How smart is Boston city councilor and mayoral front-runner Michelle Wu? Smart enough to counter charges of elitism and pie-in-the-sky notions with a timely embrace of that renowned “urban mechanic” and humble man of the people — the late Mayor Tom Menino.
During Tuesday night’s debate with rival Annissa Essaibi George, also a Boston city councilor, Wu name-dropped Boston’s longest-serving mayor several times. Asked how she would balance her big, bold plans against more pedestrian assignments like fixing potholes and picking up trash, Wu mentioned she worked for Menino before winning a spot on the Boston City Council, and that experience taught her that “we can do the big things by getting the little things right.” As Paul Parara, the radio host known as Notorious VOG on b87fm.com, tweeted admiringly: “‘C’Mon! Whenever you can talk about time working and learning from Mumbles is a WIN with nativist Boston.”
With a woman of color set to win the mayor’s office, Boston is on the cusp of historic political change. But Menino — dubbed “Mumbles” by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr because of his sometimes mangled speech — is still the gold standard when it comes to performing the nuts-and-bolts job of being mayor with a thick Boston accent. Not only did Boston voters like Menino enough to keep him in office for 20 years — as Parara also tweeted, it’s better for Wu if more voters see her as a Menino disciple rather than a disciple of Senator Elizabeth Warren, her law school professor and mentor of all things progressive.
Sidling up to Menino also undercuts Essaibi George, who has been trying to make the case that she’s the best choice for voters who want a practical, hands-on mayor, not one whose head is in the clouds of wishful thinking about free public transportation and rent-controlled housing.
Menino, of course, had his flaws, among them a thin skin, a passion for grudge-holding, and a willingness to use the power of his bully pulpit to bully perceived enemies. But when it came to the day-to-day job of being mayor, he stood out for commitment to the basics, plus the ability to grow an agenda and adapt to changing times.
The blending of those political skills became his legacy beyond Boston. Catapulted from City Council president to acting mayor when Ray Flynn left to become US ambassador to the Vatican, Menino was underestimated as an accidental mayor and mocked for his lack of refinement. He took on the doubters by doing the job better than anyone could predict. He was not a visionary, he was proud to say, because “visionaries don’t get things done.” But he did envision and help build a different Boston. He not only oversaw development, he also made Boston more open to immigrants and people of color, and he became a champion of gay rights. He also came to represent the city’s spirit and resilience after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
What would he think about this race and today’s politics? Would he stick with Columbus Day or accept Indigenous Peoples’ Day? How would he react to phrases like “leaning in” and “in community”? Menino embodied that to the point of one poll indicating that more than half of those surveyed said they had personally met him. He also worked to anchor Mass. and Cass with private development, bolstered by public support. What would he think of the hundreds now living there on the streets and in tents, and how would he resolve it? The Boston Police Department’s deplorable lack of transparency and accountability trace back to the Menino years, as do problems in the Boston Public Schools. Menino isn’t around to answer for those issues, and his successor, Marty Walsh, is happily unavailable to address them from his perch as US labor secretary.
Walsh followed the Menino model of showing up and paying attention to small details while sketching out a broader vision for Boston. But he also left behind a passel of problems. Today, it’s better to wrap yourself, as Wu did, in the warmer glow of Menino memories.
Another thing about Menino: He wanted only one job - mayor. Before she even wins, there’s already talk about Wu’s next move. She would also be smart to tamp that down too.