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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Nice mayor, needs a vision

Shortly after taking over Boston City Hall, Mayor Marty Walsh was advised to fire a longtime city employee who was known as a bully.

Instead, Walsh called the employee into his office and told him there would be no more yelling or screaming and no more need to be mean. He has heard back that the employee now tells colleagues: “We’re nice to people now. The mayor wants us to be nice to people.”

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The moral of the story? There’s a new sheriff in town, and he differs in style from the old one.

“I have a different mindset. I want to bring a different culture. I want people to enjoy going to work every day and to do a good job on behalf of the taxpayers of Boston. I don’t think you have to do it by fear,” Walsh said during breakfast at McKenna’s in Dorchester earlier this week.

In case you missed it, “fear” was a reference to Walsh’s predecessor, Tom Menino. Of course, he respects Menino, said Walsh, preaching niceness — before executing a delicate jab.

The public loves Menino, but some insiders who witnessed the force of his will over time are less enthralled with his management legacy. But criticizing him is sensitive, given his popularity, health issues, and higher-than-expected profile as mayor emeritus.

On one hand, Menino chose not to attend Walsh’s swearing-in. On the other, the new mayor and the ex-mayor have been sharing the stage more than anyone anticipated. Walsh has been gracious about it, but asked about the many events featuring the former and current mayors, he said, “I can tell you this, when I am done with being the mayor of Boston, I’m gonna retire . . . I’m gonna let the next mayor do the job. You can’t have two mayors.”

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Five months into it, Walsh is thrilled with a job few predicted he would win. “I love it,’’ he said. “It’s everything and more than I ever thought.”

For Walsh, part of the thrill is reveling in the distance he traveled, from recovering alcoholic to state lawmaker, and then, improbably, to mayor. He’ll tell you candidly that if he loses his sense of wonder about it all, he runs the risk of losing the humility and humanity that are engaging parts of his persona.

Walsh still meets with recovery groups and still shares his personal tale of hope and triumph.

But to be great — and reelected — a mayor needs more than a compelling life story. Walsh faces plenty of challenges. Can he deliver on diversity? Can he stand up to unions? Can he develop a real vision for Boston’s future?

“I think the mayor was always thinking about reelection,” said Walsh of Menino. “I’m not thinking about reelection. It’s too early. I’m doing my job. When the time for reelection comes around, if I did my job, I’ll get reelected.”

Asked about the “vision thing,” he notes that Banker & Tradesman recently published “a nice story” that counters the conventional wisdom that he lacks it. Pressed on what his is, however, Walsh ducks. “What’s my vision for Boston for the next 10 years? Who the hell knows?” he said. “I’m not going to lay out a vision. The only vision I’m concerned about is the schools. The schools have to get better. I’m not worried what the Boston skyline is going to look like. Or whether there are cobblestone sidewalks or bricks.”

Menino’s attention to detail like that was legendary. No one writes about Boston development without mentioning the crownlike structure on the top of 111 Huntington Avenue, plopped there because the former mayor didn’t like flat rooftops.

A post-Menino definition of vision would also be nice from a mayor who is committed to bringing a post-Menino niceness to city government.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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