Immovable Object

By Eileen McNamara | Boston Magazine |

But Boston has changed in the past two decades. Whites are now a minority in the city, and residents of every hue need an activist, not a caretaker, municipal government. Like the 37 percent of public high school students who do not graduate in four years. Or the 95 percent of immigrants with limited English who cannot find a language class. Or the more than 45 percent of black children under 17 on food stamps. Or the roughly 30 percent of Latino families living in poverty.

Rather than focus on those priorities, Menino is spending this year ranting about offensive T-shirts on Newbury Street. He’s cozying up to gambling interests that have contributed to his favorite charity. He’s nuzzling U.S. Senator Scott Brown, a man who’s voted against much-needed social funding for everything from summer jobs to Head Start. He’s spurning a proposed Walmart in Roxbury, despite that neighborhood’s desperate need for jobs. He’s promoting  a yuppie bike-sharing program downtown, even as someone on a bike in Dorchester shoots down two teenagers, one fatally, on a sunny Sunday afternoon on Geneva Avenue.

Menino used to understand the dangers of a long incumbency. He pledged to serve only two terms when he ran to replace Mayor Ray Flynn in 1993. The complacency and arrogance that a long tenure can breed is risky enough in a legislative body where individual power is tempered by the need to forge consensus. It is perilous in a chief executive who governs a city that, by charter, has a powerful mayor and a weak city council. It is especially destructive in a mayor as thin-skinned and prone to petty retaliation as Menino.

Consider what happened to Sam Yoon, a former city councilor with the temerity to, like Flaherty, challenge Menino in the 2009 race. Once the mayor easily dispatched him, Yoon said at the time that he somehow found himself “radioactive” and unable to get a job. After living off credit cards for months, Yoon was forced to leave town and head to Washington, DC, to find work. “He’ll die in office,” predicts Yoon, now the executive director of a nonprofit economic development alliance in the nation’s capital. “He will never leave voluntarily.”

His demurrals notwithstanding, it’s clear that Flaherty hopes a win in the at-large council race this fall will position him to run against Menino again in two years. But Boston needs a fresh start — not a stale rematch.

Surely Menino can remember the excitement of an open race for mayor. He first ran for city council from Hyde Park in 1983, the same year Mayor Kevin White decided not to seek a fifth term. White was a legendarily imperial chief executive, yet he never accumulated the kind of power Menino now wields over everything from the police department to commercial development in Boston. The city even had an elected school committee back then. Imagine.

That year, seven candidates for mayor campaigned in a raucous free-for-all that brought serious attention to such important issues as neighborhood parks and health centers. In a turnout that  looks like a misprint today, an amazing 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls that November.

Tom Menino will be 70 when his fifth term ends. He has endured two knee surgeries and two hospitalizations for a stubborn infection in recent years. He has Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal condition. And it’s not like he doesn’t have a life outside of office: He has been married to the same woman and lived in the same neighborhood, Hyde Park, for most of his adult life. He and Angela have two adult children and six grandchildren. He does not need this job to have a fulfilling and meaningful existence.