For 20 years, Boston has been lucky to have Tom Menino in the mayor’s office. The city has improved in almost every respect. Menino wasn’t personally responsible for every positive development — many cities enjoyed the benefits of lower crime rates and a return to urban living — but he guided the changes with impressive political skills and finesse. Through the inevitable ups and downs, his heart was almost always in the right place: A city that had suffered greatly from divisions — between races, classes, and neighborhoods — came closer during his tenure, through his ability to find common ground. He was, in many important ways, the glue that kept Boston together as it moved forward.
But every political era must come to an end. Those who were hoping that Menino would put himself forward for a sixth term understandably feared the uncertainty of the scramble to replace him. But there was never any reason to believe that the transition would be any easier in 2017, or that a Menino-like successor would magically rise from the packed earth of City Hall Plaza if only there were four more years of cultivation. Meanwhile, as the 70-year-old Menino’s health problems became more evident, the dangers of a city government left rudderless by the illness or incapacity of the mayor became more real.
When his strength began to return after his long holiday-season hospitalization, Menino seemed to be actively considering another term. But his better judgment prevailed. There was always going to be a post-Menino era in Boston politics, and it might as well begin with this year’s election. In this, as in so many other decisions over the years, Menino may have taken his time in figuring out the best direction. But he found his way to the right place.
It is an exaggeration to say, as many have, that Menino’s rise to mayor was entirely unexpected. It was certainly true that he started in the least glamorous of trenches, serving as driver to the twice-failed mayoral candidate Joe Timilty. And his political launching pad, the district City Council seat covering Hyde Park and Roslindale, was hardly the most propitious political zip code in Boston. But he was respected on the City Council as a problem solver. So when Mayor Raymond Flynn, in his tenth year in office, was clearly hankering for an appointment by newly elected President Bill Clinton, some of Flynn’s supporters worked behind the scenes to make sure that Menino, rather than one of the council’s many firebrands or lesser lights, ended up as council president. That put him in line to be the city’s interim chief if Flynn flew the coop.
That soon happened when Flynn, after a period of wavering, committed to taking the post of US ambassador to the Vatican. Handed the keys to the mayor’s office, Menino gave every appearance of being a dutiful caretaker. But being acting mayor made him a realistic candidate for the permanent job, and the intense loyalty of his Hyde Park and Roslindale supporters vaulted him into the finals against state Representative James Brett. There, Menino skillfully co-opted the supporters of several more liberal candidates, and beat Brett in a landslide.
The previous quarter-century at City Hall had been divided between the visionary Kevin White, whose dream of a world-class Boston served to alienate people in the city’s neighborhoods, and the community-minded Flynn, who cast himself as a James Michael Curley-like advocate for the underdog. While White and Flynn both had substantial successes, they also left behind a sour taste of class-based disputes and competition for limited resources. Menino, wisely, seemed to split the difference between them, and in the process made the case that Boston could be pro-growth and pro-neighborhood at the same time.
He was no showhorse like White, and he cast his aims in down-to-earth terms: Better schools, quicker trash clean-up, more tree plantings in neighborhoods, community policing. But he was also no class warrior like Flynn: Whether at a community meeting in Roxbury, a union hall in South Boston, or a boardroom on State Street, Menino radiated the same mix of humility and self-confidence. He liked to smile and shake hands. He seemed open to any ideas that would improve the city.
Behind the amiable exterior was the shrewdness — and, to some extent, the volatile temperament — of a master politician. It helped him understand the desires of a diverse swath of Bostonians, and to avoid becoming entangled in the types of disputes that erode a mayor’s credibility. Menino’s sixth sense for the political middle ground didn’t just preserve his own standing; it helped to unite the communities of Boston.
Through it all, Menino kept the city on a path to improvement, driving down crime and reducing violence, and then being back on the case, vigilant as ever, when it started to pop up again. A city that was so often at odds over big development projects from the 1960s through the ’80s suddenly made its peace with the forces of progress. Menino’s redevelopment authority rarely advocated for dramatic alterations to the city’s landscape or revolutionary designs, but it wasn’t hostile to change, either. Menino understood much better than the leaders of many smaller Massachusetts cities and towns the benefits of expanding the housing market and improving transportation.
A vibrant new Boston, replete with a fast-growing downtown and cleaner, safer neighborhoods, is part of Menino’s legacy.
In his second decade in office, Menino came to be seen as a more imposing figure, a prototypical big-city political boss. There were complaints of him playing favorites with certain developers, and city officials and fellow politicians sometimes felt his wrath. Don’t oppose the mayor if you want your street plowed, was an occasional refrain.
But Menino retained his tireless work ethic and, in most settings, his welcoming demeanor. He continued to show his love for the city and embrace of its people. When he fell ill last winter, many Bostonians reacted as if a member of their own family were laid up. His recovery was met with a palpable sense of relief.
The next mayor will, of course, have his or her own style. And simply having a new leader on the fifth floor of City Hall will open up some possibilities, creating a chance for fresh energy and new directions in many city departments. But the next mayor would do well to follow Menino’s lead in seeking a delicate balance between neighborhoods and downtown, and between preservation and progress. Hopefully, he or she will be able to leave as substantial an imprint as Menino. It won’t be easy.