly's love for people. To put it quite simply, if the man truly was a bigot he was probably the only bigot in the world who never hated anyone, even though bigotry and hatred are usually a purely package deal. I can't help but thinking that he was Archie Bunker brought to life; uttering things that may have made us cringe from time to time but also exuding a humanity and a nature of simplicity which made him much more likeable than fearful.

In the South End Jimmy Kelly may have had enemies, but data from past elections prove he also had a fair crop of friends. When the Boston Globe rather shamelessly promoted Kelly's most recent election opponent as the inevitable dragon slayer, Kelly responded by doing what he does best - ignoring the Globe and campaigning full speed ahead. He was handily reelected, leaving the Globe with plenty of egg on its face. And many of Kelly's votes came from the South End; where there's apparently some tolerance for Southie Conservatives, atleast when they're hard working and real.

As for hard work, Kelly's diligence as a tireless ombudsman during the South End floods was prolific evidence that he embraced our neighborhood as much as his own. He may have rejected large components of the Gay Community's legislative aspirations, but it would be disingenuous to assert the he rejected the Gay neighborhood itself.

Is this ironic? Of course it is. That's because Jimmy Kelly was ironic. His ironies were as endless as they are intriguing to consider in retrospect. He didn't want us to march in his parade, but he'd march here at full speed to help us. He was hardly the city's champion for Gay marriage, but he will be mourned by more than just a few Gay men and women. He was the most conservative leader in city government, but its commonly known that many of his closer friends were Gay men and women whose company he cherished.

History may well remember Kelly as the unabashed conservative's conservative, who upon closer inspection was hard not to love - even by those who don't usually embrace conservatives.

Kevin John Sowyrda is a political commentator and writer. You can read his daily blog at www.thebostonmemo.blogspot.com

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