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Howard Leibowitz, 63; was key aide to two Boston mayors

Howard Leibowitz, a low-profile aide to mayors Raymond Flynn and Thomas Menino who was an outsize figure in city politics and policy, died Sunday after suffering a heart attack at his Jamaica Plain home.

Howard Leibowitz worked for Thomas M. Menino and Raymond L. Flynn.

He was 63.

Mr. Leibowitz, who grew up in public housing in Brighton, brought an encyclopedic, street-level understanding of the city to his job as a campaign worker, as a housing analyst for Flynn, and as a jack-of-all-trades liaison to federal and state officials for Flynn and Menino.

However, Mr. Leibowitz's uncommon ability to build bridges in a city known for its sharp political elbows might have been his greatest accomplishment, according to remembrances Monday from family, friends, and former colleagues.


"He had optimism, generosity, and a determination that the world could be a better place," said Constance Doty, his wife of 29 years, whom Mr. Leibowitz met in 1983 while they were working on Flynn's first mayoral campaign.

"There was just an aura of kindness about him," recalled Doty, who also served in the Flynn and Menino administrations. "He was always hugely interested in the person he was talking to. A lot of people in politics are looking over your shoulder, but that was never Howard. He was equally as happy talking with the least important person in the room."

Mr. Leibowitz had been working since April for Community Enterprise Partners, a nonprofit organization in Washington that seeks to create affordable housing. That kind of work — providing opportunity for people of low to moderate incomes — played a large role in his career.

"He very much cared about making a difference,'' said Steven Leibowitz of Brewster, one of his three brothers. "So many people knew him and so many people were touched by the things that he was involved in."

Flynn said Mr. Leibowitz served as his point person on social issues such as affordable housing and homelessness and made things happen. Mr. Leibowitz was considered one of the "Sandinistas," a nickname given to aggressive reformers in the Flynn administration who sometimes clashed with the mayor's moderate supporters.


"Howard represented all that is good and decent about politics: honesty, kindness, and loyalty," Flynn said. "His agenda was about helping people and the values of social and economic justice."

Mayor Martin J. Walsh also praised Mr. Leibowitz. "Howard dedicated much of his life to bettering his community through public service, and he will be missed by many," he said.

Mr. Leibowitz's passions included the Boston Red Sox; at Fenway Park he enjoyed sitting in Section 33, hard by the Green Monster, to watch his beloved team. He was an avid fan of Bruce Springsteen, as well, once standing in the rain until after 1 a.m. — after some concert-goers had left — to watch the entire performance at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

"He could talk baseball. He could talk music. He was a hail fellow, well met," said Marie Turley of Jamaica Plain, who led the Boston Women's Commission under Menino and worked with Mr. Leibowitz on Flynn's 1983 campaign.

"He was the progressives' everyman," she added. "You could take him to the back room at Doyle's," the popular Jamaica Plain bar, "and you could take him to the White House."

Angela Menino, the late mayor's wife, recalled that her husband said Mr. Leibowitz had "the biggest Rolodex of anyone and could come up with the most amazing ideas for making the city better because of all of those different friends."


"He occasionally would have to find Howard at Fenway instead of his office during the season," Angela Menino continued, "but this was part of why Tommy loved him — Howard was genuine."

Peter Dreier, who served as Flynn's top housing adviser, made Mr. Leibowitz his first hire at City Hall in 1984. Mr. Leibowitz "had worked for a local nonprofit housing group, and he taught me a lot — about housing policy and about Boston politics," Dreier said in a Facebook tribute. "In truth, he knew more about both topics than I did."

Dreier said in an interview that he had e-mailed Mr. Leibowitz on Saturday, seeking to arrange a speaking engagement in Boston for an Israeli activist who brings Jews and Palestinians together. Within hours, Mr. Leibowitz responded with a flurry of ideas.

The pair had worked in state Senator Joseph Timilty's unsuccessful race against Mayor Kevin White in 1979 and were reunited in Flynn's victory four years later. As Flynn's director of intergovernmental relations, Mr. Leibowitz used his connections to help Boston gain tens of millions of dollars in federal funds.

"Howard's fingerprints, but not his name, are all over many pieces of local, state, and federal legislation and policies to help the poor," said Dreier, who moved to Los Angeles in 1993 to teach at Occidental College, where he is chair of the urban and environmental policy department.


"Howard could get more done with one phone call than most people can accomplish with 20 calls,'' Dreier said. "He knew everybody in City Hall, state government, and Congress, but also neighborhood activists, academic experts, business leaders, and union folks."

After Flynn resigned in 1993 to become US ambassador to the Vatican, Mr. Leibowitz joined the Menino administration, first as press secretary and later resuming his job as director of intergovernmental relations. He left the Menino administration in 2004.

His knowledge of Boston political trivia — he began working in campaigns as a teenager — was astounding. Dreier said Mr. Leibowitz could recall who finished fourth in a 1970s state Senate race in Roxbury, for example, or how many votes Flynn received in Ward 19 in 1987.

"He was just a normal, everyday guy who happened to be a political genius," Dreier said.

He also was a voracious reader of news. Doty recalled that on a getaway to Vermont in the 1980s, Mr. Leibowitz came back from the corner store with every Vermont newspaper he could find. Not only did he read them, Doty said with a chuckle, but he cut out the articles that interested him.

"He knew a million things about what was going on in politics, and in Boston, and in the state," said Lew Finfer, a longtime community activist. "But he also had a sense of humor about it. He was a positive character.''

Mr. Leibowitz moved to Mattapan from public housing in Brighton, attended Boston Technical High School, and continued his education at Brandeis University.


Before his death, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action had planned to honor Mr. Leibowitz on Jan. 24 for a lifetime of service. Doty said she will ask that the event be held as scheduled at Temple Israel in Boston.

"He just was a wonderful enabler and facilitator and didn't need any credit," said Sheila Decter, executive director of the alliance.

In addition to his wife and brother Steven, Mr. Leibowitz leaves two other brothers, Laurence of Boston and Peter of Hudson.

Doty said burial would be private, but that arrangements are being made for a public memorial service early next week.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMacQuarrie.