And so the Menino era draws toward a close.
Unlike many less shrewd politicians, Tom Menino realized the time has come to leave the public stage. That decision all but guarantees that he’ll depart amid an outpouring of good will and nostalgia.
But his announcement is also wise for another reason. Despite voters’ affection for Menino, there is also a distinct feeling in Boston that, after 20 years, it’s time for a change at City Hall. One can see that in a new Globe survey: Fewer than half of those surveyed wanted the 70-year-old mayor, who has been hobbled by health problems, to run again. A politician with as keen a weather eye as Menino surely recognized such sentiment as a cloud of uncertainty on the horizon.
Twenty years, after all, is time enough for any mayor in any city anywhere. Boston needs a new outlook, a fresh set of eyes, a less personalized governing style, a fuller, freer, wider-ranging debate about the city’s future.
Much has been made of Menino’s little-guy-makes-good political narrative, of his steady hand at the helm, of his success as an urban mechanic who stayed focused on civic nuts and bolts, of his regular presence in Boston’s various neighborhoods. And this mayor has certainly earned a healthy measure of that praise.
But at the risk of playing skunk at the garden party, one must also note what the city has lacked during his long tenure as civic CEO.
Start with vision. Yes, it’s laudable to have a strong focus on pleasant, livable neighborhoods and — with the exception of the occasional snowstorm — reliable city services. But that should be a basic expectation of any mayor.
There is more to the job. What should Boston strive to be in the 21st century? What strengths should we develop? Which weaknesses need to be worked on? How do we present ourselves to the nation and to the world? Those were questions Menino’s City Hall never took up, let alone answered, in a convincing way.
In part, that’s because Menino is by both inclination and ambition an incrementalist. Having arrived as an unlikely mayor back in 1993, his primary concern was always on retaining his post. That meant hoarding his political capital rather than using his popularity to mobilize the public in pursuit of difficult reforms. Yes, he would sometimes push, but never hard enough to burn any electoral bridges.
As a result, necessary change has often come at a pace that would embarrass a snail. Exhibit A: The city’s schools. A too quiescent mayor essentially let the Boston Teachers Union stymie his much-ballyhooed pilot school initiative. Even though there is widespread recognition that many urban kids would benefit from a longer school day, Menino signed off last year, after more than two years of fruitless negotiation, on a new teachers’ contract that doesn’t add any additional learning time in the city’s traditional public schools. If accomplishing big things had been as high a priority as staying well-positioned for re-election, Menino would have been more willing to rock the boat.
Then there’s Menino’s governing style. Thin-skinned, petty, and prone to holding grudges, he smolders when anyone disagrees with his priorities or criticizes his administration. This is how ridiculous it can get: The mere act of announcing a plan or initiative without first informing him is sometimes enough to land someone in the doghouse.
An important city should have a regular, robust public debate about the best way forward. Too often in Boston, however, that conversation has been chilled because other civic stakeholders worry that voicing public disagreement will incur the mayor’s ire — and result in the dreaded City Hall freeze-out.
As a device to minimize dissent and maximize power, fostering that dread has worked well for Menino. Yet it’s kept Boston from benefitting from fuller engagement by the many smart, creative, talented people who tread on eggshells when it comes to the mayor.
In the era ahead, the trick for Boston — for its mayoral candidates and its voters — will be to learn from the entire Menino experience. That means emulating his many strengths, yes, but also seeking a broader, more far-sighted approach to governing.