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Opinion | TOM KEANE

Short steps to a long run as mayor

Former Mayor Tom Menino, left, attends a tree-lighting ceremony with Mayor Marty Walsh in December. At 46, Walsh is four years younger than Menino was when he took the office.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Former Mayor Tom Menino, left, attends a tree-lighting ceremony with Mayor Marty Walsh in December. At 46, Walsh is four years younger than Menino was when he took the office.

He’s been in office for almost a week, so the question has to be asked: Can Mayor Marty Walsh beat Tom Menino’s record?

Menino was Boston’s mayor for 7,483 days — 20 years and almost 6 months. Still trying to learn the layout of City Hall, Walsh must regard the prospect of staying in office for such a stretch as almost unimaginable — and contemplating it the height of hubris. But Menino hardly had such a tenure in mind when he first assumed office. Back then he promised to leave after two terms; as the old millennium gave way to the new, he amended that to say he meant two terms “in this century.”

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After Walsh has settled into office and the city beats to the rhythms of his governance, he may find, as did Menino, that he loves the work and doesn’t want to leave. And in all likelihood, he won’t have to, as long as he follows a few simple principles.

 Pick and choose. The issues section of Walsh’s campaign website had thousands of words and hundreds of promises, all of them appended with the tagline “Marty Will Make It Happen as Mayor.” There was something for everyone, and it helped Walsh get elected. But no one can do everything. Walsh needs to figure out his priorities, choosing one or two on which to focus and spending some political capital getting them done. People give you much more credit for doing a few things well than for doing many second-rate.

 Budget carefully. Balance the budget, with an eye to generating surpluses every year. During good times (and that would be now, by the way; the recession is over) sock away the surplus for the inevitable next recession. Pay bills on time, don’t allow unfunded liabilities to pile up, and keep the Wall Street folks happy. To a self-styled populist like Walsh, this last may rankle, but it’s the financiers who buy your bonds. Bonds help you build stuff, and the interest saved can be plowed back into neighborhoods.

 Be a CEO. Good CEOs set the vision, hire strong senior-level executives and then let them do their stuff — while at the same time holding them accountable. Mayors must do the same thing. Walsh won’t be responding to fires, but he’ll get the blame if the fire department doesn’t get there quickly enough. Insist on excellence. If staffers aren’t performing, don’t be afraid to give them the boot or — given that mayors operate in a political world — at least a landing place where they’ll do no harm.

 Sweat the small stuff. City residents really don’t care much about ideologies and epic clashes of ideas. They simply want a city that works. That means tending to the basics of city living: public safety, snow removal, trash pickup, paved streets, clean parks, and the like. As long as day-to-day life is OK for city residents then they’ll want you to stay around.

 It’s about people, not policies. Mayors have to make choices and over time pretty much everyone will be on the wrong end of one choice or another. Menino’s genius was to overcome that by staying connected with city residents. He met with them constantly, not by inviting them into City Hall, but rather by going out to the neighborhoods and talking to them in casual, non-campaign-like events. The goodwill that generated easily overcame most disagreements. It also gave Menino insight into what people were thinking, insight that helped him better navigate the complexities of his job.

To be frank, even if Walsh doesn’t master the above, the prospects of staying in office are still strong. Incumbency, particularly in a small city such as Boston, has enormous advantages. Any challenger has to raise money, and that money almost inevitably comes from folks whose livelihoods and businesses are somehow dependent on the current mayor. Walsh is 46, four years younger than was Menino when he became acting mayor. Sure, he may choose to walk away after 8 or 12 years — thereby gladdening the hearts of a younger generation of pols craving their own chance in office. But if his health is good and he wants to stay, he likely can stay as long as he wants.

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