Wanted: Kamikaze Candidates

Why the city—and even Tom Menino himself—desperately needs a no-holds-barred mayoral race.

Illustration by Coherent Images

Illustration by Coherent Images

When I read the news back in March, I was inconsolable, as I expect many were. I sat there at home, staring at my laptop and feeling the wind go out of me. Ralph Martin had just announced that he would not be running for mayor of Boston next year. “I’m way too ambivalent about it,” he said. “And if you’re ambivalent, you shouldn’t do it.” The move ended months of heated speculation about whether the former Suffolk County DA would get into the race. With it, the city’s dwindling class of politics junkies returned to its default setting of either boredom or dismay.

Until then, it had seemed like a time of boundless potential. Mayor Menino was struggling with an insurrectionist firefighters union whose members appear to have a thing for intoxicants and pension fraud, and, on the other hand, an apeshit library head who wouldn’t consent to being quietly fired for no reason, and whose retaliation on page one of the Globe sparked a state ethics investigation of Hizzoner for cronyism. With the mayor suddenly looking a little soft, there seemed to be a bounty of local pols willing to publicly weigh a run against him. It was seen as a sign that the very fabric of the universe had somehow been altered that people were even talking about this stuff aloud, without fear of being sucked in by the Menino Machine and reduced to tidy heaps of teeth and shoes. But it was happening and it was beautiful.

Then, on that cold, early spring day, it ended. “They don’t give the [mayor’s job] away,” Martin said helpfully. “You’ve got to be willing to run for it.” He added, “Running for it was not nearly as difficult a concept as spending the next 10 years of your life doing it.” To hear Martin tell it, the job didn’t present a limitless opportunity to effect change in Boston so much as it did a monumental pain in the ass to be endured without relish.

Think about that the next time you find yourself down between City Hall and Faneuil Hall, where the monuments to James Michael Curley and Kevin White stand. The former comprises two figures: one of Curley standing in all his bumptious, uproarious glory, one of him sitting (presumably on some jail bench).

When Kevin White unveiled them in 1981, his vice mayor joked that White’s own tribute would consist of three likenesses. “Two statues would be of Mayor White shaking hands with himself,” he said, “and the third would be Mayor White looking on and applauding.” When the time came for Menino to yank the proverbial sheet off of White’s statue in 2006, it was just one figure, but it was also 10 feet tall and depicted in full stride, suit coat rakishly tossed over the shoulder. These were guys who made the job seem sexy. They had swagger and style. They made you want to be like them, to be mayor yourself.

Conventional wisdom holds that it’s to our present mayor’s detriment that he can’t give a speech to save his life, that he lacks an iota of the bigtime charisma White and Curley had. But in fact the opposite is true. It’s not just the supreme potency of his political operation, his preterhuman work ethic, or his stellar fundraising apparatus that will keep the urban mechanic in power until he’s ready to step down. It’s the fact that he’s made the mayor’s job look intolerably banal and awful. Sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, endless brain-numbing chats with nattering old biddies in diners and death-smelling senior centers, dour micromanagement of every facet of city government all the way down to the boob and sub-boob levels—all without the consolation of the sort of flashiness, low-level corruption, and big pulpit-punching speechifying that old-time powerhouse mayors indulged in to keep things interesting. Not only has Menino made it next to impossible for someone to take the job from him, but he’s also made the job itself seem so lousy that few in their right mind would want it.

Of course, to feel despair at the prospect of another non-election doesn’t necessarily require you to dislike the mayor, or even think he’s doing a bad job.

The real cause for grief is simply that we haven’t had an actual mayor’s race in two decades. After inheriting the office from the departing Ray Flynn (and winning a subsequent special election), Menino ran for a second term unopposed. Since then he’s faced two somewhat dotty opponents, Peggy Davis-Mullen and Maura Hennigan, agreeing to just one televised debate against each before mercilessly dismantling both and selling the parts for scrap. And that much time spent unchallenged is good for no one.

However well liked the mayor is (and with a pornographic 72 percent approval rating, it’s safe to say he’s fairly well liked), he’s beginning to look like a man who wants to be mayor chiefly because he can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s clearly time for him to stand at a podium and field some adversarial questions about where he intends to take this city. He’ll be maladroit and defensive, perhaps entertainingly so. But while he’ll likely hate it, it’ll have a salubrious effect on the sort of ongoing conversation Boston, like all great cities, needs to keep having with itself, lest it descend into torpor. Such a dialogue helps form an idea of what the city’s capable of, the potential of the mayor’s office, the worth of it, the stakes. It’s the antidote to the notion that the gig is a killing slog that only Tom Menino, the living embodiment of the job as we’ve come to understand it, is able, or even willing, to endure.

Everyone pretty much takes for granted that the undauntable Michael Flaherty will still run, and that the at-large councilor from Southie will probably fare better than Menino’s previous challengers—and all to the good. But without Martin or someone similarly heavy jumping in, the chances of a competition that will attract some real attention are badly diminished. Under the present conditions, having two respectable candidates challenging the mayor is bearbaiting. With one, it’s just a bear eating a dog.

That’s why what’s needed is what I’ll call the Kamikaze Method. Namely, you as a concerned Bostonian take it as your civic responsibility to throw your weight, at least temporarily, behind any reasonably intelligent, articulate candidate in the hopes of ginning up interest and inciting something approximating a debate in this town. Could be Flaherty, could be the guy down the street who pulled papers because he’s outraged about the teachers union’s impeding pilot schools. Doesn’t really matter. Get a bumper sticker. Send out a couple of e-mails. These hopefuls have slim chance of dislodging Menino—but that’s not the point. If the mayor’s compelled even to shield himself from their glancing blows, all the better for the city.

As part of this effort, on behalf of the magazine I’m breaking from past practice and formally endorsing a candidate, Anyone Else, for mayor. It may be my irrational exuberance making a comeback, but I pledge to give play in this column to anyone who has formally entered the race, no matter how much of a longshot. If you’re a candidate (or prospective candidate) looking to mix it up, send an e-mail to jkeohane@bostonmagazine.com. You may ultimately find yourself cut to offal for having the audacity to run, but I’ll go down with you. It’ll be good to see the mayor sweat a bit, and the city will benefit in the bargain. Here’s to a more exciting 2009.