MAYOR POTHOLE IS going national. Tom Menino, the self-styled "Urban Mechanic," has been a city pol for almost 20 years — as Hyde Park district councilor, as president of the Boston City Council, and then as Boston’s acting and, ultimately, elected mayor. But in three months, Menino will become what is, in effect, the voice of urban America when he assumes the presidency of the US Conference of Mayors.
During much of January, Menino was trying on the new role for size. On January 18, in hopes of bringing the 2004 Democratic National Convention to Boston, he hosted the national capital’s movers and shakers at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC. The next week, on January 24, Menino huddled with President George W. Bush at the White House to discuss homeland security. And the next night, newly inaugurated New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg feted Menino and 249 of the country’s other urban chief executives at a snazzy Gracie Mansion party.
Menino’s decision to step outside the city limits in his third term puts him in the company of his mayoral predecessors Kevin White and Ray Flynn. From the very start of his administration, in 1968, White played to the national audience. He testified before the Democratic Party Platform Committee in August of that year to bemoan the lack of federal funding for cities — an event recounted in J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground. Such maneuvers vaulted the handsome White — along with another handsome, charismatic figure, New York mayor John Lindsay — into the role of spokesman for urban America. By April 1969, White was joining other big-city mayors to lobby President Richard Nixon at the White House. Three years later, White, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1970 and continued as mayor until 1983, was touted as a possible running mate for George McGovern in 1972.
Like Menino, Ray Flynn, who had been fleetingly mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate (in one pairing, with Jesse Jackson), also earned the position of president of the Mayors’ Conference in his third term. He mulled a race for governor and later hoped for a cabinet job or the ambassadorship to Ireland on the basis of barnstorming the country for Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton named Flynn ambassador to the Vatican in 1993.
Clearly, both White and Flynn harbored political ambitions that went beyond the mayorship of Boston. Menino does not. Those close to the mayor expect his Mayors’ Conference duties to take him out of the city at least 20 days this year. But don’t expect Menino to leave Boston permanently any time soon. His involvement on the national scene is centered squarely on what happens in Boston, and he appears to be using his new contacts to do things to help his own city. Menino’s high-profile Washington party, for example, focused on getting a big-name convention to Boston, which would also improve the prospects for his embattled waterfront convention center. Not only that, but his work in the Conference of Mayors will involve national lobbying on housing — which will give him an opportunity to redeem himself on an issue for which he has been criticized locally for failing to do enough.
For Menino, who has made his Boston-centrism a point of pride, these new national commitments mark a change. When Governing magazine named him one of nine "Public Officials of the Year" for 2001, the publication trumpeted his local focus: "Unlike his immediate predecessor, Ray Flynn, he doesn’t have a national profile — in fact, he isn’t all that familiar a figure statewide," reported the magazine, reprinted in a Mayors’ Conference November 2001 press release.
The new role means adjustments for the mayor personally, as well as for the city. The success with which Menino balances his jobs as head of the Mayors’ Conference and as Boston’s chief executive could define his third term. Will his new post be a distraction from the day-to-day problems of the city, some observers ask, or will it enhance the mayor’s ability to do his job?
For former state senator Joseph Timilty, whom he once served as an aide, Menino’s added duties call to mind the mayor he challenged three times in the 1970s. "It reminds me of Kevin White when they were talking of him being a vice-presidential candidate," says Timilty. "Being mayor of Boston means you have to work at the job, you can’t be a custodian. To my knowledge, the only benefit is in frequent-flier miles."
To former mayor Ray Flynn, however, Menino’s increasing national visibility is an unfettered positive. "You can stay in City Hall all you want, but you’re not going to get your message out there," says Flynn. "People in Washington are not going to pay attention to you if you’re some hermit stuck in City Hall. He’s carrying on the tradition of every effective mayor of Boston from James Michael Curley, who headed up the Mayors’ Conference, to John Collins. I think it’s a good opportunity for him."