The Making of a Mayor for Life

And it’s been that way ever since. Though he promised in 1993 to serve no more than two terms, Tom Menino is still mayor. All the years learning from the rise and fall of other politicians made him steady, gave him the long view and kept him intensely focused. He doesn’t lose his composure or take his frustrations public, the way Flynn did. He won’t run for higher office, the way Kevin White did when he made his disastrous bid for governor in 1970 and was trounced by Frank Sargent. He’s successfully avoided serious scandal for 16 years, practically a miracle for a boss pol. The job is his life, and he doesn’t take it for granted. He still grinds it out anew. “He’s very surprised with where he is,” says Timilty. “This is something he never expected would happen.”

And because of that, he’s not going to take any chances. Facing a reelection challenge, he unfailingly reprises his 1993 strategy: Behind the scenes, his people are ferocious, but in person, it’s as though nothing is happening. He won’t engage; you can’t get at him and he doesn’t hurt himself. Asked about the approach that would become his signature, Menino says, “I had to make decisions, I had to do things, I couldn’t pander to the public.” He adds, sounding a vaguely monarchical note, “Sometimes on issues you want to say to the press what the public wants to hear. And what the public wants to hear and what the facts are are two different things. When you tell the truth, people don’t like it.” To this day, he largely refuses to debate, dismissing it as a forum for lawyer types spinning off sweet nothings. “Well, why not do one-on-one interviews? Get one person asking questions and I answer them? I just think so much is made of debates.” But that’s disingenuous. In 2005, he sat down for a one-on-one interview with a Globe reporter and testily dodged nearly every question. He wouldn’t speak then to the decline in minority students at Boston Latin “because I don’t want to make it political.” He declined to disclose his ideas for improving public housing, asking, “Why should I do it before the election?”

Many in City Hall assume that when he decides not to be mayor any longer, Menino won’t just leave his successor to be decided through a raucous open field, as White did. Instead he’ll return to the kind of furtive maneuvering that installed him in power. For several years it looked as if the beneficiary would be Mike Flaherty, who had long played Tommy to Tommy’s Ray. Flaherty rose to council president and waited and waited, and then in 2005 got 50,000 votes as a city councilor. That was just 14,000 less than Menino, and much too close for comfort. Menino decided he wasn’t ready to abdicate the throne quite yet and backed his ally Dorchester councilor Maureen Feeney for the council presidency, effectively knocking Flaherty out.

Now, Flaherty, still angered by the perceived betrayal, is running with a lot of money and considerable support, in a field that has Yoon and McCrea to ratchet up the heat. This time around, it will be more difficult for the mayor to act as though there is no election occurring, just some unimportant noises being made in the neighborhood weeklies by lesser men. Ray Flynn goes so far as to call the coming election “a bellwether.” He points to the 2008 presidential race that drew more than 232,000 voters in Boston, and the 2006 gubernatorial race that pulled 157,000. “There’s this notion that the people don’t care,” he says. “That’s bullshit. They do care, but they have to be encouraged and convinced.”

But that’s not part of the playbook. That wasn’t what elevated the mayor to power, and it certainly isn’t what’s held him there. Which cuts to the core of the strange phenomenon of Tom Menino: In order to do what he feels he needs to do to improve life for the city’s people, he has to paradoxically discourage those same people from taking an active interest themselves. The city may have his heart, but the process has his fealty.

This is what gets Ray Flynn the most exercised. “The happiest guy in the world would be Tom Menino if he had all these debates and he did well, and people said, ‘I like what he said, and I like his record. I’m gonna vote for him.’ Tom Menino would wake up one morning in November and say, ‘I did it,’” Flynn says. “I wouldn’t be too happy about climbing out of that bed if I won the election by default. I would say I manipulated the system. It’s not the way I would want to win elections.” Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. But Menino, as he has carved out a place for himself in city history, has made it so that the process is widely viewed as the only way in. It’s where the power now resides. It’s hard to remember a time when it was any other way.

  • 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?