Boston finally experienced the breath of fresh air that only comes with a wide-open, incumbent-free election.
It takes a lot to make that happen in Massachusetts, as recent political history reminds us.
Ted Kennedy died. John Kerry took a job as secretary of state. And Tom Menino concluded that a 20-year reign as mayor of Boston was long enough — or rather, failing health forced Menino to reluctantly conclude it was time to exit City Hall. The spirit was willing, but the body was not.
Still, after two decades in office, ousting the popular Menino was virtually unthinkable. The city clung to him like a worn and fuzzy security blanket, reveling in the warmth and ignoring the inevitable turning point from comfortable to claustrophobic.
Because the Bay State is a virtual one-party state, Democrats here win office for life. Once elected, they rarely face strong challengers. The brave, but politically weak opponents who dare to challenge them have trouble raising money and name recognition. All the power and media influence rests with those who already have it. Dislodging even a controversial mayor like William Lantigua of Lawrence is no slam-dunk.
But you really can’t blame the politicians. Bay Staters love their incumbents — at least those with a “D” after their names — so much so that when a governor names an interim senator to fill a vacancy, the understanding has to be that he will not run to fill out the remaining term of office. For example after Kennedy’s death, his longtime friend and aide, Paul Kirk, was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick because that’s what the Kennedy family wanted. But Kirk basically had to promise he wouldn’t run for the seat, because even three months as a temp could give a person enough of an aura of incumbency to turn them into a senator for life. The same situation arose when Kerry left the Senate, and Patrick appointed Mo Cowan, his friend and former chief of staff, for the interim spot. Cowan also had to say he would not run in the special election to fill the seat.
When it comes to Boston mayors, voters haven’t tossed one out since they expelled James Michael Curley, a convicted felon, in 1949.
The city’s last three mayors symbolize the locals’ love of longevity.
Kevin H. White was mayor for 16 years. Mayor Raymond L. Flynn was elected three times, but left office in 1993 to become ambassador to the Vatican. When Menino stepped in as acting mayor, that was a ticket to incumbency nirvana and what turned out to be five terms — the longest yet for a Boston mayor.
Over those years, Menino amassed enormous power and used it to keep would-be challengers at bay. Boston’s political stage was big enough for Menino only; competing egos were unwelcome in City Hall or anywhere else around town. That discouraged rivals from developing pools of support.
It is difficult to raise campaign money if potential contributors fear the sitting mayor will punish them for supporting an opponent. It also explains why non-traditional mayoral candidates from the business world were unlikely to run for mayor.
To his credit, City Councilor John R. Connolly was the only candidate willing to get into the 2013 mayor’s race before Menino got out. That gave Connolly a powerful message of independence and courage. But it got lost in the shuffle after Menino said he wouldn’t run for another term and a dozen candidates competed for the top two spots. When Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh faced off in the final, neither wanted to insult Menino, who remains personally popular with voters. Both sought his endorsement. He gave neither candidate his public blessing. But in the end, what was perceived as Menino’s private backing of Connolly didn’t stop Walsh from winning on Tuesday.
Now, as Boston wishes the next mayor well in his new job, is it too much to ask that he not begin it with the goal of beating Menino’s 20-year record? Walsh is still mayor-elect, and won’t be sworn in until January. But already there are suggestions that the job will be his for a long, long time.
There is collective joy in his dream come true and hope for his success. But there should be no prospect of a Silver Anniversary.