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Don’t underestimate Mr. Pothole
Our notoriously workaday mayor may just have a vision for the city — and for his own political survival

OF ALL THE mayors currently serving the 20 largest cities in America, only three have been in office longer than Boston mayor Tom Menino: Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, with 14 years; Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, with 13; and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, with 12 years. Of these three, only Daley runs a city of comparable reputation and complexity.

This year will mark Menino’s 10th in the mayor’s office and his third term in office. If Tuesday’s State of the City speech is any indication, Menino still has passion for the job. In a feisty address that took shots at Congress and the president, Menino prepared the public for tough fiscal times ahead. The overall effect, however, was to leave the impression that he had a plan to get the city out of its current economic mess. He sent a message to Beacon Hill legislators and the governor: "Give us the tools, and we will do the job. Let us raise revenues, reduce mandates, and have more control of our own destiny." It was tough talk, not the sort of thing you’d hear from someone who’s losing interest in the job.

The successful address makes for one more anecdote in the Menino legacy. The one thing that’s true about the mayor, regardless of what you think about his tenure in office, is that he is consistently underestimated. This is due, in part, to his humble educational background (Chamberlayne Junior College and University of Massachusetts Boston) in a city where Harvard and MIT set the tone and Boston College and Boston University have become recognized national brands. Unlike Kevin White and Ray Flynn, the only two mayors to have been elected to three terms in the modern era, Menino was born to Italian parents, not Irish. He grew up in Hyde Park, which he represented on the city council for 10 years. He attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School. He absorbed the political culture of the city during a stint serving hot dogs at Simco’s on the Bridge in Mattapan, after which he’d grab a pastrami sandwich at the G&G deli, one of the city’s most storied political haunts. He celebrated his 60th birthday last month and will mark his 20th year in city government this year.

During his time in office, he’s amassed a number of accomplishments. To date, the biggest is his work — with some big-foot help from Senator Ted Kennedy, of course — on getting the 2004 Democratic National Convention situated in Boston. It will mark the first time Boston has ever hosted such a high-profile national political event. There’s more. As president of the United States Conference of Mayors, Menino symbolically serves as the nation’s mayor. He has also engineered a generational change at the city council, where a faction of fairly well-educated young Turks now run the body. Menino’s hand can be found, in part, in the elections of at-large councilor Michael Flaherty (he also played a significant role in helping Flaherty win his first term as council president); Paul Scapicchio of the North End; Michael Ross of Beacon Hill; John Tobin of West Roxbury; and Robert Consalvo of Hyde Park. (He also helped Brighton city councilor Brian Honan, who died last year.) Such involvement with a body widely ridiculed as, at best, a political backwater shows smarts. Stacking the council with young politicos means that Menino won’t be challenged by a more seasoned, silver-tongued rival using the council as a launching pad for a mayoral bid. He unleashed his political organization on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien’s behalf this November. O’Brien won Boston by a nearly two-to-one ratio — much higher than her margins of victory in neighboring Winthrop, Revere, Dedham, and Quincy — a show of strength largely due to Menino. And then there are the pluses the city has seen over the past decade, though most are due, in no small part, to the go-go economy of the 1990s: lower crime rates, better performance in public schools, clean streets, rising property values.

There have also been downsides. Menino’s tenure has been marked by a failure to build enough new units of affordable housing — an issue he has used the bully pulpit of the Mayors’ Conference to champion. Not only that, but the current economic slowdown makes his advocacy of a costly new convention center on the South Boston waterfront seem foolhardy. Making matters worse on this score, Menino agreed to an obscene "linkage" deal that would have seen roughly 50 percent of linkage monies from private developers building on the waterfront flow directly to South Boston (the usual amount is 10 percent). When the details of the deal became public, it scuttled a multi-million-dollar development plan, and the city was threatened with several lawsuits. In other words, his willingness to play footsie with the South Boston political leadership — City Councilor James Kelly, then–state representative Jack Hart, and then–state senator Stephen Lynch — in order to get the convention center built resulted in an embarrassing fiasco. There’s also his mixed record on the arts. After early shows of promise, he largely abandoned the arts, though he’s now in the process of forming a nonprofit that will fund local groups. He’s also commissioned a study to assess the economic contribution of the arts, particularly local theater groups — the names of which he can tick off on command. And then there was the failed plan to build a new ballpark for the John Harrington–era Red Sox in the Fenway, which would have cost the city and state millions of dollars. (The Phoenix editorialized vigorously against the plan, which would have displaced the newspaper’s offices.)

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Issue Date: January 16 - 23, 2003
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