No matter who succeeds Mayor Tom Menino, it’s going to feel like a revolution.
After a while, a city tends to mold itself around a mayor’s personality. For good and ill, Boston has been reshaped around Menino’s. And this has had profound effects because his has been the most personal of tenures. That has been his immense strength among the many residents who have met him, and rightly love him. And it has been his weakness when it comes to the big picture.
His exit will usher in huge changes, simply because the man who, for a generation, has put his deep imprint on almost everything that happens in this city will have lifted his heavy hand.
Count me among those who consider that an exciting prospect.
Any mayor’s departure opens the door to fresh air, and fresh ideas, resetting the municipal pecking order, making it more possible for merit to trump proximity.
Some friends of Menino — first in line for development projects or civic initiatives — will be mortals again. Some of the hapless souls who incurred his eternal displeasure will emerge from pariah status. Everybody will have to try harder. All of this is good.
Tom Menino has done many great things as mayor, and been rightly celebrated for them. He has made immigrants feel vital to the city, for example, and helped neighborhoods bloom. But he also has blind spots: We have too little interesting new architecture, primarily because Menino, no design buff, signs off on buildings himself. We also, for a great city, have conspicuously little great public art. And even modest proposals to make this more of a night-time city — like keeping hotel bars open past 2 a.m. — are doomed, because our mayor is tucked up in bed when some of us are just sitting down to dinner.
The kind of man Menino is has determined what the city has become.
It is just about impossible to get anything done without speaking to him personally. So many worthy proposals have died on the drawing board simply because their proponents didn’t show sufficient — and timely — deference to the mayor.
Everybody got used to doing business this way. There are employees at colleges and corporations all over this city who are paid handsome salaries because they have managed to stay on Menino’s good side. The amount of energy that goes into trying not to tick off the mayor could put Cape Wind out of business.
That’s true inside his administration as well. Though his reluctance to delegate is notorious, Menino has managed to attract some serious talent to this city. Police Commissioner Ed Davis, for example, is brilliant, his view of the criminal justice system expansive and progressive. In most any other city, he would be out front, leading our public conversations about probation, parole, and prisons. Instead, he’s kept a low public profile. He seems to have learned early that the way to keep the mayor’s support is to avoid the limelight.
Then there are those poor city councilors, who have so little power to begin with. Often, when one of them has been brave or naive enough to propose a good idea, the administration has either knocked it down, or appropriated it.
If the field of candidates who would succeed the mayor — which includes just about every councilor — seems uninspiring so far, that, too, is a direct consequence of Menino’s makeup. We have no real political farm team in this city in part because the mayor has made an art of ensuring nobody gets enough oxygen to become a factor.
Nurturing a new class of civic leaders the way Kevin White did could have been one of Menino’s lasting gifts to his city. We can lament his withholding that gift, even as we celebrate him for many others.
Put another way: We can honor his tenure, and also hope the next one will be quite different.