Bubble Trouble

It's post time for the mayoral election, and Tom Menino is off to the races, greeting East Boston seniors at a Suffolk Downs luncheon sponsored by City Hall's office of elder affairs. Some 350 elderly voters are enjoying rigatoni, meatballs, and Bobby Vinton's greatest hits in the Topsider Room. As Menino goes through his paces, they greet him as if he were Secretariat taking his bows in the winner's circle.

“I bless the meatballs,” Menino quips to appreciative laughter. Mary Ann Cerundolo of the Golden Age Club of East Boston grabs his arm. “Come to our St. Pat's Day time,” she says, promising a crowd of “over 100 people,” or about 97 more than the minimum number needed to attract a visit from Menino, still notorious after 11 years in office for his relentless constituent schmoozing. “I'll be there,” he says, scribbling the information on a dog-eared scrap of paper already covered with other promissory notes. At the next table, Menino pours coffee for two adoring blue-haired ladies who slip him candy and fawn over him with enough gusto to make Angela Menino jealous. “I met you at that affair at Spinelli's,” says one. “You're wonderful, you're wonderful, you're so responsive.” Adds 87-year-old Frances Caprio, “I love him not only because he's Italian. I know he's trying.”

Menino's ability to inspire such spontaneous displays of affection from key constituencies is among the reasons he's expected to enjoy a third straight reelection romp. So it's not surprising that he's feeling as cocky as a New England Patriot on his annual duck boat ride. Scanning the crowd, the mayor remarks: “Where's Maura?”

That snide reference would be to Maura Hennigan of Jamaica Plain, the affable city councilor who has rushed in where others fear to tread to challenge the Menino dynasty. Alongside Menino's anointed meatballs, a heart-shaped lollipop emblazoned with her name sits next to each senior's plate. And within seconds of his gibe, there she is, working the room every bit as thoroughly as the mayor and, at some tables, drawing a similar response. “She's a doll. She visits us all the time,” coos Josephine Cantalupo, president of the Beachmont Seniors. But it's stocky Jim Aloisi who has the reaction Hennigan should find most heartening. “Sometimes,” he says of incumbents like Menino, “they stay too long.”

That they do — and Hennigan has seven months to convince more than half the electorate to feel the same way. It'll be an uphill battle, to say the least. Notwithstanding the promise of her newly hired campaign manager, former pro wrestler   Mitch Kates, to battle Menino “in a steel cage,” Hennigan has little hope of raising more than a fraction of the million-plus Menino can be expected to collect for his campaign war chest. Considering the feverish physical contact Menino maintains with his constituents, Hennigan's core complaint against the mayor — that “he has lost touch” — sounds both illogical and a bit desperate. But just because the messenger is flawed doesn't mean there isn't a persuasive argument for change to be made.

Hennigan lays the foundation for a potentially effective case against Menino when she zeroes in on his biggest vulnerabilities: his emerging tendency to side with fat-cat real estate developers and political insiders even when their grandiose schemes step on the interests of smaller fry; his inability to anticipate problems before they occur, like the deadly riots that followed last year's Patriots and Red Sox triumphs; and his failure to reshape the city with innovative urban-management ideas. “He tries to blame everybody else,” says Hennigan. “You can't blame yourself because people will say, 'Hey, after 11 years, if you're not on top of all this, what's the story?'”

An effective Hennigan campaign ad — if she can scratch together the dough to air one — might be taped outside the mayor's red-ink-hemorrhaging, white elephant convention hall on the South Boston waterfront, where echoes far outnumber visitors. That footage could be juxtaposed with the pleading “For Lease” signs on vacant office space in Downtown Crossing, where Menino granted development rights to the choice Hayward Place parcel to a favored developer who plans to put up another corporate tower instead of the housing and community recreational space Chinatown activists wanted. In another 30-second spot, Hennigan could splice together voter-in-the-street interviews with North End merchants angry over the hit they took when last summer's Democratic National Convention drove away their customers, or South Boston residents livid over Menino's forcible removal of their cherished snow-season parking-space savers. “He shuts out input from rank-and-file people who could articulate what it is that people would like,” concludes Hennigan.

Aerial TV photography doesn't come cheaply, but Hennigan could score with a helicopter shot showing middle-class families fleeing for the suburbs while the buses that symbolize the city's hated school-assignment system sit in gridlock. Despite having uncontested control of reform efforts thanks to a mayorally appointed committee, Menino has produced only meager results in his push to develop more neighborhood-oriented schools. “In the end, they came up with nothing,” Hennigan says. Families with school-aged kids who decide to stick it out in the city by sending their children to private schools face a de facto education tax on top of property tax rates that jumped 14 percent last year. And while Menino prides himself on his ability to provide basic services such as street cleaning and policing, he declines to commission the public surveys other cities use to identify weak spots. “We don't do that here,” notes Sam Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a private city watchdog group. “There's a lot more that could be done.”

If George W. Bush could eat John Kerry's lunch with an ad featuring wolves (read: terrorists) circling their prey, Hennigan ought to be able to have a field day with the image of killer bacteria seeping out into an unsuspecting populace while the control-freak mayor pretends there's nothing wrong. “You have information pertinent to public safety, and he would not share that,” says Hennigan of the mayor's decision not to go public with news that three Boston University lab workers had fallen ill from exposure to lethal bacterium, a story that at the time might have torpedoed BU's Menino-backed plan to build a high-security infectious-disease lab in the South End. “He would put his relationship with the business community above that.”

Of course, Menino is ready with rebuttals: Seaport development was delayed by the recession, but it will come around, as will convention center bookings. Before the Hayward Place plan went forward, “there were community meetings, and the community approved what we did.” The mayor also claims progress in implementing walk-to-school zones and returning sibling preference to the assignment process. And Hennigan's claims about his alleged secretiveness on the biolab accident are “foolish,” because there was never any real public-health risk.

Nonetheless, the mayor concedes that there are elements of truth in the brief against him. “We're not perfect, and there's room to criticize my administration at times,” he says. “I don't try to be a politician who tries to fool the public. I'm realistic about what I do, and I always try my hardest.”

That doesn't make for much of a campaign slogan. No one ever accused Menino's equally long-lasting predecessors, Kevin White and Ray Flynn, of laziness, yet both men wore out their welcomes. Hennigan's best hope may be that voters will look back on the nasty, poorly plowed winter of 2005 and another summer marred by gang violence and find themselves wondering if the mayor's hardest is still good enough.

Hennigan starts her long-shot bid to topple Menino counting on the support of the 23 percent of the electorate so disenchanted with the mayor they preferred his inept 2001 challenger, the shrill, disorganized City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen. To cobble together the rest of the needed votes, Hennigan has been looking to Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral's surprise trouncing last year of veteran City Councilor Stephen Murphy. In the unusually high turnout of minority and first-time voters who rejected Murphy — a crony of Menino and the City Hall establishment — and made Cabral the county's first elected black sheriff, Hennigan sees the outlines of a coalition eager for fresh leadership. “I see what Cabral did as a model,” she says. “Menino backed Murphy, and Cabral beat him handily. New Boston is people of color, but also people who have felt disenfranchised. There is a real sense in the city that it can happen again.”

But that prognosis has major flaws. For starters, Menino flatly denies he backed Murphy's clumsy candidacy, and his star corroborating witness is the sheriff herself, who says she knows “for a fact” the mayor stayed neutral. Hennigan's analysis “may be reading a little too much into my election,” says Cabral. “It has very much to do with who the candidate is, how people view that candidate's work performance.” And unlike her, Cabral adds, Hennigan will be squaring off against a virtuoso of grass-roots politicking. “I don't think that I have ever observed a mayor of a large metropolitan city so heavily involved and present at events that go on in the neighborhoods.”

That's because few local politicians of Menino's stature have so successfully avoided the Beacon Hill or Potomac fever that caused the likes of White and Flynn to take their eyes off the ball. Say what you will about the mayor's artlessness and limited vision — it cannot be credibly claimed that he doesn't care anymore. “He's a very hard worker. That is not the issue,” Hennigan concedes. But work ethic does matter, bigtime, in places like the Topsider Room, a distinctively “Old Boston” venue, perhaps, but one packed this afternoon with hundreds of reliable voters. Catching her breath between the rigatoni course and dessert, Frances Arena Ristaino just smiles when asked to handicap the mayoral race.

“Menino, he's been good to us,” she says. Now there's a bumper sticker.