For 20 years, Boston has been lucky to have Tom Menino in the mayor’s office. The city has improved in almost every respect. Menino wasn’t personally responsible for every positive development — many cities enjoyed the benefits of lower crime rates and a return to urban living — but he guided the changes with impressive political skills and finesse. Through the inevitable ups and downs, his heart was almost always in the right place: A city that had suffered greatly from divisions — between races, classes, and neighborhoods — came closer during his tenure, through his ability to find common ground. He was, in many important ways, the glue that kept Boston together as it moved forward.
But every political era must come to an end. Those who were hoping that Menino would put himself forward for a sixth term understandably feared the uncertainty of the scramble to replace him. But there was never any reason to believe that the transition would be any easier in 2017, or that a Menino-like successor would magically rise from the packed earth of City Hall Plaza if only there were four more years of cultivation. Meanwhile, as the 70-year-old Menino’s health problems became more evident, the dangers of a city government left rudderless by the illness or incapacity of the mayor became more real.
When his strength began to return after his long holiday-season hospitalization, Menino seemed to be actively considering another term. But his better judgment prevailed. There was always going to be a post-Menino era in Boston politics, and it might as well begin with this year’s election. In this, as in so many other decisions over the years, Menino may have taken his time in figuring out the best direction. But he found his way to the right place.
It is an exaggeration to say, as many have, that Menino’s rise to mayor was entirely unexpected. It was certainly true that he started in the least glamorous of trenches, serving as driver to the twice-failed mayoral candidate Joe Timilty. And his political launching pad, the district City Council seat covering Hyde Park and Roslindale, was hardly the most propitious political zip code in Boston. But he was respected on the City Council as a problem solver. So when Mayor Raymond Flynn, in his tenth year in office, was clearly hankering for an appointment by newly elected President Bill Clinton, some of Flynn’s supporters worked behind the scenes to make sure that Menino, rather than one of the council’s many firebrands or lesser lights, ended up as council president. That put him in line to be the city’s interim chief if Flynn flew the coop.
That soon happened when Flynn, after a period of wavering, committed to taking the post of US ambassador to the Vatican. Handed the keys to the mayor’s office, Menino gave every appearance of being a dutiful caretaker. But being acting mayor made him a realistic candidate for the permanent job, and the intense loyalty of his Hyde Park and Roslindale supporters vaulted him into the finals against state Representative James Brett. There, Menino skillfully co-opted the supporters of several more liberal candidates, and beat Brett in a landslide.
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