The Making of a Mayor for Life

By Joe Keohane | Boston Magazine |

The Boston Park League is the oldest amateur baseball league in the United States. Started in 1929, it was once the passion of the neighborhoods. Games routinely drew crowds in the thousands. Before one contest in 1961, young city council candidate Joe Timilty came out to Kelly Field in Hyde Park to meet with a friend, Michael Donato, a great ballplayer out of B.C. High. The Bottomly Braves were playing that day, and Donato introduced Timilty to a guy who hung around the team, a well-liked 19-year-old neighborhood kid by the name of Tommy Menino. Tommy’s father, Carl, worked at the Westinghouse factory and was a popular figure in Hyde Park’s vote-rich Italian circles, and both of Menino’s parents had campaigned for a state rep named Charlie Patrone. Tommy had passed out pamphlets for Patrone, and, save for baseball, was interested in little else but politics. In a 1983 interview, Carl Menino said that after his son graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High, he pushed him to go to college, to no avail. “He didn’t want to go to school no more…. He used to say, when I got after him to go to college, he’d say, ‘Truman never went to college.’ He told me that 1,000 times.”

Menino signed on as a foot soldier with Timilty’s campaign, and became close with the candidate and his family. “He was exactly what I was looking for,” says Timilty. “He worked at it.” Timilty won the seat, assuring Menino a recurring gig in politics, at least come reelection time. In 1968, he quit selling insurance for Metropolitan Life, where he’d been since 1963, and got his first public job when Timilty fixed him up with a low-level position with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Three years later, and then in 1975, and again in 1979, Timilty tried to do what his uncle, a former protégé turned opponent of James Michael Curley, had failed at. Namely, wrest power from a ruthless, charismatic mayor. In this case the incumbent was Kevin White, and each time Menino enlisted to serve the cause. “This is Boston politics,” says Timilty. “It’s like a sport. When the season comes around, you get involved.” It was also a gamble. Timilty was a legitimate contender, and if he prevailed, Menino would get a job in his administration. If White won, however, he might seek revenge on this kid who’d had the audacity to try to oust the man who signed his checks. Menino, unfazed, dug in. “With

Timilty, everyone would go out and drink after a campaign day,” says Skinner Donohue, a veteran political operative who now advises Menino. “Tom would hang in with us, but he wouldn’t drink. Timilty would yell at him because the day was going bad, and he’d never push back. He’s just a rock.”

Timilty, by this point a state senator, had given White the strongest challenge in 1975, falling a mere 7,528 votes short. It was a nasty campaign, and when it was over, White finally came for Menino. It’s a little-known fact, more salient than ever now that Menino is poised to break White’s record, that Kevin White actually fired Tom Menino from the BRA. Sitting in his office on the fifth floor of City Hall, Menino doesn’t try to duck questions on the episode, as some former associates suggested he would. “He fired me,” he says. “He fired me! That dirty scoundrel.” He laughs, slapping his leg. “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I probably would have been stuck there still today.”

At the time, however, it was a painful setback. To help Menino out, Timilty fixed him up with a job with the state Department of Housing and Community Development. The posting wasn’t exactly ideal for an ambitious young political operative, “[but] at that point he can’t be that fussy,” says Gerard Doherty, a longtime counselor to the Kennedys and Timilty who became Menino’s chief political mentor. “He had two young kids, he had no job, he had no degree. He got the state job and he had to hang on to it.”

During his days in the wilderness, Menino managed to keep his hand in city affairs. He did so through a body called the Park Street Corporation, led by Paulist priest Robert Quinn. At his Bowdoin Street apartment and other venues around the city, Father Quinn would (and still does, as chaplain of the Massachusetts House) gather prominent Bostonians to discuss problems facing the city, away from the press. Doherty suggested that if Menino was serious about politics, he should come along. “One of his virtues, or weaknesses,” says Doherty, “is persistence. Once he started to go, and he bought into the idea that he could learn a lot, he kept going.” The other congregants, including early tech entrepreneur John Cullinane and developer Tom Flatley, “were not initially overwhelmed by him, but over time he grew on them,” says Doherty. Cullinane adds, “He used to bring the doughnuts, if I remember correctly.”

Doherty, who became close with Menino when they were both working on Timilty’s 1975 campaign, saw potential in the younger operative. “I sort of identified with him because I’m not charismatic, and he’s not charismatic,” Doherty says. “But he used to sweat. Most of the people you meet, they flash their teeth and shake your hand, while at the same time they’re looking over your shoulder. He didn’t do that. When he walked into a room, he wouldn’t galvanize it, but by the end of the night he could tell you exactly who was there, what they did, and what they didn’t do. He had a quietness of style.”

Eventually, Timilty found a spot in his Senate office for Menino, who worked his way up from driver to chief of staff. “He did everything. Everything,” says Timilty. “Knowing where the legislation was. Doing politics with other members of the Senate, their staffs, he got that all down. Any other fight we got involved in.” Menino was content to remain behind the scenes. He had developed into a master organizer, but lacked the flair he’d seem to need to compete as a candidate himself in what was a raucous era for Boston politics, characterized by Ray Flynn’s midnight jogging jags/pub crawls and the persistent lunacy and occasional brawls of guys like councilors Dapper O’Neil and Jimmy Kelly.

Nineteen-eighty-two changed that. That year, the city council was expanded from nine at-large seats to four at-large and seven district seats—one being District 5, covering Hyde Park, part of Roslindale, and a sliver of Forest Hills. Timilty territory. The change required legislative approval, which Timilty saw to. “We wanted a seat,” he says, “and it was obviously going to be [Menino's]. We got the House and the Senate to pass that. It was created for him.” Menino, pushed by Timilty and heartened by the subpar quality of the other candidates, tossed in his hat. When he told his father about it, Carl Menino worried that Tom would be unemployed if he lost. “Dad, I won’t lose. Don’t worry about it,” he said.

  • Chris

    Is it not possible for the media to admit that Mayor Menino has done an excellent job for our City- That is why he is still Mayor? The article mentions his promise to help Roslindale square, but doesn't say how he has delivered on that promise. The Mayor consistently keeps his promises. A trait that is lacking in most politicians. This is why he is popular- why he has won- apathy has nothing to do with it.

  • Mike

    If the mayor has done such an excellent job, why are the schools in such awful shape? Why his sudden election-year conversion of Charter Schools? Why the dearth of middle-class and upper class kids in the schools?