Mayor Menino gave no hint about his political future when he left the hospital earlier this week. But he telegraphed what he is likely to do if he doesn’t run for reelection next year: Work to improve the lives of Boston’s children.
On Christmas Eve, the ailing mayor headed straight to a youth center in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, where, predictably, children pressed in on his vehicle. Menino is a kid magnet. He isn’t outwardly entertaining, unless telling a 7-year-old to “stay focused’’ on school work counts as fun. Yet children swarm the mayor wherever he appears. And Menino takes obvious delight in their presence.
“He’s always energized when he’s around young people,’’ said 24-year-old Shari Davis, who heads the mayor’s department of youth activities. Menino groomed Davis for a leadership position at City Hall when, as a high-school student, she served as a volunteer adviser on youth issues. Although Menino could easily have chosen a more seasoned department head, he picked Davis to stand in for him last month when he was too sick to welcome thousands of conventioneers from the National League of Cities.
“Welcome to Boston,’’ said Davis. “The city of ideas, the city of action, and the city of youth.’’
At the head of this city of youth, however, remains a 70-year-old mayor who is prone to debilitating illnesses. Boston is ready for new and younger leadership. But first, its five-term mayor needs to release his grip on the office. And that isn’t likely to happen if Menino believes he will be cut off from the buzz of the city and the lively energy of its children.
Menino could play an important role — outside of elected office — for years to come by raising funds and creating better futures for Boston’s young people. The city’s leading philanthropists should be thinking now about crafting such a high-profile role for Menino if he decides not to run in 2013.
And given recent history, he may need some convincing. The city’s movers and shakers snubbed former Mayor Raymond Flynn when he was struggling to find work after returning in 1997 from his post as ambassador to the Vatican. Menino, whose pride is easily wounded, would rather be carried out of office than look like he was coming hat in hand seeking a local job.
Heading a youth foundation would give Menino a chance to improve city schools in ways he couldn’t as mayor. Menino tried but failed to negotiate a longer school day with the city’s teachers’ union, leaving many Boston children without the extra time they need for tutoring, arts, music, and other enrichment programs. City Year, Citizen Schools, and other effective nonprofit groups fill that gap in some Boston schools. But the demand is greater than the available funds. A Menino-led foundation could expand and improve such programs in places like the “Circle of Promise’’ — the administration’s term for a 5-square mile area encompassing several of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
If Menino decides not to run again, he will get by just fine on an annual pension well north of $100,000. Meanwhile, he is sitting on about $640,000 in campaign contributions. Why not put that money on the table in service to the cause he repeatedly says is dearest to him — the city’s disadvantaged children? Menino could disband his political committee and donate all of the money to a registered charity or keep his committee intact while making strategic donations over a longer period. The laws around the use of such funds can be tricky. But nothing stops him from crafting a proposal and seeking an advisory opinion from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Had Menino been well enough to attend the opening session of the National League of Cities, he would have heard from author and inspirational speaker Wes Moore, who grew up poor in a troubled section of Baltimore. Moore credited mentors for steering him into distinguished careers in business and the military.
“I stand here today,’’ Moore said, “because there were people who believed in me before I believed in myself.’’
For almost 20 years as mayor, Menino has been a believer in Boston’s children. The power to act on that belief, however, doesn’t reside exclusively in City Hall.