After an extended hospital stay, Mayor Tom Menino’s ability to pick up where he left off is a testament to the good will he has banked with Boston voters.
It’s also a testament to the lock Menino has on city politics — as well as to the power of the old-boy network when it comes to protecting its own interests.
When contractions sent acting Governor Jane Swift to the hospital in 2001, she was blasted for trying to preside over a Governor’s Council meeting by speaker phone. The birth of Swift’s twin daughters launched a heated public debate over how much time she should take off, and whether it was okay to work from her home in western Massachusetts. Critics assailed the idea of a “remote” governorship, and there were calls for her to allow Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, to become acting governor to the acting governor.
Yes, the politics of Swift’s situation were very different. She was a 36-year-old Republican woman, who had been acting governor for only a month. Her public approval ratings as lieutenant governor were already low, and Massachusetts Democrats did their best to keep them that way. Swift lacked the experience and seasoned staff to blunt their attacks. In the end, she was shunted aside by Mitt Romney, a fellow Republican.
Still, the contrasting deference to Menino, as he turns 70 and contemplates a sixth term, is striking. For nearly eight weeks, Menino ran the city from his hospital bed and was out of sight for much of that time. He met the press only after an assortment of would-be mayors started winning mentions as prospective candidates and pundits urged him to quit the job he has held for nearly 20 years. One interview with reporters, which was designed to allay concerns about his fitness for office, did the opposite. It yielded a portrait of a physically weak mayor, who had more trouble than usual speaking clearly.
Ever the shrewd politician, Menino is moving quickly to reshape that vulnerable image. After the Connecticut elementary school shooting, he reissued a call for gun control, a favorite cause. On the day after his release from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, the mayor showed upat a Dorchester youth center.
He wasn’t strong enough to get out of his SUV, but the Christmas Eve message he sent was loud and clear. He’s edging back to relative health and will exit office only when he’s good and ready. In the meantime, he’ll recuperate at the city-owned Parkman House on Beacon Hill, where he can use the elevator.
Potential mayoral candidates have gone underground, and the mini-clamor for Menino to announce an exit strategy has also quieted down. City Council President Stephen Murphy has announced that he has enough votes to remain in the council’s top position. His reelection would be a good outcome for Menino. Another City Council president might be more aggressive, knowing he or she would become acting mayor if Menino is pushed out the door. But Murphy was a good soldier during the mayor’s convalescence, doing nothing to rock the boat or encourage Menino to hire a food taster. A good soldier he is likely to stay.
Boston power brokers may whisper that they want Menino to leave, but none will say it out loud. That leaves Menino to do what he wants. A city that genuflects to incumbent Democrats grants him that privilege.
If he deems himself healthy enough to run again, he will run again. If he does, he will win. It’s hard to imagine a serious challenger getting the financial support needed to counter the Menino machine. Developers of casinos and real estate need him. With their support, and the backing of Boston voters, he stands to outlast a generation of aspiring mayors.
Menino’s political machine cranked out a quarter of a million votes for Elizabeth Warren in the recent race for US Senate. It was the largest Boston turnout since John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, and a tribute to Menino’s clout.
Menino’s body may be weak, but so far there are no public signs of weakening political muscle. That strength is fueled partly by respect for Menino, but mostly by respect for the status quo.