---- — BOSTON (AP) — U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a onetime ironworker, nearly always makes a point of his blue-collar roots while campaigning for the U.S. Senate.
By far the most conservative of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation — his votes against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and the federal financial reform law rankled many in the party — Lynch, 58, is hoping his gritty life story will resonate with working-class voters and propel him to an upset victory in the special election to fill Secretary of State John Kerry’s former seat.
His opponent in Tuesday’s primary, fellow U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, is favored by Kerry and backed by large segments of the Democratic political establishment in Massachusetts.
In 2010, Republican Scott Brown, with his now-famous barn jacket and green pickup truck, connected with middle-class voters in a similar way during his successful campaign to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Lynch takes the everyman theme even further and, in a gentle jab at Brown, points out that he not only drove a pickup for much of his working life but also tossed a pair of real workboots in the back.
“My dad used to say, ‘There were times that we had to save up to be poor,’” Lynch said in an Associated Press interview, recalling his childhood at the Old Colony housing project in the largely white, Irish-Catholic South Boston neighborhood.
“We had nothing,” he continued, and few in the neighborhood had more. It was a tough and unsheltered upbringing. He would later lose a cousin to gun violence in another housing project.
Lynch’s father was an ironworker and from a young age it became evident that would be Lynch’s path in life as well. By high school, he was helping out at construction sites.
“They put me in there when I was just a kid. I loved it,” he said. Over the next two decades, Lynch would work on countless jobs, not only in Boston but around the country.
But the lifestyle had its drawbacks.
“You work hard and you play hard,” he said. “Everybody piles into the pub after work and that became a habit.”
By his early 20s, he had a drinking problem. The decisions and events that followed would shape his future.
While on a project in Wisconsin that had shut down because of a blizzard, he recalled, a woman he was dating noted that Lynch enjoyed reading and suggested he take classes at a local college. He did, quickly realizing how hard it was to study after a few beers.
“I stopped doing it. I stopped drinking,” he said. Three years later, he was elected to the board of his union, Iron Workers Local 7, and would rise to become its president.
“Once people see that you’re sober, and you’re serious, and you’re motivated, they focus on you as a potential leader,” he said.
Lynch’s union activism, he said, stemmed from concerns about ironworker safety. In New Mexico, a fellow worker plunged to his death and he saw workers injured at other jobs.
But as union president, he also discovered that “in order to sneeze, I had to check with the lawyers.” That frustration helped prompt him to become a lawyer himself. Lynch, who had earlier earned a degree in construction management at Wentworth Institute of Technology, earned his law degree from Boston College in 1991.
While doing pro bono legal work at the housing project where he grew up, residents would encourage him to run for public office, he said. He won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1995 and just 14 months later ran in a special election to succeed the powerful state Sen. William Bulger, who had resigned to become president of the University of Massachusetts.
After a campaign he described as a “civil war,” Lynch defeated Bulger’s son, William Bulger Jr.
“There are some sharp elbows in South Boston politics,” he explained, a hint of understatement in his voice.
Lynch entered — and won — another special election in 2001, this time to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley. It didn’t hurt that two of Lynch’s uncles had helped Moakley win a political office decades earlier, giving Lynch a leg up with the late congressman’s family, he said.
But in the current Senate campaign, Lynch has struggled to gain name recognition outside of his Boston stronghold, making more difficult the task of defeating a better-financed candidate in Markey who appears more in step with core liberal Democrats likely to vote in Tuesday’s primary.
Lynch has sought to reassure Democrats of his credentials. He identifies himself as “pro-life,” but promises not to seek changes in abortion rights laws. He also insists his record on environmental issues is on par with Markey, though a group led by a wealthy California environmental activist has dogged Lynch over his past support for the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada.
Lynch’s best hope seems to lie with the labor vote, conservative-leaning Democrats and independents.
“If I can just get to those people and let them know who I am, what I’m about, I can win,” he said.
It’s been a difficult time for Lynch personally as well. He’s a longtime friend of the family of 8-year-old Martin Richard, one of the three people who died in the Boston Marathon bombing. Martin’s sister and mother were seriously injured.
In February, close friend and campaign adviser William McDermott was struck and killed by a car crossing a South Boston street.
US Senate hopeful Stephen Lynch, at a glance
NAME: Stephen Lynch
AGE: 58; born March 31, 1955
EDUCATION: B.S. in construction management, Wentworth Institute of Technology, 1988; J.D. from Boston College Law School, 1991; Masters in Public Administration, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 1999.
CAREER: Lynch was an ironworker from 1972 to 1991 and served as president of the Ironworkers Local 7 union from 1988 to 1991. In 1994, Lynch was elected to the state House of Representatives from the South Boston district and in 1996 won a special election to the state Senate. Lynch served in the Senate until 2001, when he won a special election for the U.S. House to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley. Lynch serves on several congressional panels including the Financial Services Committee, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census.
FAMILY: Lynch lives in South Boston with his wife, Margaret. The couple has a daughter, Victoria.
QUOTE: “I know what it’s like to stand in an unemployment line. I learned that in severe economic downturns, that sometimes the only force that can correct that inequity, or give people a chance to lift themselves out of difficulty, or provide some temporary relief, is the government.”