Tom Menino outlasted a generation of political contemporaries who once dreamed of becoming mayor. With this week’s State of the City address, the five-term mayor put another generation of dreamers on hold.
A long bout with serious illness spawned speculation that Menino no longer has what it takes to run Boston. But he quashed that story line, first, by nimbly using a cane to navigate a 50-foot walk to a specially constructed stage at Faneuil Hall. Then he gave a speech that so exceeded expectations it might go down as the best one ever delivered by the eloquence-challenged mayor.
He was Rocky and the Comeback Kid — or maybe Muhammad Ali, as Kevin McCluskey, a onetime Boston School Committee president, described the 70-year-old mayor as he left the event.
Menino didn’t address his political future, but the message was clear: He’s no Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, ready to abdicate after 33 years on the throne. Menino, after all, has only had 20. Such longevity frustrates would-be successors, but it also inspires respect from contemporaries who once pictured themselves in the job. So, what’s his secret?
He’s “very focused on a job he truly loves doing,” said Michael McCormack, who served on the Boston City Council with Menino and once contemplated a mayoral run — until Menino became acting mayor in 1993 and then won the seat for what seems like life. Luck also plays into it, said McCormack, because it’s “virtually impossible to best an incumbent” and Menino has “a wife who stands by her man.”
Thanks to voter inertia and the power of political money, Massachusetts Democrats are hard to oust. But there’s more to Menino’s longevity than incumbency or marriage to Angela.
He likes power and enjoys using it. Crossing him is unwise for anyone who wants to do business in Boston. But average Menino supporters who turn out for city elections — and want safe streets and exemplary schools from him, not business — have faith he will try to do his best for Boston. They’ve kept the faith, although some important promises remain unfulfilled despite Menino’s best intentions.
“Incumbents can last a long time here,” said John Nucci, another onetime Boston School Committee president and city councilor who briefly ran for mayor in 1993. “But it’s not true they’re popular forever.” The mayor, said Nucci, “has transcended popularity. He is becoming a beloved figure in Boston.”
It certainly felt that way in Faneuil Hall, which was packed with city workers and the state’s political elite. And it’s also true for some voters who turn out every four years for Menino. To many, the mayor remains “just Tommy Menino from Hyde Park,” as he said in his speech.
His lack of ambition for any job other than mayor keeps Menino focused and appreciated by voters. Unlike predecessors, “He has never been diverted by an interest in running for another office,” noted Larry DiCara, another former city councilor who ran for mayor back in 1983.
What also matters is who votes in city elections. DiCara, who is writing a book on Boston politics, said turnout statistics for the recent presidential election show “enormous change from a generation ago.” According to his analysis, the biggest voter turnout in 2012 came from the waterfront, new seaport district, the neighborhoods around the Boston Common, and the South End. Those areas are home to younger, better-educated residents who hail from outside Boston and New England. In contrast, the biggest turnout for city elections can be traced to specific wards and precincts in places like South Boston, Dorchester, and West Roxbury. There, the population is older and much less transient.
“The modern mayoral candidate has to figure out a way to get all the people who only vote quadrennially to vote for them,” said DiCara.
That candidate has yet to emerge, and it will be harder to do so after Menino’s performance.
“I double dare anyone to take on the mayor at this point and not be portrayed as Darth Vader,” said Nucci.
He and others know the saying that there are graveyards full of politicans who were going to be the next mayor of the city. Time is more on the side of the next crop, but patience remains a basic requirement.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.