The Boston Phoenix January 11-18, 2001

[Features]

Run, Tom, run!

House Speaker Tom Finneran is probably the only pol in the city who could give Mayor Tom Menino a good fight. Finneran says he won't run -- but city politicos would like nothing better.

by Seth Gitell

boxing As Boston mayor Tom Menino finishes out his second full term, he seems invincible. With just eight months to go before the primary, not one challenger has officially announced the intent to run against him. Although the deadline for filing papers is not until June, it is customary for same-party contenders to declare candidacy by now. Not only does Menino appear to be without a Democratic rival, but he also has an intimidating war chest -- more than $1 million, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. And his approval ratings are in nosebleed territory -- regularly measured at over 60 percent and sometimes in the 70s. All this adds up to an incumbent who appears to be unbeatable.

But is he? We're only two weeks into the new year, and it's already shaping up to be a bad one for the mayor. On Tuesday, Menino had to fight his way through throngs of picketing Boston firefighters to get to his State of the City address at John Hancock Hall. On New Year's Day, one of Menino's closest allies on the Boston City Council, Brian Honan, failed in his bid to become council president, losing to Charles Yancey -- the hand-picked successor to former council president and Menino enemy Jimmy Kelly. Lurking beneath the surface of the mayor's appeal is the sense -- backed up by numerous interviews with local political operatives -- that the mayor, whose last fight came in 1993, would be vulnerable if he faced a serious opponent in the fall.

A few names are frequently bandied about as potential mayoral candidates -- most prominently, at-large councilors Francis "Mickey" Roache and Peggy Davis-Mullen. Either or both may run, but they can't raise the money to mount a serious challenge to Menino. Nor can they compete with the mayor's impressive citywide political organization. The only name that really gets the juices of the city's political class flowing comes not from City Hall but from the State House: House Speaker Thomas Finneran. He's also the only one with a machine on the ground that would enable him to compete with Menino.

Finneran has made it clear through his spokesperson Charles Rasmussen that he's not a candidate, but that doesn't keep political junkies from imagining a contest between the mayor from Hyde Park and the House Speaker from Dorchester. The call for Finneran to run stems not so much from a desire to see the Speaker as the city's mayor as from a longing for a contested mayoral election. A Menino-Finneran race would be the kind of knock-down, drag-out battle that would recall the epic contests between Mayor Kevin White and State Senator Joseph Timilty or the days when Mayor Raymond Flynn fended off Mel King, David Finnegan, Larry DiCara, and others.

But a vigorous race between Menino and Finneran would do more than placate the junkies. A serious race between the two political giants would serve as a de facto referendum on the pressing questions of the day. The powerful Finneran is the only candidate with the stature and credibility to question Menino's handling of South Boston Waterfront development and his misguided approach to efforts to rebuild Fenway Park. At a time when the city's economy is cooling off, the Boston Latin graduate could position himself as a stern fiscal conservative ready to steer the city through tough times. Finneran could offer up his solution to the housing crisis, propose an economic vision for the city's future, and hammer the mayor on the state of Boston's public schools.

Finneran, in short, is Menino's worst nightmare.

I THINK you can never take anything for granted. I think the mayor should be looking at issues such as the issue of Fenway Park and the issue of the waterfront," says City Councilor Maura Hennigan of Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, adding that Finneran would be a good match for Menino. "I think Speaker Finneran is certainly a very knowledgeable man. He's a lifelong city resident. He is certainly a person of stature, and he certainly has the ability to articulate [his opposition to subsidies]. I think he'd be a very tough campaigner."

Brian Wallace, a local political activist and author of a forthcoming book on the 1983 Boston mayoral race, agrees: "I think Tommy brings something to the table that other people can't. He has the money, the exposure."

The prospect of Finneran's running for mayor is not a novel one. The notion was first raised in the Fall 1998 edition of the Boston Latin School's Bulletin and picked up in a Spring 2000 article in the journal CommonWealth titled "Is Finneran Contemplating a Run for Mayor?" But because of Menino's high favorability ratings, the CommonWealth story threw cold water on the possibility of Finneran's taking him on; it instead stressed the possibility that Finneran might run once his term as Speaker is up after 2004.

Yet historically, it is when mayors are running for their third terms that they face the toughest tests. That's when Timilty threw White his most serious challenge, and it was also when press scrutiny seemed most intently fixed on Flynn, who faced only token opposition in 1991. "It was interesting that the media used to come down pretty hard on mayors at the end of the second term," recalls Flynn. "They came down on John Collins, they came down on Kevin White, and they came down hard on me." So far Menino has escaped that kind of scrutiny -- even after he was forced to apologize for the so-called South Boston linkage deal, an arrangement that would have seen Southie get 51 percent of the linkage funds paid by waterfront developers. Menino signed off on the deal, even though neighborhoods most affected by development typically get only 10 to 20 percent of the linkage funds and the rest are spent elsewhere in the city.

"Menino's popularity is a mile wide and paper thin. He hasn't been challenged," says one City Hall insider, requesting anonymity. "Finneran has appeal -- in the Irish community, in Southie. Plus, he can raise money. He has tentacles into the business community, the development community, and Menino's people are fat and lazy."

Even if some of Menino's underlings are content with the mayor's stratospheric popularity, the mayor certainly isn't. Recent events show that he's taking the upcoming election seriously. Menino relentlessly worked the room at his holiday party for the press last month at the Parkman House -- always a sure sign of a vigorous run. Plenty of big names were in attendance -- Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, WRKO talk-show host Andy Moes, and Emily Rooney, host of WGBH's Greater Boston. Just two days later, the Boston Globe ran its now-famous Menino mea culpa in a December 21 piece headlined MENINO SAYS HE ERRED ON S. BOSTON.

A number of observers say that Menino would be vulnerable to a challenger who could turn the South Boston and Red Sox issues into campaign fodder. The first matter could draw two groups: voters outside South Boston who are angry that the deal took place at all, and South Boston residents who are angry that the mayor backed down from the deal when its details became public. Says Hennigan: "The whole city lost."

Bringing these two groups together might seem impossible, but it isn't. Menino's lack of vision created the vacuum that allowed the deal to be negotiated in the first place. A powerful mayor would have set the agenda himself and wouldn't have had to react defensively to powerful Southie pols like Kelly and company. In theory, he could have forged a deal acceptable to South Boston and the rest of the city.

Now, the continuing feud between Menino and Kelly over the linkage deal could work to Finneran's benefit. Kelly and Finneran are not necessarily allies, but Kelly forces might not come out for Menino. Kelly could take a low profile and allow people like State Representative Jack Hart of South Boston to work for Finneran.

Finneran could also hammer the mayor on Fenway Park. It's true that the Speaker signed off on the plan giving the Red Sox $140 million in city money to obtain land for their new ballpark, and $100 million in state funds for infrastructure costs. But Finneran has also taken the most hard-nosed stance of any local politician toward government giveaways for private stadiums.

Menino is vulnerable in other areas as well. The one project to which he has devoted substantial time and effort is the convention center on the waterfront, which has caused him an array of unceasing headaches in addition to the linkage fallout. Just this week, state officials called for design work on the project to be stopped because of cost overruns approaching $100 million. The energy devoted to the waterfront, meanwhile, has been conspicuously absent from the city's commitment to its artistic and cultural life. Menino has been repeatedly criticized for not doing enough for arts in the city. Earlier in the year, the Massachusetts Cultural Council rejected a grant application from the Boston Office of Cultural Affairs, and rated the city at the bottom of its list of the state's arts-funding recipients.

A candidate like Finneran could take advantage of these weaknesses.

BUT ISN'T Finneran just another Jim Brett, the former state representative whom Menino trounced in 1993? Critics say that Finneran -- who, like Brett, is a state rep with Irish roots -- wouldn't fare much better than Brett did in '93. But unlike Brett, who merely represented a Boston district, Finneran has citywide name recognition as a powerful leader in the State House. He commands a ring of Irish loyalists, all of whom owe him a degree of fealty -- David Donnelly of West Roxbury, Kevin Fitzgerald of Jamaica Plain, Jack Hart of South Boston, Martin Walsh of Dorchester, and Gene O'Flaherty of Charlestown. Brett didn't even have the support of Paul Gannon, who represented Southie at the time.

Of course, Finneran's State House allies rely on Menino for their constituent services -- street repair, summer jobs for the children of constituents, money for parks and recreation -- and they don't want to get the mayor angry with them. "But if Tommy wins, you've got the mayor on your side," says Wallace. "If he loses, he's still the Speaker."

When asked about the possibility of a Finneran-Menino war, O'Flaherty is nothing if not politic. "Most of the people that I have spoken to are very pleased with the mayor and his staff on how they handle not only constituent concerns, but some of the larger issues," he says. "I feel personally the mayor is doing a very good job. Up here in the legislature, we're very fortunate to have Mayor Menino as the mayor of the city of Boston."

Menino partisans, meanwhile, talk about Menino's good relationship with State Senator Bob Travaglini of East Boston. But relations between the two reportedly became strained when Menino passed over Travaglini's brother Michael for the job of Boston Redevelopment Authority chief. They also point to a number of liberal state legislators from Boston who oppose Finneran -- Jamaica Plain's Liz Malia, the South End's Byron Rushing, and Roxbury's Dianne Wilkerson. But if the election is a contest between a Finneran backed by conservative white voters, who come out in droves, and a Menino backed by liberals, who generally don't, Finneran wins.

Much has changed since 1993. Menino is much more in bed with business and real-estate interests such as Steve Karp, a real-estate developer involved in building on the waterfront. Last month the Herald reported that Karp reaped a $5.25 million profit on the sale of the former Stride-Rite property in Roxbury to the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, which is being displaced by waterfront development. Menino has also presided over the city's greatest housing crunch in recent memory. Part of this is accidental; Menino can't be blamed for rising rents. But the housing crisis has dampened progressive ardor for the mayor. A challenger could criticize Menino for failing to do enough to help create new low- and medium-cost housing. And the mayor has taken a tough line with some of the city's unions, as the pickets of his State of the City address attest. Although liberals will not flock to Finneran, they might be less willing to go all out for Menino. Plus, as one expert in city politics notes, Finneran's strong pro-life position would be muted in the context of a citywide election, where social issues rarely arise.

The bottom line is that many political insiders privately see Finneran as an outstanding candidate for mayor -- if only he would pull the trigger. "Speaker Finneran has a very dynamic personality," says one Beacon Hill insider. "He is somebody who understands issues and can put those into a context the people can understand and relate to. And he would deliver on it." Finneran's $400,000 in campaign contributions may be less than half of what the mayor has, but it's still a formidable war chest to have in place before a campaign has even begun.

YOU DON'T hear much from either Menino or Finneran when you ask them about the possibility of a face-off this year. "The Speaker has made it very clear in the recent past that [being mayor] is one of the few jobs that he would think about in the future," says his spokesman Rasmussen -- but no sooner does he raise the curtain on a mayoral run than he slams it down. "He would never under any circumstances run against Tommy Menino. He has the utmost respect for him and would never consider running against him."

The very presence of Rasmussen seems to belie Finneran's stated lack of interest in the city post. Rasmussen is, after all, the former news director of Neighborhood Network News on Boston's Channel 3 cable station; he has a reputation as an expert in down-and-dirty neighborhood affairs and community journalism. All that would come in handy if his boss made a citywide run -- at least someday.

Officially, the mayor's office isn't too concerned about the election this year. "There's lots of speculation, but the mayor hasn't taken any action toward re-election," says DeWayne Lehman, a spokesman for Menino. "He's been focused on the state of the city and addressing the issues ahead of him right now. A number of names have been floated [as possible opponents], but that's all speculation. His job-approval ratings show he's doing an excellent job and the majority of residents of the city like what he's doing and like him as a mayor."

Of course, many of Boston's supposed political geniuses all say that by waiting for Menino to run out of steam before launching a bid, Finneran is doing exactly the right thing for a future run. But then, it makes sense that these low-level political operatives -- and even some elected officials -- would advocate for the status quo: they don't want to piss off a powerful mayor known to nurse grudges longer than the Hatfields and the McCoys. None of these people really know, though, whether 2005 would be a better time for Finneran to run for mayor. For all they know, Finneran's position may be weaker in four years than it is now. Nobody knows who the governor will be in 2002, and Finneran's reputation will surely hinge on his relationship with that governor -- who probably won't be Cellucci.

Perhaps the only thing we know is that, if Menino is not a candidate in 2005, we can expect a difficult, bitter primary fight. This is what always happens when a political job opens up in Massachusetts (see "The Domino Theory," News and Features, January 5). Look no further than the 1998 fight for the Eighth Congressional District. Or the last time there was a bruising mayoral race, when Flynn was appointed ambassador to the Vatican and Menino, as Boston City Council president, was made acting mayor. Menino slugged it out with fellow city councilors Rosaria Salerno and Bruce Bolling, state representative Brett, Suffolk County sheriff Bob Rufo, and journalist Chris Lydon for a spot in the general election; Menino and Brett survived and fought it out in the final. If he were to run now instead of four years from now, Finneran would be assured of a clearly defined two-man race -- himself versus Menino -- where the best candidate would win.

This is what used to happen in the days when Timilty battled the smooth Kevin White for dominance in Boston. "I think that the city would really appreciate a good fight for its top executive," Timilty says today. "Not having a contest would be like having a whole baseball season without having the Yankees in here. We're cheated." He adds that a tough fight would be good for the city as well: "Where at one time Boston was looked at nationally as being the sharks of politics, we're now looked at as being the minnows."

Flynn has similar sentiments. "I think it's always best for the city when there's a competitive, spirited election," he says. "It gives people an opportunity to make judgments based on what they see happening in their community. The period of time of the heyday of Boston politics, when everyone was involved in neighborhood organizations and neighborhood issues -- those days are over."

MENINO HAS, without question, been one of the strongest neighborhood mayors in recent memory. Drive almost anywhere in the city, including Roxbury and Dorchester, and you can see clean streets, well-kept parks, bustling business districts. It's a far cry from the grim days of the 1980s, when gangs like Humboldt and Intervale ruled city streets.

Yet everywhere in the city you hear the whispering. For two terms, Menino's fear of South Boston has been an influential force in his decision-making. He has let Kelly dictate to him instead of putting forward a central governing vision from the top down. That's what prompted the waterfront and Fenway messes. But there will be no referendum on Menino's governing style unless an adequate candidate -- someone like Finneran -- comes forward to challenge him.

"It would take a really unique candidate and a kind of combination of events for him to be beaten -- almost similar to the circumstances that led Charles Yancey to be elected president of the city council," says Joe Heisler, host of the Boston Neighborhood Network's Talk of the Neighborhoods.

It can probably happen. But we'll never know unless somebody has the courage to run.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell@phx.com.


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