TODAY’S BOSTON mayoral election marks the end of power for a man who is both beloved and feared. Beloved, for his superhuman ability to attend neighborhood events. Feared, for his unwritten decree that nothing big can happen without his name on it. Is that combination a quirk of Mayor Tom Menino’s? Or is it the secret to staying in power so long?
If Boston were a country, Menino would be one of the longest-serving, non-royal heads of state in the world. His two decades in office would put him at number 16, just behind Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon.
According to Martha Brill Olcott, author of “Tajikistan’s Difficult Development Path,” leaders with such longevity share a few things in common.
First: no term limits. Rahmon changed the rules to stay in office. Menino didn’t have to.
Second: budgetary control. It’s almost impossible to unseat a sitting mayor of Boston — or president of Tajikistan, for that matter — because he has near-total control over the money. Want a tax break for your real estate project? A grant for your youth group? A job? Don’t be on the outs with the guy in charge.
Rahmon has $2 billion a year to spend in a country of 8 million people.
Menino has more: $2.6 billion in a city of just 630,000. There’s a reason no incumbent has been defeated since 1949.
A third trait in common is the ability to recognize — and neutralize — challengers before they emerge. When Rahmon’s deputy prime minister got too popular, he was abruptly forced to resign. Remember former Boston Redevelopment Authority director Tom O’Brien?
Wait a minute, you might say. Isn’t it a stretch to compare a well-loved, democratically elected figure to a corrupt, vote-rigging Soviet-style dictator?
Of course it is. According to State Department cables, Rahmon gradually forced his rivals “into prison, out of the country, or they have died mysteriously.” Word has it former mayoral candidate Sam Yoon is alive and well in Virginia.
Still, American pols have their own means to undermine rivals and silence critics. What we learn about power when we examine those who have wielded it the longest is that their methods are surprisingly similar.
“The skills that long-lasting politicians use in cities with old political machines, you find a lot in common with the methods of autocrats,” Olcott said.
It’s telling how many people have had run-ins with the mayor, including the two who are vying to replace him. People think twice before crossing Menino or rolling out an initiative that doesn’t bear his name. Which begs the question: Is Menino’s vindictive streak a blemish on his long, impressive record? Or is it the reason he had such a long, impressive record in the first place?
It could be argued that Boston’s warring tribes had fought such bitter battles in the 1970s and ’80s that we needed a strong hand to bring peace and stability to the city.
Rahmon, also elected after a bloody civil war, is credited with the same.
Rahmon, a low-level apparatchik who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party bureaucracy, proved to be an instinctive politician.
“At first, I dismissed him as a buffoon-like figure,” Olcott said. “But he has created an image of power that ordinary people identify with.”
The same could be said of Menino, who similarly defied expectations and inspires loyalty in ordinary people. As he departs, it’s worth asking: Do we still need a mayor with such a big heart and such an iron fist?