Tributes and encomiums followed Tom Menino’s announcement that his fifth term would be his last. But there’s been an undercurrent of discontent, too. It’s not so much over what the mayor achieved, but how some say he achieved it: by aggregating power and wielding it ruthlessly — “Boss Menino,” if you will.
There are those who fault Menino’s personality, saying he’s obsessed with score-settling, taking offense at the most minor of slights and holding grudges forever. Others look at the issue more broadly, arguing the problem is the length of the mayor’s tenure itself, which allowed him to obtain so much clout. The simple solution is term limits. What’s good enough for the president of the United States should be good enough for a mayor, right? Be wary of simple solutions however. They often have a downside.
No question, Menino dominated the town and brooked little dissent. Those who dared run against him became political outcasts. And their defeats were nearly assured; few in turn dared to contribute to a challenger’s campaign for fear they too would be outcasts. Developers and businesses out of Menino’s favor — Walmart, Niketown, Chick-fil-A, Karmaloop’s Greg Selkoe, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, parking magnate (and one-time Los Angeles Dodgers owner) Frank McCourt, to name just a few — found it hard or impossible to do business in Boston. Globe columnist Lawrence Harmon several days ago wrote about his personal experiences in that regard: A negative column about Menino got him cut off from City Hall.
Even so, the image of “Boss Menino” is exaggerated. Certainly, the mayor didn’t believe it. His near-obsessive outreach to residents (the joke was that, where two or more are gathered, Menino is in their midst) was driven by his belief that his strength came from knowing better than anyone else what they wanted — and if he was on the wrong track, he’d quickly adjust. And if Menino’s power really was so great, how then to explain his many notable failures? Look, for instance, at the multitude of plans he had for City Hall: rebuild it, put a hotel on the plaza, move it to the waterfront. All came to naught. And union negotiations? He never got what he wanted.
Still, he did get stuff done. By most measures, Boston has improved dramatically under Menino. It looks better, racial tensions have fallen, crime is down, the local economy is stronger, and urban flight has reversed. All of this didn’t happen solely because of Menino, but much credit is his. Would he have been able to accomplish all that if term limits were in place?
Probably not. Term limits come at a price: They weaken politicians.
Part of that is the “lame duck” problem.
Now in his second and final term, Barack Obama is feeling it; he’s finding it hard to persuade even Democrats to support tough gun control legislation. The same would happen at the city level.
Effectiveness in politics comes through the ability to lead and impose one’s will. While we might hope that would happen merely through the brilliance of one’s ideas, all too often it’s a fear of consequences that really get results. Yet a politician who’s headed out the door can’t offer up much in the way of consequences. Opponents would figure they could just wait him out. If Menino had been a lame duck, then unions, city councilors, neighborhood activists, and a host of others would have had a far easier time of stopping change.
Think NIMBYism has been bad during the Menino era? It would have been far worse with term limits. Indeed, Menino’s already finding that the case. He may have over eight months left in his term, but it’s now looking more like a nostalgic farewell tour than a time of bold initiatives.
Then, too, term limits can cut down politicians just as they are hitting their stride. It takes time to become versed in any job, especially one as complex as mayor. Menino’s later years were stronger than his earlier because he learned from mistakes, built coalitions, hired better people, and better deployed the levers of power.
Term limits would certainly avoid another imperial mayoralty. The tradeoff is the spectacular advances of the last 20 years would likely never be repeated.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.