Power 2008: The Elements of Influence
Case Study: Thomas Menino, mayor of Boston
TOM MENINO OWNS THIS TOWN.
He can steer public works projects and contracts, raise or level buildings, make zoning laws vanish with the wave of a hand. The network of allies he has installed in elected office or on municipal boards over the years (“wholly owned subsidiaries of the Menino Machine,” as one City Hall insider describes it) can sway votes, deliver jobs, and send enemies like Bernie Margolis, the soon-to-be-former Boston Public Library head, to the breadline at a moment’s notice. His name is ubiquitous, on everything from city signs to umbrellas to hospital wings. And woe unto those who forget this. “Nothing is beyond or beneath his focus of what he needs to know and control,” says a second City Hall insider.
Constitutionally, Boston’s mayors are among the most powerful in the nation. And that, coupled with his unmatched political instincts, has made Menino one of the most powerful in city history. The former Hyde Park city councilor saw Mayor Ray Flynn leaving earlier than anybody else, and put himself in the position to take over long before prospective rivals could even think of trying to use the council presidency to get next in line. He quickly cemented his authority by applying the ethos of a district councilor to the mayor’s office, shaming would-be challengers with a drive that even now has him pulling 16-hour days and fielding calls from constituents at home — a regimen that’s to thank for his ballyhooed grassroots support. “He outworks everybody,” says city Councilor Rob Consalvo. “He’s at every event he’s invited to, whether there are two people there or 2,000.”
But most importantly, Menino, in stark contrast with old-school Boston bosses like James Michael Curley and Kevin White, has kept his nose clean and his aides out of jail. This allows him to “play offense, not defense,” in the words of one City Hall observer. Plus, he’s never entertained notions of running for higher office. “His sole focus has been on city government,” says a second observer. “He’s never had one eye on another office. And over time, when you’re not distracted, you accumulate an enormous amount of knowledge of how to use your power to attain results.”
Because Menino is for the most part politically invincible, there’s no real need to build consensus, or don the velvet glove, or engage in any of the sort of undesirable obsequiousness to which less well-situated leaders must condescend from time to time. The final word is always his.
“Anything that happens in this town runs through the fifth floor,” another City Hall insider says, referring to the mayor’s office. If the proper channels aren’t strictly followed, the boss gets mad, and “projects get delayed.” Menino’s temper can be explosive, his memory long. And for those still tempted to cross him, well, recent history is littered with object lessons.
Consider John Hynes, the would-be Seaport Square developer who ran afoul of the mayor for talking too much to the press, floating a City Hall land swap to a Boston Redevelopment Authority official on a napkin (which, naturally, got back to Menino), and proposing to build a private school on his property. “All of a sudden, Hynes has a dozen calls in to City Hall and can’t get one returned,” the second insider says. “[The mayor] fucks around with these people, threatens them and bullies them.” Abusive tirades even for lesser transgressions are commonplace. “He gives no quarter to anyone else in elected office,” the second insider says.
Tales abound in City Hall of Menino mugging councilors who might be garnering a little too much favorable press for their ideas. (Most recently, that was Consalvo himself: His smart plan to require lenders to register and maintain properties they’ve foreclosed upon has been neatly repurposed into a new signature Menino initiative.) The first insider complains, “A lot of it is personal. People shouldn’t be getting phone calls because they’re not clapping enough at an event. On a personal level, he’s a good guy. But when they want to be, [his people] can be real ball-busters.”
But then, Menino, peerlessly shrewd politician that he is, wouldn’t employ such tactics if they didn’t work. And work, they do. As he approaches the record for longest-serving mayor next year, his grip on the city looks as secure as ever. As Consalvo notes: “He’s unbeatable.” —Paul McMorrow
Because even urban mechanics feel the itch to step off the block (and into the national spotlight) once in a while.
While Menino hasn’t used his high favorability ratings to chase higher office, he’s made sure his big initiatives get the attention of wider audiences, in places where the letter “r” is fully enunciated.
—Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the advocacy group that Menino cofounded with New York City’s Michael Bloomberg in 2006, has swelled into a national powerhouse. In its biggest victory so far, the bipartisan group last month convinced Wal-Mart, the country’s largest firearms seller, to join a sweeping database that helps track gun criminals.
—As head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 2002 to 2003, Menino took affordable-housing demands to Congress and the White House. He’s also been a vociferous critic of federal aid cuts for housing and antiviolence initiatives.
—Menino’s wildly successful Main Streets program, the cornerstone of his focus on neighborhood-level development, won him recognition as one of Governing magazine’s public officials of the year in 2001. The magazine, a national force for policy cross-pollination, has also hailed Menino’s new Foreclosure Intervention Team as a model, and this spring Harvard’s Kennedy School named that same effort one of the 50 best government innovations of the year.