The Making of a Mayor for Life
As Tom Menino closes in on becoming our longest-serving mayor, we take a close look at his rise to the top and how it has profoundly changed Boston.
From time to time, Tom Menino transcends the corporeal urban mechanic and begins to resemble something out of a ghost story. Never is this truer than during an election year.
An example: On a sunny day back in March, a campaign operative for councilor-at-large Michael Flaherty, son of Southie and 2009 candidate for mayor, walked into South Station to have coffee with a reporter. He sat down at the small round table under the chattering board, and mentioned he had parked his car, white, with a big green Flaherty sticker on the rear window, a few blocks away at a broken meter.
“There you go,” says the reporter. “Free parking.”
“Yeah,” says the operative. “Watch. When I get back to my car the meter will be fixed and there’ll be a ticket on my window.”
After leaving South Station, the reporter went one way, the aide the other. Moments later, the aide came running down the street, retrieved the reporter, led him two blocks south, and pointed at his car. Sure enough, the meter was fixed, and there was a nice fat orange ticket on the windshield. The paranoia is catching. A couple of days later, an aide to Sam Yoon, another at-large councilor and candidate for mayor, sat in a restaurant on Beacon Hill complaining that accurate polling is impossible in Boston because city workers—and there are some 20,000 of them—will lie to pollsters out of fear that if they let slip anything less than full-throated support of the mayor, it’ll get back to the boss. This is the sort of omnipotence usually reserved for Kim Jong Il, or Santa Claus, and Menino has achieved it.
And yet, as ever, in person he remains underwhelming. Yes, he dresses impeccably, supremely mayoral in a suit, tie, and (usually) cuff links. But he doesn’t radiate power or charisma, as you’d expect of one of the nation’s great urban bosses—as you’d expect of a man set to pass Kevin White this July as Boston’s longest-serving mayor, thereby becoming a legitimately historic figure. He’s a famously bad speaker, dropping not just r’s, but also t’s, as if introducing an advanced strain of the Boston accent into the city. He’s often photographed with his mouth slightly agape, even when posing for a shot taken by his own staff for a press release. As he sits in his office discussing his first campaign for city council back in 1983, he mentions how he was shy then, and insists he never quite got over it. “I’m not outgoing,” he says. “I’d rather hold back than go way up front. Some guys want to get way up front. I want—people respect you when you’re not that forward.”
The numbers, at least on the surface, appear to bear that out. According to a 2008 Globe poll, more than half the people in the city have met Menino, whose approval ratings hang in the 70s, suggesting widespread adoration. But seeing him in a diner and voting for him are two different things. And when the question is how many Bostonians feel moved to go pull the lever for him, you get far less imposing figures. Take 2005, when at-large councilor Maura Hennigan sought to unseat him. When people talk about that race (at least the minority aware it even occurred), they point out how Menino drew 68 percent of the ballots. But his 64,000 votes came out of 270,000 registered voters, and 450,000 potential ones. Factor in those 20,000 city workers who tend to go for the incumbent, and you’re left with a pretty thin foundation of support.
Menino must feel that acutely. Because if he cuts a weirdly humdrum figure for a man of such considerable accomplishments, he’s unique in another way, too. From the beginning he’s been remarkably clear-eyed about his limitations, a rare trait in historical-grade political mega-fauna. And so he has hustled every step of the way, determined to seize on every opportunity, even as he benefits from being constantly underestimated. At the same time, he’s also cannily retreated from the hurly-burly of elections, opting instead to work the system behind the scenes at a safe remove from the ballot boxes. Notwithstanding his fearsome reputation among those who work directly with the city, what Menino mostly does is benumb. His might has grown in inverse proportion to the interest that the people of this once peerlessly impassioned burg take in their politics.
Throughout Menino’s reign, his playbook has worked near perfectly. But it’s never been tested by a challenger with juice enough to stir the vast majority of Bostonians who have spent the past three mayoral elections on the sidelines. Assuming he runs (a safe bet), this year he’ll face three, in Flaherty, Yoon, and rabble-rousing businessman Kevin McCrea, plus a knee-buckling budget crunch and an open revolt among the firefighters and teachers unions to help keep the heat on—maybe enough to expose the key vulnerability built into the mayor’s long-preferred approach. Sixteen years into his mayoralty, and 27 after embarking on his political career, Tom Menino might finally have to battle it out tooth and claw in broad daylight. That’s the last thing he’s ever wanted to do, and in the Boston he came up in, he found a way to largely avoid it. His gamble is that in 2009, the Boston he’s made remains a place where in lieu of vast support, a leader can maintain power simply by preserving the populace’s indifference.