They hold political signs. They dress polling places with candidates’ placards. They drive sound trucks blaring slogans in Spanish and Cape Verdean Creole. And they orchestrate the “foot pull,” sending armies of door-knockers to pull people out to vote on Election Day.
They are the soldiers of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s vaunted get-out-the-vote machine, the political muscle and know-how in Boston that has helped tip statewide races for Governor Deval Patrick and US Senator Elizabeth Warren. Led by the mayor’s top aide, Michael Kineavy, the machine proved such a potent electoral force it was deployed in 2008 to help propel Hillary Clinton’s faltering campaign to victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
Now, it faces the ultimate test of durability: Menino has decided not to seek a sixth term and vowed not to try to anoint a successor. Can the machine survive?
“I’m neutral until Tom Menino and Mike Kineavy get together and decide what our organization is going to do,” said Anthony Albano, a veteran Menino volunteer nicknamed “The Great One” who works at East Boston High School. “The people that are Menino people, when we go, we’ll all be together.”
It may not be that simple. The machine includes the “kitchen cabinet” — the leadership team with deep institutional knowledge of the nuances of Boston politics. And then there are the hundreds of foot soldiers, many of them city employees who work at the Boston Housing Authority, the Office of Neighborhood Services, the Transportation Department, and other city agencies, and who take vacation time to hit the pavement for the machine.
They knock on thousands of doors and wield precinct maps that guide them with a degree of precision that would make Google envious, target streets highlighted with colored markers. The strength of the machine was evident in November, when more than a quarter of a million voters came out, the largest turnout in the city since 1964. Menino’s candidate, first-timer Warren, took three of every four ballots cast, beating Scott Brown, a popular incumbent.
The machine melds with grass-roots campaigns, union members, and energized volunteers to create an even bigger army. But individual activists maintain their own allegiances with city councilors and state representatives, meaning that loyalty to Menino may not be automatically transferrable.
“It’s not like going to an ATM machine,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former City Council president who has a forthcoming book on Boston politics in the 1970s and 1980s. “I think it goes in a bunch of different directions. Some people will split off.”
Boston has changed dramatically since Menino became the first Italian-American mayor in 1993. More than half of the city’s residents are black, Latino, or Asian, and its politics have followed.
Menino always spent a significant amount of time in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, and on Election Day his machine succeeded in boosting turnout in precincts with historically low voter participation — and those ballots often went overwhelmingly to Menino’s candidates. The machine’s most vulnerable components may be in neighborhoods of color where voters served as Menino’s firewall against challengers from Boston’s traditional white, Irish establishment.
In the growing field of mayoral hopefuls, there are several potential candidates of color. That includes city councilors Felix G. Arroyo, Tito Jackson, and Charles Yancey, as well as state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez and state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. Loyalties may splinter when faced with the prospect of making history by electing the first Boston mayor who is not a white man.
Other political analysts suggested that “Team Menino,” as it is called, could survive and rally behind a single candidate.
“I don’t think it breaks into pieces,” said another former city councilor, Michael J. McCormack. “There may be some folks who fracture and break off because of personal allegiances. But I think the organization is still there.”
For now, the machine seems focused on celebrating its namesake. The faithful were rallied to attend an Easter egg hunt Saturday in Roslindale, where Menino made an appearance. The mayor has vowed to push hard for a strong finish in office in the next nine months.
Many feel extraordinary loyalty to the man they think of as more than just the mayor. Take Albano, the foot soldier from East Boston, who recalled when his son had a serious illness and left the state for treatment.
“When my son was in Texas getting his life saved, Mayor Menino called me every single day at 9:30 in the morning to see how he was doing,” Albano said. “It isn’t politics with me. It’s me being his friend.”
But no matter how deep the loyalty, a new regime will sweep to power in November. Even if Menino remains on the sidelines, his political organization could make the difference in what promises to be a fractious fight to seize power in City Hall.
“I believe everybody who is even thinking about running is going to be courting the mayor’s machine,” political strategist Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling said. “What I mean by that is courting the keeper of the machine, Mike Kineavy.”
Kineavy did not respond to text messages and phone calls seeking comment last week. In the past, he has compared election workers to athletes who thrive on competition. Kineavy and his lieutenants repeat a maxim from a campaign years before: If you don’t wake up in the morning feeling like you have to vomit, you’re doing something wrong.
“It’s the pressure,” Kineavy told the Globe in November. “The task at hand is enormous.”
The machine does not always win. In 2006, Menino threw his muscle behind Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly in the Democratic primary for governor. Reilly was trounced in Boston by a 3-to-1 margin by a first-time candidate named Deval Patrick.
In 2011, the machine made an aggressive push for an open City Council seat that covers much of Dorchester. Menino’s man, John K. O’Toole, lost by 12 percentage points to Frank Baker.
But when the machine fires on all cylinders, it can have a substantial impact, unleashing a surge of voters, according to Doug Rubin, a senior strategist for Patrick’s 2010 reelection and Warren’s commanding victory.
“It’s an extremely effective operation,” Rubin said. “Michael [Kineavy] is an organizer. He understands all this stuff from the ground up. This is not just somebody giving the orders and everybody follows. Michael has really built an organization that is a true grass-roots organization.
“That’s a credit to him,” Rubin said, “and the mayor.”