During the nearly 20 years that he’s been in office, Boston Mayor Tom Menino has defied political gravity. Starting as an accidental city CEO, elevated to the mayoralty when Ray Flynn left for an ambassadorial post, Menino has confounded the skeptics, outlasted his rivals, pushed the city slowly but steadily forward, and vaulted into the record books by winning an unprecedented fifth term. He’s succeeded by virtue of an unmatched ubiquity, an unflagging attention to the nitty-gritty of neighborhood matters, and an intimidating don’t-make-the-mayor-mad style.
But now, on the cusp of the fourth year of his fifth term, one can almost feel the Menino era beginning to end. Mind you, no one is saying the mayor won’t run again next year. The official word is that Menino hasn’t made up his mind. All that can wait, his team says. What’s important is reclaiming his health, which is where Menino, a heavy man in late mid-life, will be focusing his energy in the weeks ahead.
Unofficially, his lieutenants are laboring to preserve his political options. That explains the under-the-radar nature of his Monday transfer, via gurney and ambulance, to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. His new care location was announced only after the fact, at an afternoon press conference at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Menino had been since Oct. 26.
Just hearing his various maladies recounted at the press conference made one wince in sympathy. Returning from a truncated vacation, Menino entered the hospital suffering from a viral infection. His doctors discovered he also had a blood clot in his lung. He next developed a compression fracture in his lower spine, and then an infection in the same region. Medical tests, meanwhile, revealed that he has type 2 diabetes.
No one would venture a guess on how long he will be at Spaulding. Asked whether Menino, 69, is in good enough health for another term leading the city, Charles Morris, his doctor, struck an upbeat note. “He’s got a few issues that we talked about today, none of which, I think, should impede his ability to do what he wants to do, however he is called to do it,” Morris said.
So why do I think the Menino era is drawing to a close?
Simple: Menino himself, who is one of the shrewdest politicians you’ll ever meet. Throughout his two decades as mayor, he’s always been keenly sensitive to how far he can push without rupturing alliances or alienating voters. (My periodic frustration with the mayor has come because he’s sometimes seemed more concerned with hoarding his political capital for future campaigns than with spending it in pursuit of important reforms, particularly in education.)
A politician as realistic as Menino knows how dicey it would be to run for reelection after a term in which health problems have landed him in the hospital for extended stints or left him recuperating for weeks in his Hyde Park home.
Menino knows that politics is a Darwinian exercise, not a sentimental enterprise. If he seeks reelection, he would likely draw a serious challenger, and not an up-or-out politician as he has in several other campaigns. Further, the reservoir of goodwill he has with voters would evaporate quickly if they judged his health too problematic for the demands of the job. And another hospital stay could cement that impression.
Right now, Menino is our Rocky Marciano mayor, a man who has never lost a political contest. If he opts to call next year his last, he goes out unbeaten, with a valedictory period in which his time at City Hall will be celebrated, his advice sought, his endorsement courted.
If he runs again, however, he puts his legacy on the line, risking a rejection that would tarnish his remarkable political success story. That’s why I expect that Menino will make the right decision — for himself and the city. The time has come to call it a (legendary) career.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.