New mayor could have job for life, too

I know it doesn’t feel that way right now, but we’ll get through this. Change is stressful; every psychologist will tell you so. The great traumas of our life don’t have to be tragic to be hard. Birth, marriage, or a new job: They scare us because they are unknown, because they plunge us into uncharted waters. Add to this list of traumas: a new mayor for Boston.

How, you might ask, can anyone replace Tom Menino? Actually — and not to take anything away from the man — quite readily. There are worthy successors out there, many of them. And the good news, for those of you who abhor change, is that once the choice is made, we’re likely set for a long, long while.

I can imagine the yet-to-be-drawn editorial cartoon: Menino as a giant of a man with those who would succeed him depicted as pipsqueaks nipping at his heels. I think Menino has been a highly effective mayor. But the cartoon is inaccurate: There’s talent out there.


Merely based on resume and temperament, some are obvious. Dan Conley, who has been district attorney for the last 11 years, gets politics (he was once a city councilor), is a fiscal conservative and social liberal in the mold of Menino, and understands the key importance of public safety. So too does Andrea Cabral, formerly sheriff of Suffolk County, newly appointed Massachusetts secretary of public safety. James Rooney, head of the Convention Center Authority, knows the intricacies of running complex organizations. And John Connolly, the city councilor with the temerity to take on Menino, is passionate about everyday concerns, especially education.

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To name these four is not intended to exclude others. At least seven other current or former city councilors are floating their names, as are a number of state reps and senators. Many have the capacity to govern the city. Then there are the wild cards. Should he lose the Senate primary, for instance, Congressman Stephen Lynch would still have name recognition and a strong Boston-based organization. Developer John Drew would be a favorite of the business community.

Pipsqueaks? In the sense they’ve never been mayor, perhaps. But that doesn’t mean they’re not up for the task. I don’t know who’s best — that, of course, is the purpose of a campaign. But I suspect the result will be all right. And once it’s over, we likely won’t have to worry about it for another generation or so.

Really. Everyone looks at Menino’s tenure and marvels that the man must be a political genius. How else could have held on so long? But in truth, while getting elected is tough, the position — done well — is a sinecure.

Managing a city the size of Boston doesn’t require some superhuman collection of talents. Rather, it takes a clear vision, an ability to execute, and a willingness to reach out and listen to residents. In effect, you’re the city’s CEO. No one cares if you’re right-wing or left-wing as long as crime is low, streets are paved, parks are well-kept, and all the other details of urban living are attended to. Menino — billed as the “urban mechanic” by Micke Barnicle, a former Globe columnist — got that. He also knew that much of governance is balancing interests and being inclusive. Favoring one group over another is a sure way to create opposition. Keeping people happy is a sure way to stay in office.


Menino wasn’t alone in figuring this out. Kevin White, mayor for 16 years (1968 to 1984), could have run for a fifth term and, despite scandals and federal investigations, probably would have won. Ray Flynn (1984 to 1993) followed him and was comfortably in his third term when he jumped ship to become ambassador to the Vatican. Had he not forsaken Boston for Rome, he too could have held on.

It can be a job for life, which is why the field will be jam-packed. Everyone who might aspire to be mayor appreciates this election is probably their only shot ever. After that, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a new crop of frustrated wannabes impatiently waiting another 20 or more years for their next chance.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the person who branded Boston Mayor Tom Menino the “urban mechanic.” It was former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle.