Their arms have hoisted green Mayor Menino signs for 20 years. Their fists have knocked on doors from Oak Square to Neponset.
They have driven sound trucks blasting get-out-the-vote messages in Spanish through Hyde Square and lashed political placards to the fence outside East Boston High School, dressing the polling place for Election Day.
They are the members of Team Menino, the vaunted political machine of Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Some loyalists joined upstart mayoral campaigns as soon as Menino announced in March he would not seek a sixth term. But the mayor’s vow to remain neutral in the 12-candidate preliminary election kept many on the sidelines.
The September preliminary narrowed the field to two: City Councilor John R. Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh. Word filtered through the Menino political organization Oct. 3 that the boss had given the sign that those who wanted to join Team Connolly or Team Walsh should follow their hearts.
“I said, ‘Do what you want to do,’ ” Menino said in an interview. “It’s not a dictatorship. I have an organization that’s committed to things I believe in in government. They want to make a choice, let them make a choice.”
And so some did, political foot soldiers joining the ranks of the Walsh and Connolly campaign.
“This is a milestone moment in Boston’s political evolution,” said Carole Brennan, Menino’s former press secretary. “Just ask the many candidates who have benefited from the incredible organization that the mayor has put together over the last two decades.”
Political operatives from Menino’s team have shoveled snow in New Hampshire for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and built a fleet of sound trucks for John F. Kerry in the Nevada desert in 2004. They have helped governors and senators and city councilors. The organization has lost races, but it kept Menino untouchable through five elections.
“I expect they will break in both directions,” meaning to Connolly and Walsh, said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and longtime watcher of Boston politics. “It’s not a monolithic organization. If they are told they are free, they are free.”
More people who raise money have gravitated to Connolly, according to several people in the Menino organization who would speak only without attribution. More foot soldiers have headed to Walsh.
Walsh of Dorchester and Connolly of West Roxbury come from opposite ends of the city, and some parts of Menino’s team seem to be splintering by geography. Others had previous connections to one of the candidates. Many are staying neutral. Menino and his inner circle of advisers have been adamant that they are not picking sides. “Some people say I’m backing Connolly. Some people say I’m backing Walsh,” Menino said. “I’m backing Tom Menino.”
Menino veterans can be spotted in the camps of both mayoral candidates. Enerio “Tony” Barros, one of Menino’s key people in the Latino community, wore a red Walsh T-shirt last week and stood in a sea of red in Egleston Square as the candidate accepted several endorsements. Kerry O’Brien, who has been with Menino since 1993, was out knocking on doors in West Roxbury this weekend for Connolly.
Team Menino includes people like Ross Levanto, a 37-year-old from Beacon Hill who works in public relations. Levanto first volunteered in 2005, working at phone banks, knocking on doors, and holding a Menino sign on Election Day outside the State House. In 2009, he became one of Menino’s downtown campaign coordinators. He was ready to be on the mayor’s team again in 2013.
Levanto had always supported Connolly when he ran for City Council, but Connolly launched his mayoral campaign before Menino said he wasn’t running.
“I told him that if the election was between Mayor Menino and John Connolly, I was going to be supporting Mayor Menino,” Levanto said. “I said, ‘I support the mayor. John, I love you to death, but if the mayor runs, I’m supporting Mayor Menino.’ He had tremendous respect for that and I really appreciated it.”
Levanto joined Connolly’s team a few days after Menino said he would not seek reelection.
Another Menino veteran, John FitzGerald, was a junior in high school when he first met the mayor. As FitzGerald got older, he said, he held signs, knocked on doors, made phone calls, and attended rallies in what he described as “the foot soldier work.”
A few days after Menino announced he would not run, FitzGerald received a phone call from Walsh and did not hesitate to join his team. FitzGerald, a 32-year-old senior project manager at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said his decision was reinforced when Walsh made a point of calling him on the sixth anniversary of his father’s death.
His father, former state representative Kevin FitzGerald, shared an office with Walsh at the State House.
“He told me he was campaigning with extra pep in his step that day” because of my dad, FitzGerald said. “That’s why I’m with Marty. That’s where it all starts with him, the personal, human side of politics.”
Menino said his organization held together because people believed in the issues they were fighting for. “The old machine stuff doesn’t work anymore,” Menino said. “People are committed to you, what you believe in, what you’ve done. Ask the people who are executive directors of shelters. They believe what I believe in. Talk to folks in the AIDS community, they believe in me.”