Thomas Menino did not become the mayor of Boston by accident, as many people believe. In 1992, he grabbed the one sure opportunity he had to advance beyond the anonymity of being a Boston city councilor, employing the same skills that he is famous for today — his strong work ethic, inside knowledge of politics, ability to create coalitions of unlikely partners, and his knack for connecting with individual voters.
In the summer of 1992, Menino was stuck in a career rut. After 8½ years on the council, he was close to the 10-year deadline he had given himself to gain higher office, but he couldn’t find one for which he had a reasonable hope of winning.
For the previous five years, Menino had been preparing to move beyond the City Council, where ambitions collide with limited powers. He tended assiduously to the needs of his district while broadening his interests. He persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include Roslindale Square in the experimental Main Streets program, which revived the neighborhood shopping district. He persuaded the council to create a Ways and Means Committee to oversee all aspects of the city budget process, and had himself elected chairman. He was establishing an insider’s reputation for working extraordinarily hard while thinking beyond the concerns of his district to wider issues of civic improvement and finance.
There aren’t that many votes to be gained from political insiders, however. He and other ambitious councilors were trapped in their seats. Then council President Christopher Iannella died in September, and Mayor Raymond Flynn was making noise about seeking a federal job if Bill Clinton was elected president. The council president would become acting mayor if Flynn resigned.
The 12 councilors quickly elected the 70-year-old Dapper O’Neil to be caretaker president, while six of the councilors plotted their moves to move up to the presidency at the scheduled election in January. In the insular politics of the City Council, Menino could deploy his insider savvy to maximum effectiveness.
Even though Menino was a liberal Democrat by ideology, his unthreatening personality allowed him to fit comfortably into the conservative-moderate bloc of the council. This gave him six of the seven votes he needed for victory. He was helped by the quiet support of Flynn. Most of Flynn’s department heads, who had testified before the Ways and Means Committee, also were in the Menino camp. Then Menino gained the backing of Anthony Crayton, a novice councilor from Roxbury whom he had helped get appointed to the Ways and Means Committee. The four-month struggle for the presidency showed off Menino’s ability to create and sustain a political coalition — good training for a mayor-in-waiting.
Menino won the Council presidency, 7-6, and Crayton got a reward – chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. After Flynn resigned in July to become US ambassador to the Vatican, Acting Mayor Menino treated the Flynn appointees with great care. Many of them are still in his administration today.
Menino did not have any problems with name recognition after he became acting mayor. In his first week he announced an increase in summer jobs for young people, an issue that appealed to liberals and minorities, and more money for police to reduce violence, a matter of special concern to older, more conservative voters. In September he faced down the School Committee and the teachers union over a contract he considered too expensive, a stand that appealed to residential and business taxpayers. He was creating of coalition of liberals, moderates, and conservatives that transcended the old racial and ethnic divisions that had disfigured Boston for generations. And he roamed the city to cement his support by making one-on-one connections with voters.
Menino’s poll ratings rose from 15 percent in July to 22 percent in September, enough for him to finish first in the preliminary election, and he was overwhelmingly elected mayor in November. Hard work, coalition-building, individual appeals to voters, and an-depth knowledge of city finances all contributed to his victory. This year, candidates to succeed Menino will be talking about their visions for moving the city forward. Voters need to ask whether they also possess the mayor’s fine sense of timing and his superb tactical skills.
Thomas Gagen wrote editorials for the Globe from 1987 to 2008.