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Don't underestimate Mr. Pothole (Continued)

BY SETH GITELL

IF MENINO OPTS to run for mayor once again in 2005 — and he’s considering it — he will be a four-termer and people will start talking about the possibility of his breaking the record for mayoral terms (four), shared by James Michael Curley, whose opponents on Beacon Hill drafted term limits to prevent him from being "mayor for life," and Kevin White. At this juncture, it’s hard to see how Menino could ever lose the job — provided he still wants it. In the city of Boston, Menino is the dominant political force. He is, in a sense, a throwback to the days of political bosses. His knowledge of the details of city governance renders him almost impervious to political attacks.

Vincent Cannato, an assistant professor of history at UMass Boston and the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (Basic Books, 2001), says Menino thinks like an old-time political boss. "It’s paying attention to the little things, the street lamps, the potholes, the garbage, which aren’t going to get them on the national news but make people feel good about the city," says Cannato. "The kind of man that gets things done. It’s not glamorous. That’s Menino."

Jack Beatty, author of The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958) (Perseus, 1992), agrees. He even goes so far as to say that Menino is far more typical of an old-time political boss than Curley was. "Curley was more of a charismatic leader than a boss. He was a political buccaneer," says Beatty, saying a better model for Menino is Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, who was elected to six consecutive terms. "Curley was a kind of public entertainer and gave good value at the microphone," says Beatty. "That’s not Menino’s style — nor was it Daley’s. Daley just governed and ran the city."

So how does he do it? Is it all just potholes and street lamps? Or is there more to it? Some say it’s impossible to tell. The mayor, wisely suspicious of journalists, rarely provides a glimpse into how he thinks about his job. Serious interviews with him often devolve into fractious exchanges. He was somewhat prickly on a recent appearance with Emily Rooney on WGBH’s Greater Boston. Menino typically sticks to safe ground for his media hits — a visit to the more-low-impact City Line on WCVB — or his own cable outlet, Neighborhood Network News (known by city wags as MTV — Menino TV). More recently, he has begun to do national television, appearing on MSNBC and CNN, along with local outlets, such as New England Cable News, through his role with the Mayors’ Conference — practice which he believes will prepare him for the crush of attention next year during the Democratic convention.

The result of all this media gamesmanship is that Menino’s own thoughts, impressions, and opinions on his mayoralty are rarely heard in public. The day-to-day coverage is dominated by yesterday’s murder or next week’s vote in the city council. Most observers, close and casual alike, assume there are no broader principles to Menino’s governance, no organizing concepts that underlie his reign, and nothing to learn about the city from talking with him. Like many assumptions made by the punditocracy, though, this one is wrong.

THE MAYOR IS happy. Looking dapper in a white shirt with a light-blue tattersall pattern and a red tie, Menino greets me heartily and offers congratulations on my recent marriage. "How’d you know about that?" I ask. "I’m the mayor," he answers. "I know everything."

His mood is something of a surprise. When I meet with him on January 10 at City Hall, just four days before his State of the City speech, he has just returned from a meeting of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and has every reason to be pissed. Governor Mitt Romney had addressed the group and announced his plans to substantially scale back state aid to cities and towns. Boston, Menino believes, is going to have to take a disproportionate amount of the cuts — some $50 million this year alone — and he doesn’t like it. "There has to be a restructuring of the whole financial picture — of state-city relationships and state-federal relationships."

We sit at an shiny wooden table with his press secretary, Carole Brennan. Throughout our hour-and-a-half-long interview, Menino gestures to the view beyond the large picture window, pointing to East Boston, South Boston, and Faneuil Hall as they arise in our conversation. The motions reflect at least one way Menino thinks of Boston: it’s his city. And he’s mastered it: 589,141 residents, 130 languages, 22 wards, and countless neighborhoods. It’s all his.

City Hall observers — who decline to be quoted — say the mayor has the job down to a walk. Nevertheless, the routine is relentless. Menino gets up nearly every morning around 4:30 a.m. after about five hours of sleep. He doesn’t drink coffee, just lots of water. He likes to be up for a walk around the neighborhood around 5 a.m., during which he plots his way through what he describes as a "chess board" — his day ahead. There are the broad questions: how can he fund city programs? What are the current threats to his political organization? And then there are the micro-issues: the people he’ll be meeting with that day, political considerations, day-to-day matters. "I’m always concerned about what could upset the apple cart. Right now, it’s the financial picture," he says. "I think this is going to set me back a couple of years — this crisis in government."

What Menino doesn’t worry about is that bugaboo of pundits and opinion columnists — vision. Of all the complaints levied against Menino, one of the most common is that he lacks vision. "If there is a vision for the next term, it’s not yet apparent," wrote Boston Herald columnist and former Boston city councilor Tom Keane in September 2001. Boston Globe op-ed columnist Joan Vennochi seconded that. "If there is a plan, it is rather secret. If there is a vision, it needs rearticulation and readjustment in light of the readjusted economy," she wrote after Menino’s election to a third term in November 2001.

To this, Menino says, "What vision?" and then asks: "What are visionaries?" He quickly answers his own question: "People who dream and don’t get anything done." In case his feelings on the matter aren’t clear, he then mimics the collective voice of his critics in singsong style: "‘The mayor doesn’t have any vision.’ Oh good," he says, his voice dropping an octave and acquiring a sharp edge. "I don’t want vision. I want to move this city forward."

And yet he does have something of a vision. Menino has a very specific notion of what he’d like the national media and the thousands of Democratic delegates who parachute into Boston for next year’s political convention to find: "What I hope comes out of this convention is a message of Boston as a city that works, a destination city," he says. "For the seven days people are here, they will see a city that honors its diversity, a city in a growth mode, and opportunities here. We have a great past and a better future."

It’s not the sort of vision opinion columnists and think-tank eggheads have in mind when they criticize Menino for his lack of it. But it’s vision nonetheless. Meanwhile, there’s no denying that Menino has a sharp political imagination. He was the only local politician to cultivate former venture capitalist and millionaire Chris Gabrieli after he lost his race for the Eighth Congressional District in 1998. Maybe Menino did it because he feared a well-financed run from Gabrieli. Regardless, he ended up convincing Gabrieli to spearhead the financing of a key after-school program in Boston.

No one should be surprised by this. To survive as an Italian-American mayor in a city long dominated by Irish Catholics, Menino would have to be politically innovative. After all, the mayor belongs to an ethnic group that, by his reckoning, comprises no more than 15 percent of the city’s voting population. He made it work by leveraging serendipity. When his predecessor, Ray Flynn, was appointed ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton, Menino happened to be president of the city council. With Flynn’s departure, he became acting mayor. He also happened to come from a district with one of the highest voter turnouts in the city. In deciding to run for mayor outright, he was advantageously positioned. But Menino knew he needed something more — an electoral coalition. "I’ve got my base of Southwest Boston, but beyond my base I was able to expand," he recalls. "I knew people in the Greenspace [movement]. I knew people in the gay community. I went to their events."

Today, with a mix of some sarcasm and some contempt, Menino remembers the way fellow members of the council who also decided to run — he won’t say which ones, but then-councilors Rosaria Salerno and Bruce Bolling, State Representative Jim Brett, Suffolk County sheriff Bob Rufo, former police commissioner Mickey Roache, and journalist Chris Lydon mounted campaigns — treated his dogged, relentless, and often tedious efforts to court various community groups. "There were people on the city council — a couple of city councilors — who used to love to go to these cocktail parties and give me a hard time," he says, mimicking their voices in a faux-patrician accent: " ‘Oh, we’re going to a black tie tonight, oh wonderful.’ I used to say, ‘I’m going to a community meeting.’ I was there and had contacts. Some of those people who were candidates for mayor ended up also-rans. I ended up winning."

Menino recalls close friends telling him before his first run that he couldn’t win a mayoral election, because he was Italian. "I said, ‘You don’t understand the city. Boston’s a much more diverse city.’" Soon after he was elected, Menino met with John Hume, the Northern Irish member of parliament who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for helping to forge the Good Friday Agreement. Hume was surprised that somebody with the last name Menino could be mayor in Boston. " ‘What’s a Menino doing here?’" Hume asked Menino, the mayor recalls. "I said, ‘John, you better get used to it. I’m going to be here as long as I want to be.’"

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Issue Date: January 16 - 23, 2003
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