IT’S NOVEMBER IN AN OFF-YEAR ELECTION, which means Bostonians are pretending to care who survives a seven-way race for four at-large seats on the city council. What they should be preoccupied with, though, is the only political question in town that really matters: Can anyone keep Mayor Tom Menino from winning a sixth term in 2013?
The consensus? Probably not.
That’s why Menino ought to use the occasion of the city council elections on November 8 to announce that this term will be his last. Not because his reign has been so bad for the city, but because stagnation — like, say, 20 years with one mayor — is bad for democracy.
In September’s preliminary election for city council, less than 14 percent of registered voters cast ballots. No one expects many more to turn out for the general election this month. Forget the usual analysis of low voter turnout: It’s not the fault of lousy weather, a younger demographic, a transient population, or apathetic black and brown people. No, I believe it’s a sense of futility that keeps voters at home, an acknowledgment that Menino runs the show — so why bother voting for powerless city councilors? They either rubber-stamp Menino’s decisions or provide token, meaningless opposition. The mayor could teach Middle East rulers the meaning of entrenched power; no one thinks he’s leaving anytime soon.
[sidebar]“It’ll never happen,” scoffs former City Councilor Maura Hennigan, who refinanced two properties in order to bankroll her failed campaign against Menino in 2005. “The only way he leaves office is when he decides to go — and he is not deciding to go. Ever.”
Halfway through Menino’s unprecedented fifth term, why would the mayor even think about not running again? He racked up 57 percent of the vote against City Councilor Michael Flaherty two years ago, a rout anywhere else, but a close call given the way Menino is used to steamrolling his opponents. In 2005, he won 68 percent of the vote against Hennigan. In 2001, he trounced Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen with 76 percent. He ran unopposed in 1997, and in 1993, he beat then–state Representative Jim Brett by taking 64 percent of the vote. The man is a political machine.
A master of retail politics, Menino has made the rounds at so many wakes, retirement parties, and neighborhood meetings in the past few decades that a poll by the Globe in 2009 found that 57 percent of city residents said they’d actually met him. With a fragile economy and a skittish electorate leery of change, Menino is banking on another four years on the fifth floor of City Hall despite problems with street violence and struggling schools that have not yielded in 18 years to his promises and good intentions.
“He is out there 24/7,” says Brett, the failed 1993 mayoral candidate who’s now president and CEO of the New England Council, a regional business group. “He is completely engaged and the people know this is the only job he’s ever wanted. It comes across when they meet him.”
As a result, Menino owns the votes of the Bostonians who count most, the ones who show up at the polls: city workers, anyone who does business with the city, and that stable cohort of older, white folks from West Roxbury to Roslindale for whom election day is a holy day of obligation.