The Making of a Mayor for Life

At the time Menino became acting mayor, no one else in the city’s power structure realized yet quite what that meant. Many still considered it a caretaker gig. Besides, mayor, acting or otherwise, is not district councilor. The post came with a steep learning curve. Dan Payne, a Democratic strategist, was advising another of the 1993 hopefuls to eye the mayor’s office after Flynn’s announcement, Suffolk County Sheriff Bob Rufo. Rufo had a broad base of support, a good reputation, and a great field operation. He was considered the early frontrunner. “I can remember telling Rufo and others in the campaign that it’s entirely possible that the job of mayor is going to be too tough for Menino,” says Payne. “Not ultimately, but immediately. That he might not know where all levers of power were, so he might have a hard time convincing people he could handle it.”

It was on a Thursday that July when Flynn learned he was going to be confirmed. When he got word, Menino sat down with Gerard Doherty and John Cullinane, his old friend from the Park Street Corporation, to plan a fundraiser for the following Monday at the Meridien Hotel. Flynn’s news wasn’t made public until Sunday, but “we had the letters out already,” says Doherty. “That was the beginning of the mayor’s run.”

The trick, though, was to act as if there was no campaign, even as the fundraising engine revved up. Menino’s strategy was to behave as little like a candidate as possible, understanding that Boston voters traditionally value a proven ability to do the job far more than lofty promises of change (also that they tend to reelect incumbents, as if by muscle memory). The rest of the candidates—there were seven of them, including Roache, a former police commissioner; Bolling; radio host Chris Lydon; and councilor Rosaria Salerno—thought they would be running for an open seat, that it would be a race among equals. “But what happened when Tom became acting mayor was that the race changed,” says Jim Brett, a former legislator who made it to the final that year. “I didn’t see that coming.”

While his opponents complained he was abusing his position, Menino ordered police commissioner Bill Bratton to draft a new anticrime plan and announced a million dollars in improvements to security at elder housing and another half million for summer jobs. Because the news hole reserved for the mayor is far bigger than that reserved for mere candidates, Menino’s non-campaign was able to “blot out the sun, as far as coverage went,” Payne says. “They had a story at least once a week, a good story. We were forced to respond to everything he was doing.” Meanwhile, Menino, adopting another tactic central to his playbook, refused to debate his opponents, citing the crush of “city business.”

The other candidates’ numbers just evaporated. And still Menino waited until mid-August to announce his candidacy. He was the last one to declare. At the few forums he elected to participate in, he treaded water, playing to expectations and effectively negating his opponents’ performances. “That was the theme of the campaign,” says Payne. “You can’t get at him and he doesn’t hurt himself.”

  • 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?