From the trivial to the seismic, Boston has changed a lot during Tom Menino’s 20-year watch as mayor. Scrod is no longer the staple of local restaurant menus. Department stores are no longer the main pillars of Boston’s business community.
The city feels less parochial. Thanks to the Big Dig and Menino’s development strategy, Boston’s heart is shifting towards the waterfront. New enterprises are replacing the old. A new real estate market is opening up for hip newcomers who prefer to live and work in the city. It’s a dramatic transformation, and Menino can take credit for coaxing it along, in good times and bad.
But whether this new Boston will get a new mayor who reflects all that change is another question entirely.
Menino’s long tenure, and the way he used power to squash potential challengers, diminished the pool of mayoral prospects. He outlasted political contemporaries who were interested in the job. They are now in the same age bracket as he is — 70 or pushing it. And Menino worked hard to keep younger would-be rivals at bay.
Over the years, he made it clear he didn’t appreciate efforts to encourage would-be successors. Business and civic leaders shunned Menino’s potential rivals, for fear of offending him. Those leaders needed him, after all, for everything from building permits and grants to snow plowing and street lights.
The power of entrenched incumbency was on display at last week’s Boston Muncipal Research Bureau lunch, an annual event that draws the city’s political and business elite. John Connolly, the city councilor who announced his run for mayor before Menino’s announced his decision not to run for reelection, was assigned to ballroom Siberia. “I’m a pariah,” he said cheerfully, when asked about his seat at a table located far from Menino and close to the exit.
All of which helps explain why the high-profile private-sector leaders who emerge naturally from the business and civic life of most big cities are nowhere to be found among the lineup of likely mayoral candidates. Instead, it’s a variation on the usual theme. They are lowly members of the political ruling class, just like Menino was when he vaulted from City Council to acting mayor when Mayor Ray Flynn was named US ambassador to the Vatican.
Menino’s ability to hold on was partly a triumph of traditional neighborhood and ethnic politics. In 1993, he made history when he was elected the city’s first Italian-American mayor. In doing so, he succeeded a century of Irish-American mayors, who took control from the Brahmins of Beacon Hill.
By not running this year, Menino triggers a mayor’s race that is already being described as a generational sea change. It will bring change, for sure, but how much?
Those mentioned most frequently are younger than Menino, and the list may ultimately include several minority candidates. A female, black, or Latino mayor would certainly break Boston’s classic political mold. But notably, the list of likely candidates so far consists of current city councilors or other elected officials.
Larry DiCara, a longtime political observer who ran in a wide-open mayor’s race in 1983, believes the next era of Boston politics is destined to be different.
“Anybody could be the next mayor of Boston,” asserts DiCara.
As DiCara sees it, the city’s voting patterns are changing as dramatically as Boston’s waterfront. In the last presidential election, turnout was highest in downtown precincts — the opposite of what happens in mayoral elections, where turnout is highest in outlying neighborhoods. If those downtown voters turn out in a mayor’s race, he says, “There could be a young, educated person, who comes from somewhere else in the country, who could get the 15,000 or 20,000 votes needed to get into the final.”
Yet Mike McCormack, another longtime political observer and former city councilor, sees it differently. “Boston is so balkanized, you almost have to be from some ethnic tribe to win,” he says. “This is not like New York, where Michael Bloomberg could step in and spend his own money to run a campaign. The key is to have a bloc of votes.”
Someone from outside the political box may yet jump into this race. To his credit, Menino set the stage for a new political era.
All that’s missing is a different kind of political star.