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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
"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
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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