TOM MENINO is getting the bum’s rush, an unceremonious push out the door on account of a newly identified case of Type 2 diabetes. The chattering classes — those who write about politics and those who just talk about it over a beer — seem almost thrilled by the mayor’s recent ailments, eagerly spinning out scenarios for his succession. Elections can’t dislodge the guy. The hope, apparently, is that illness will.
The 69-year-old Menino has suffered of late from a number of seemingly unrelated medical problems. After a month in the hospital — he’s now in rehab — his doctors linked the health issues to a newly emergent case of diabetes. With that diagnosis, the mayor joins a large crowd: About 8.3 percent of Americans — roughly 26 million. Even for older adults, the disease is far from debilitating, however, with Type 2 manageable largely through diet and exercise. Among well-known diabetics are the late Soviet strongman Nikita Khrushchev (no comparison intended, Mr. Mayor!) and lithe actress Halle Berry (definitely no comparison, Mr. Mayor), as well as folks such as artist Shepherd Fairey, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, boy band member Nick Jonas, and professional golfer Michelle McGann.
Menino’s doctors say they expect him to recover and soon be back on the job. They may be wrong in that, or perhaps they’re not telling us all they know. But assuming what’s in the public realm is correct, then one would have thought the commentary surrounding the mayor’s illness might have been a combination of best wishes and some degree of marvel that City Hall continues to run as well as it does.
Instead, the cries mount for Menino to leave. Let’s face it: This isn’t about the mayor’s health. It’s about wanting someone else to get the job.
Menino became mayor in July 1993 when then-mayor Ray Flynn left to become ambassador to the Vatican. He won outright that November and has never looked back. Four years later, he was unopposed. In 2001, he faced a challenge from Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen and crushed her, getting 76 percent of the vote. In 2005, another councilor, Maura Hennigan, took a shot. Menino got 67 percent. In 2009, yet another councilor, Michael Flaherty, tried his luck. Menino won with 57 percent.
There’s a pattern here — Menino has dropped about 10 points with each election — and simple math might suggest next time he loses with just 47 percent of the vote. Beware of simple math. Menino has faced some tough challengers, particularly with Flaherty and Hennigan. But the outcome of none of those elections has ever been in doubt, for a straightforward reason: Finding an issue that could bring him down is nearly impossible.
Partly that’s because there are few “issues” per se. The great ideological struggles of our day are now fought at the national or state level. City politics have become less philosophical and more practical, focused on concerns such as development, crime, and potholes. Menino has largely figured out how to deliver on all fronts, deftly threading his way between competing interests (real estate developers versus neighborhood activists, for example) and building a bureaucracy attentive to delivering everyday services. Combine that with a remarkable ability to reinvent himself (Hubway, food trucks, and, most recently, mobile city halls) and deep ties to the city’s neighborhoods, and you have a politician who’s hard to beat.
That’s not to say he’s invulnerable to critique. Outsiders find it hard to win his favor. And the mayor has been too cautious about school reform and too slow to adopt innovative practices such as competing out city services. But so far those who have run against him have done so by trying to curry favor with the city’s unions, meaning that they would go in the exact opposite direction — tamping down, not accelerating, any change.
Sure, it’s been 19 years — a long time to be mayor. But longevity is no sin, nor is it credible to argue that someone else “deserves” a chance. Want Menino gone? Vote against him. I expect — if his doctors’ prognosis is right and Menino still wants the job – that next November you’ll have the chance to do so. I also expect, come January 2014, that he’ll be taking the oath for a sixth term.