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Analysis

Walsh signals new way of doing business

Martin Walsh spoke at Conte Forum at Boston College after he was sworn in as mayor.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Martin Walsh spoke at Conte Forum at Boston College after he was sworn in as mayor.

For two decades, it was the city’s most apt synonym for political power, a one-word summation of autonomy within the municipal boundaries and, sometimes, beyond them.

But on Monday, in an inaugural address that ran nearly 3,000 words, Mayor Martin J. Walsh uttered the word “Menino” only three times, and did not mention his predecessor personally until more than three quarters of the way through. When he did, it was in brief tribute.

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“His legacy is already legend,” Walsh said. “And his vision is all around us.”

Walsh and former (let that one sink in for a moment) Mayor Thomas M. Menino had been supposed to meet at City Hall on Monday morning, a ceremonial handoff that never came to pass. And Menino has been fairly open about the difficulty he has had relinquishing the role he held for 20 years.

By the end of his speech, nearly two hours after Menino had left City Hall for the last time as mayor, Walsh had obliged Menino’s evident preference for a quiet exit, affording his predecessor scant mention in an inaugural address that focused more on establishing distance from the Menino record than building on it.

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Instead, in a crisp and briefly emotional address, Walsh delivered a compendium of thinly coded promises to change the way City Hall business has been conducted. The city, he said, “must increase transparency,” a nudge at the occasionally empty overtures at government openness under Menino, who preferred tremendous expenditures of personal effort to the often messy engagements in public processes.

“I will listen,” Walsh said. “I will learn. I will lead.” Later, doubling back, Walsh reassured, “I am listening. I will keep on listening.”

Walsh’s “listen and lead” construct dated back to Walsh’s 2012 reelection effort, after legislative redistricting slightly altered his district, one adviser said. That the message provided an implicit contrast with Menino — frequently criticized for running a top-down government with tightly centralized power — was considered a fringe benefit, the adviser said.

Marla Romash, a consultant and speechwriter for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, took the lead in crafting Walsh’s speech, mayoral advisers said, joined by longtime Walsh friend Joyce Linehan and by David Stone, who helped oversee Walsh’s transition process.

In its most rhetorically adroit passage, the address played up Walsh’s identity as a neighborhood guy. Walsh pointed to John Winthrop’s oft-cited “City Upon a Hill” assertion and said it reminded him not just of Beacon Hill, but of less-celebrated hills in outlying neighborhoods: Savin, Fort, Copp’s, Bellevue, Telegraph, among others.

“That was just a real artful way to say, ‘I know you’re out there, and I’m going to represent you all,’” said Paul Scapicchio, a lobbyist and former councilor who endorsed Walsh’s campaign rival, John Connolly.

“What Marty conveyed today was the sense that he was comfortable in the new role and, I think, he made people feel comfortable about him as the new mayor,” Scapicchio said. “He was on point in talking about each and every neighborhood.”

Walsh sounded the tune of the progressive, populist values that he espoused on the trail. Many of his policy references were pegged to future announcements – which he promised would come after the completion of reviews or studies.

That’s often code used by politicians still trying to calculate what’s politically feasible, and what will have to be trimmed or compromised. And, judging from the sluggish pace of Walsh’s transition, those are equations that might not be solved soon. Walsh did not announce his chief of staff until Saturday, the first in what appears to be a string of personnel announcements.

Walsh said he would work to reduce the 2013 homicide count, which stood at 40, and later Monday — in one of his first official acts as mayor — convened a meeting on street violence. He said his second day in office would see the beginning of a “nationwide search” to fill the school superintendent post, currently held by John McDonough in an interim capacity. He promised a “performance audit” of the public schools. And he jabbed at Menino’s stewardship of the education system’s physical plant, saying he would work to secure more state money for “long-neglected and antiquated school buildings.”

Walsh won applause by saying he was “committed to restructuring the Boston Redevelopment Authority” and to eliminating “duplication and confusion” in the economic development process.

Perhaps Walsh’s most concrete policy prescriptions came in the area of ethics, where he promised new conflict-of-interest rules, a city Ethics Committee, and stricter disclosure requirements. That concentration raised eyebrows in light of the Menino Era’s relative freedom from scandal.

Except for a few notable moments — when he choked up discussing his family, including his late father, and when he delivered a quietly but palpably gleeful shout-out to his “sisters and brothers in the labor movement” — Walsh’s delivery was workmanlike, unremarkable. His speeches, based on his initial outing, will not distract with their form, the way his predecessor’s did. But neither will they stand out for remarkable content.

On Monday, at least, his words may have been as notable for what they avoided as for what they included.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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