Ethnic Rivalries Loosen Hold on Boston Politics ; Being of Irish Descent Is No Longer a Prerequisite in Bay State Politics. More Italian-Americans Now Hold Top Posts

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There was a time when no matter what mastery a tradesman named Donato Salvucci possessed, he could never get a job as a bricklayer in Boston.

It was the early 1900s, and a friend suggested he change his name. "Whereupon Dan Sullivan was miraculously admitted to the bricklayer's union," says Boston historian William Marchione of his great-great uncle, who emigrated to Boston from Italy at the turn of last century.

That ethnic tribalism is of another era, of course, when the Irish in this city hung fiercely to the power they had secured from the old Yankee establishment - keeping it out of the grasp of Italians and other immigrants flooding into Boston. But the legends of Boston mayors John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley, House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, and JFK are more than just disparate icons. They form the current of Massachusetts politics.

So when Salvatore DiMasi accepted the speakership of the House last week, replacing Irishman Thomas Finneran, it was a moment of celebration for the Italian-American community in the state.

Mr. DiMasi is not the first prominent Italian-American to serve in the highest ranks of state government here, but together with Senate President Robert Travaglini, who became Senate leader in 2003, Italian-Americans now hold the top posts in the state legislature for the first time in its 224-year history. And with Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino, the three form a triptych that reflects an ongoing shift in the state's political machine.

"It is a confirming event that ethnic-mindedness isn't there anymore, that being Irish is no longer absolutely critical," says Mr. Marchione. Over the past 50 years, even as old patterns began to break down, Italian-Americans were slow to grasp their full political potential, he says. "I think it was the burden of history itself. They had never succeeded at winning, and were doubtful of their capacity to win."

Boston is still tribal. Shamrocks are plastered in windows in "Southie," and garlic wafts from the restaurants that line the North End. But city neighborhoods are far from the ethnic turfs they used to be - immortalized by novelist James Carroll, who wrote of mob wars between Irish and Italian gangsters in his 1978 novel "Mortal Friends."

Sitting on his fold-out chair on Parmenter Street in the North End, a spot he has staked out since he retired 40 years ago, Jimmy "Ninny" Limone says Italians have come of age in his lifetime. "We don't get pushed around like we used to," he says. Back then, with few exceptions, "if you wanted one of the big jobs, you had to be Irish."

So that his neighbor - whom he calls "Sal" - has ascended to a top spot in state government is a gratifying moment. "Sal's a local boy. He is a gentleman. He deserves it," Mr. Limone says, waving to passersby and giving directions to drivers making deliveries to local eateries.

Ethnic rivalry has been the story of immigration in every gateway city. …