A new year has arrived in Boston, and with it will come something far rarer, a new mayor.
As the city embarks on a hopeful era, it’s time for another important new beginning: A civic dialogue that is less fretful, and thus more candid, lively, and engaged.
Discouraged during Tom Menino’s long tenure, the kind of freewheeling debate is something incoming Mayor Marty Walsh should nurture in the interests of a better Boston.
As Menino’s mayoralty draws to a close, there has been focus aplenty on the many positive aspects of his legacy. But though I wish Menino well, it’s important not to let nostalgia air-brush the counterproductive parts of his record from the historical picture.
Topping that list is the way Boston’s public conversation suffered under a thin-skinned, insecure, often peevish mayor. City actors and observers quickly learned that Menino saw himself less as mayor than as sultan — and could be as petty and imperious as one when angry.
And he was nothing if not easily vexed.
Proposing a project, initiative, or idea that hadn’t first been cleared with the mayor was enough to put one crosswise with him. He was, meanwhile, hypersensitive about criticism and quick to take umbrage at those who differed on policy matters.
Those unfortunate personal qualities soon set the tone at City Hall. Voice a quibble, concern, or objection, no matter how mild, and you could suddenly find yourself subject to a deep chill — a chill that, unless amends were made, could harden into political permafrost.
As word spread about his easily tripped temper, anyone whose enterprise depended even remotely on staying in Menino’s good graces took to their tiptoes. The longer he stayed, the more we came to accept that as simply the way things were in Boston.
The big chill affected everyone from business leaders to nonprofit executives to directors of quasi-public authorities to other elected officials. And so, a city full of smart, well-informed citizens brimming with ideas — a city that once considered itself the Athens of America — fell strangely silent under this heavy-handed mayor.
That modus operandi always spoke poorly of Menino. More to the point, it was bad for Boston, which was denied the vibrant, vigorous clash of ideas and opinions that can lead to new departures or better approaches to old problems. In its place, we got a muted acquiescence to the mayor’s incremental, and frequently unimaginative, agenda.
Against that backdrop, one encouraging aspect of Marty Walsh is that he seems far more equable and even-keeled than the man he will succeed. He doesn’t seem to be similarly thin-skinned, doesn’t appear to feel threatened when people offer their own ideas, and doesn’t take policy disagreement personally. Those who know him well say he abhors bullies and bullying tactics.
Indeed, his personal qualities — a prevailing sense that he is a decent, likable, caring, low-ego guy — are part of what won him election. He would do well to build on that foundation in his inaugural speech and in the tone-setting early days of his administration.
Walsh should emphasize that he knows he doesn’t have all the answers and that he will welcome ideas and discussion about the proper direction of the city.
He should stress that he doesn’t and won’t take policy differences personally; that he understands running Boston shouldn’t be a one-man show; and that he sees ample room on the stage for other civic actors. He should signal that he is mature and grounded enough to countenance disagreement, dissent, and criticism without taking offense.
Most of all, he should make it clear that he knows Boston will benefit from a spirited debate, one that engages much more of the city.
Now, 20 years is a long time, and old fears die hard.
But if Walsh shows a genuine commitment to a fuller, more forthright city conversation, that encouragement should create an invigorating civic breeze — one that stirs and refreshes Boston’s long-stagnant public air.