As Chinatown goes to polls, support for Lee and Linehan in District 2 council race


voters3.jpgBoston Globe – Chinatown may be Suzanne Lee’s home turf. But a visit to one polling station today suggested that the longtime neighborhood resident faces a tough task unseating incumbent Bill Linehan of South Boston for the District 2 City Council seat.

Supporters for both candidates lined the sidewalk outside the Metropolitan high-rise on Oak Street, where most Chinatown residents will vote. Holding signs and handing out cards, they made one last attempt to sway voters.

Linehan supporter Man Ho Chan couldn’t vote in the municipal election because he lives in Bedford, but he was out to support the candidate on behalf of the Gee How Oak Tin Association, a powerful neighborhood group with around 1,600 members. The association has endorsed Linehan, Chan said, as has “Uncle” Frank Chin, a neighborhood patriarch and power broker who wields great influence over neighborhood voters.

“He’s always been a good friend to Chinatown,” Chan, 59, said of Linehan.

He said Linehan had supported local businesses and the construction of new housing in the neighborhood and called Lee a newcomer to the neighborhood who had only moved from Brookline to Chinatown to run for office.

“I understand why people vote for her because she’s Chinese,” Chan said of Lee, “but she hasn’t done anything good for Chinatown.”

But Lee supporter Lydia Lowe, 53, said her candidate was known well in Chinatown for her years as a community organizer, a teacher, and later principal of the Josiah Quincy School and had strong support. She was less convinced of Linehan’s commitment to the neighborhood.

“We haven’t seen enough of our councilor really going to bat for the community,” she said. Lowe is executive director of both the Chinese Progressive Association – a nonpartisan community organization that Lee helped found – and its political action committee, which has endorsed Lee.

Lowe expected heavy voter turnout in both Chinatown and Linehan’s home neighborhood, South Boston, and said she hoped voters would come to the polls in the South End, where Lee performed well in September’s preliminary election.

“There are a lot of people organizing for Bill Linehan,” Lowe said, but she expected that Lee would ultimately be the victor.

Yao Ying Huang, an interior designer who voted at the Metropolitan on Tuesday morning, agreed with Lowe about Lee’s work in the community. A former Chinese language teacher at the Chung Wah Academy, Huang, 31, said that Lee had helped find a space for the school when she was principal at Josiah Quincy.

Huang said knowing Lee personally and seeing her work in the community had helped drive her to the polls. “Just reading the newspaper and flyers, brochures won’t help that much,” she said. “It’s better to know somebody.”

Huang said she had friends who planned to vote for LInehan or were still on the fence. Her own mother has praised Linehan for his help in finding office space for an organization that helps immigrants who don’t speak English to get health insurance, she said. She wasn’t sure whom her mother would vote for.

Like Huang, Tony Wong voted for Lee because of a personal connection. He said Lee has helped elderly people in the community, like his mother, and those who don’t speak English. Wong, 50, said Lee also fought for better working conditions in textile mills when his mother was working as a seamstress.

Wong was also handing out flyers for former At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty, who left the council in 2009 to challenge Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Wong said he hoped to see Flaherty regain his seat on the council and eventually run for mayor again. He believed Flaherty would better serve the interests of Chinatown.

“Just like Obama says, we need a change,” Wong said. “A big change.”

Fu Li Ren, a 75-year-old retiree who has worked as a restaurant cook and a nurse’s aide, said through a translator that he voted for Lee because “she’s contributed a lot to society” and “serviced the community and Chinese Americans for a very long time.”

Lee’s work with seniors didn’t sway Zitian Chen, 84, and his wife You Zhao Zhang, 81, who both voted for Linehan. They are members of the Gee How Tin Oak Association, which endorsed Linehan, and also know “Uncle” Frank Chin, who spoke with them personally about Linehan’s work for the Chinatown community and helped win their vote.

Mabel Tso, a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, stood outside the polls on Tuesday morning to survey voters on the candidates and issues that mattered to them. Tso, 34, said she had spoken with more Lee supporters than those for Linehan and that she thought the presence of an Asian-American candidate on the ballot had helped bring voters to the polls.

But Tso couldn’t be sure who would ultimately triumph, she said. There is such division within the community over this race that at least one couple she interviewed split their votes, one for Linehan and the other for Lee.

Gladys Jimenez, a union organizer for SEIU Local 615, said it was important to her that the council continue to reflect the diversity of the city’s population. Jimenez, 46, gave her most passionate support to Councilor Felix Arroyo as the only Latino councilor, calling him her “favorite.” She said she also voted for Ayanna Pressley and noted that Pressley is the only black woman on the council.

The polls close at 8 p.m.

By Jeremy C. Fox

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