Former Congressman Brian Donnelly, Not a Bad Guy and Worth Remembering

I don’t know how many people will even read this column, because I’m not sure if more than a handful of people even remember Brian Donnelly anymore.

He was a former Congressman and state rep from Dorchester who died last week, just a few days short of his 77th birthday.

I hadn’t seen Donnelly in more than 30 years, and I’m not the only one who’d lost track of him. He left the US House in 1993 and served as an ambassador under Bill Clinton. In 1998 he came back to Massachusetts to run for governor and finished third in the Democrat primary with only 17 percent of the vote.

It was the first time he’d ever lost an election, and it was his last. At the age of 52 Brian vanished, more or less, at least from public life. He’d been living in East Dennis, on the Brewster line.

Like everyone who knew him, I liked Brian Donnelly, even though I didn’t know him very well. You couldn’t not like the guy. He was affable, unaffected, totally normal.

They’re not making Democrats like Brian Donnelly anymore.

I think the last time I saw him was at a state Democratic convention, maybe in 1990 in Springfield. I was wandering around in the hall outside the arena, taking a break from the Saturday radio broadcast with Jerry Williams.

Under the stands, I noticed a guy by himself in a suit and tie, sneaking a cigarette, taking those fast, furtive, deep drags like you do when you just need a nicotine fix and you don’t have a lot of time. It was Cong. Donnelly.

“Brian,” I said. “Is that you? What are you doing down here?”

He shook his head, took a final drag, threw down his smoke and crushed it out.

“I’m asking myself,” he said, “what the hell am I doing here?”

I smiled and told him, I’ve been asking myself the exact same question.

He first ran for the state House in 1972. It was the last year of the old double- and triple districts. He won by finishing third in a field of 20 that included two Murphys, a Reilly, and a future Kevin White ward boss.

There was also a guy named Michael T. Feeney, who was apparently hoping to be confused with an incumbent named Michael P. Feeney in the next ward over, who’d been in the legislature since 1938.

That’s the way politics worked in Boston back then. Confusion was encouraged. Even at age 26, Donnelly fit right in. He was from St. Gregory’s.

The Globe ran a curious obituary of him last week. Most of the quotes seemed to come from long-dead politicians, and those who weren’t dead had been out of office even longer than Donnelly, and even their quotes about Brian were a quarter-century old.

The piece mentioned that his contemporaries couldn’t recall a single press conference he’d ever held to toot his own horn. I can only remember one time he ever called the media together. It was 1984, there was an open US Senate seat and like every other pol in the state, he wanted to run.

But House Speaker Tip O’Neill was backing his boy, Cong. Jim “Lumpy” Shannon. There was only room for one Congressman in the fight, so Brian (as well as Ed Markey) had to step aside.

Brian was pissed. Who could blame him? Lumpy didn’t have a chance against John Kerry. But Donnelly had no choice.

So he rented a room at the Parker House to announce he was dropping out of the race. I was working for Channel 7, and I still remember what he said.

“The Speaker says Jim Shannon has the right to run,” he said. “Well, so don’t I!”

That’s the way he phrased it – “So don’t I!” Which is why I remember it. He didn’t say, so do I. He said it the Dorchester way. He wasn’t stupid, he was just using the idiom of his own neighborhood. As I said, there were no airs about him.

It wasn’t the last time Brian Donnelly got pushed aside by some entitled swell. After he didn’t seek an eighth term in 1992, he was hoping that the new Democrat president would appoint him ambassador to Ireland.

But no, the Kennedys had their eye on Eire. Jean Kennedy Smith, coming off her son’s Palm Beach rape trial and a bad marriage, needed a vacation.

It didn’t matter that Donnelly had become a folk hero of sorts in Ireland for pushing an amendment through Congress to increase the number of visas for Irish youth. (Which is why his death got more ink in the Dublin papers than in Boston.)

Sorry Brian, we know you’ve earned Dublin but… how about Trinidad-Tobago?

Oddly, none of the obituaries I saw mentioned his uncle, Francis “Sweepstakes” Kelly, once a near-legendary figure in local politics, now apparently totally forgotten.

Sweepstakes got his name for promoting the not-unreasonable suggestion that since all that money was flowing out of Massachusetts to play the Irish Sweepstakes, perhaps the state would be wise to set up its own lottery, and keep the money here.

Brian’s uncle was in politics his whole life. He was on the old ward-based Boston City Council. He was a former attorney general, and before that he’d been the lieutenant governor for Gov. Joseph “Chowderhead” Hurley, who is best known for pardoning future Mafia boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca.

Sweepstakes wasn’t particularly close to his nephew. But after his election to the State House, sometimes Brian would stop by the old man’s law office at 11 Beacon Street.

Like all those old-time pols, Kelly had framed photos of all the old rogues he’d served with covering the walls. He worked out of a tiny office with a secretary who’d be banging away on her old Underwood typewriter whenever young Rep. Donnelly would bring in a visitor to meet his uncle, who had been famous long ago.

Sweepstakes would stand up and start pointing at all the faded black-and-white photos of forgotten statesmen. There was one recurring theme about all of them.

“Dead,” Sweepstakes would say. “Dead… He’s dead. Dead. Dead. And there’s so-and-so. He’s dead too.”

Occasionally, his memory would fail him. He’d look over at his secretary and ask her if so-and-so was dead yet. She would stop typing and think for a moment.

“Oh yes, Mr. Kelly,” she would finally say. “So-and-so is dead. He’s definitely dead, Mr. Kelly.”

Sweepstakes died in 1979. And now his nephew is dead too. Dead.

Jerry Williams used to say of Sweepstakes Kelly, not a bad guy. I’d say the same thing about Brian Donnelly.

Not a bad guy.

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