Mayor Thomas M. Menino smiled coyly Wednesday and leaned on his cane, a throng of cameras and reporters swarming the 20-year incumbent. They all wanted to know: Will he or won’t he run for a sixth term?
What did he make of 39-year-old Councilor John R. Connolly, who just launched his own campaign for the city’s top job?
“Young man wants to be mayor. Good luck to him,” Menino said, his affect at once playful and dismissive. “I think he’s a nice young man. A good family man. His wife is a nice young mother.”
No, Menino said with a shrug, he did not have a timetable for when he would decide about running for reelection. “There’s a time and a place for everything,” said the mayor, who was in East Boston for a ribbon cutting at a new cafe. “I’ll have that time and place shortly.”
But then, like a craftsman who has mastered the media, Menino began talking about a race in the present tense, sounding very much like a man running for another four years. He said he spoke Tuesday to Connolly by phone about the months ahead.
“Let’s have a nice, good campaign,” Menino said he told the city councilor. “Let’s discuss the issues, the real issues.”
Menino, still recovering from a series of medical setbacks that began in October, can continue the will-he-or-won’t-he dance until at least May 13, when he must apply for nomination, the first step in running for another term.
The question is whether Menino’s word choice Wednesday inadvertently revealed his plan to run again. Or perhaps after a generation as mayor, Menino can only speak about the job and campaigning in an active voice.
“I don’t think the mayor revealed anything,” said Michael J. McCormack, a former City Council member and Menino friend who has known the mayor for nearly 40 years. “On a scale of one to 10, I think it’s a 10 he’s running again. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t stand for reelection if his health permits.”
Another former councilor and friend, John A. Nucci, said the banter with the media underscored Menino’s confidence.
“The mayor is a veteran of political wars,” said Nucci, vice president of government and community affairs at Suffolk University. “He’s battle-tested. He’s not going to panic at the thought of having an opponent.”
When Connolly kicked off his campaign Tuesday outside Brighton High School, he spoke in deferential terms about Menino, describing his deep respect for the 70-year-old mayor. On Wednesday, in an interview on WBUR-FM, the candidate again asserted his affection for Menino, first elected mayor in 1993.
“I love him. Who doesn’t if you live in Boston?” Connolly asked. “His commitment to the city is unquestionable. He eats, lives, and breathes the life of this city.”
To draw a distinction with the incumbent, Connolly attacked Menino’s record on education, making the Boston public schools a cornerstone of his campaign.
At the media scrum in East Boston, Menino swatted away the criticism.
“Everybody from the outside wants to take on the schools,” Menino said. “It’s a good target. But look at the improvements we’ve made. More kids are going to college in Boston. Higher graduation rates. Lower dropout rates. We’re doing OK.”
Reporters pushed Menino harder about his plans. He had spoken after all, about running in the present tense. Is the mayor going to launch another campaign?
“I’m ready . . . ” Menino said before he stopped short, blushed, and laughed.
WBZ-TV reporter Bill Shields interjected. Are you announcing your reelection campaign now?
“Shields, go back to the Cape,” Menino said, still chuckling.
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, answered the is-he-announcing-another-campaign question with a definitive, “No.”
“I enjoy campaigning, I enjoy people,” Menino said. “That’s why I do this job, it’s about people. It’s about helping people, making a difference in people’s lives. That’s what I do. If [Connolly] doesn’t think it’s fun, then too bad for him.”
In an interview Wednesday with the Globe, Connolly said his phone conversation with Menino the day before lasted roughly two minutes. The councilor said he told the mayor he was going to run an upbeat campaign focused on ideas and the city’s future.
“He said that was great and he wanted a positive campaign,” Connolly recalled. “He also mentioned that he looked at campaigns as fun, and he looked forward to talking about his record.”
Does that mean Menino is running again?
“He didn’t say that explicitly, and I don’t want to put any words in his mouth or make any assumptions,” Connolly said. “I respect his right to decide whenever he feels it is right or best for him. He’s earned that.”