IF HE DOES end up staying as long as he wants, itíll be because of his attention to detail. Since that first mayoral election, Menino has worked ceaselessly on his political coalition ó keeping original members happy while bringing more on board. Meninoís coalition includes African-Americans, Latinos, gay men and lesbians, new immigrants, and new homeowners. In 1998, Menino created the Office of New Bostonians to help address the needs of a burgeoning number of new residents. He says the demographic change was easy to spot. As he traveled around the city attending community events, he says, "I saw the new populations. I saw Mattapan, which was Irish Catholic at one time, [is] all Haitian. You go to East Boston and itís the Brazilians. In Brighton, the Russians." Meninoís commitment to the new Americans is so robust, they have rewarded him.
"Iím probably the only elected politician that the Nigerian community had a fundraiser for," he says, noting that many of the new immigrants are becoming citizens and starting to vote. "They want to be involved in the process. Theyíve made Boston their home." Census figures bear Menino out. One-quarter of Bostonís population is foreign-born ó of this population, roughly 40 percent are citizens and eligible to vote. Between 1990 and 2000, 73,000 immigrants arrived in Boston ó compared with the approximately 93,000 residents who cast votes in the 2001 mayoral election.
These figures add up to a New Boston, another concept thatís derided almost as often as the notion that Menino has vision. Every time somebody trots out the possibility that New Boston exists politically, the same small cadre of city voters seems to show up on Election Day. But Menino insists that election results confirm the facts behind the change, even in the areas of the city in which he originally performed the worst. "The weakest part of the city [for me] was South Boston, of course, but after the last election, little noted was I carried South Boston," he says. Itís significant that the last election was held shortly after the linkage battle with South Bostonís Kelly was dealt a death blow: a Superior Court judge ruled in September 2001 that the linkage deal was nonbinding, a decision backed up in November by the Supreme Judicial Court. Menino attributes his success in the neighborhood to "change, demographics." He notes: "Thirty-eight percent of the people of South Boston werenít there five years ago."
Menino also cultivates another group in the city ó new homeowners. "The interesting thing is people ... say, ĎWeíre from Indianapolis, weíre from Chicago.í They say, ĎTommy, we never met our mayor,í" he says. "These are all professionals. They have the same issues as somebody whoís lived in Boston all their life ó housing, schools, planting trees. Dog poop is a big one."
For someone who can command the attention of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, he takes a seemingly odd pleasure in the more mundane aspects of his job: filling potholes and making sure dog poop gets scooped, a task he mentions at least twice during our interview. Take this story about a political event with the elderly in Mattapan, which he attended with Senator Kennedy. When Kennedy spoke, he briefed the seniors on the leading issues of the day ó Social Security and prescription-drug costs. But during a question-and-answer session afterward, most of the seniorsí questions were directed toward the mayor: they wanted to let him know that a nearby streetlight was broken. When it was over, Menino says, Kennedy was incredulous. "He gives me a hard time all the time about that," Menino says.
It is one of the vagaries of modern American politics that tremendous influence accrues to a relentless, grinding plodder such as Menino. The halls of Harvardís Kennedy School of Government are filled with know-it-alls, many of whom believe their strategy can lead a presidential candidate to victory, but Menino will have more influence than any of them. As the head of the Mayorsí Conference, he is the national spokesman for the urban agenda. As the mayor of Boston, he is the sitting Democratic official who can deliver the most bodies to a presidential candidate in New Hampshire. Door-knocking, phone-banking, leafleting ó these are the grassroots activities he can bestow upon a lucky candidate.
Right now, Menino is playing it somewhat coy about which presidential candidate he will support. Asked if heís made a decision, Menino says, "No, I havenít." But he hastens to add, "Senator Kerryís our senator. We have to support our senator." Later in the conversation, Menino says several of the presidential candidates have spoken to him about running. "I know Kerry, I know [former House minority leader Richard] Gephardt, [Connecticut senator Joseph] Lieberman Iíve talked to, Iíve talked to [Vermont governor Howard] Dean." Seeming to take on the persona of a Las Vegas card dealer, he says, "Weíll talk with them all. Weíll talk with them all." He promises that the Democratic primary will not interfere with his role in running the convention. The front-loaded primary, he figures, will be decided by February.
For a moment, at least, Menino allows himself to luxuriate in the thought of presidential hopefuls scurrying for his support. But only for a moment. Then he wakes himself from such reverie. Threats creep back into his brain. "But the home frontís the most important. The home frontís the most important."
When it comes to major city initiatives ó achieving the merger of the Boston City Hospital and Boston University Hospital in 1996, winning the Democratic convention, forging a settlement in this summerís janitors strike ó Menino has made it a common practice to bring in outside experts for help. Those he has turned to over the years include former gubernatorial candidate Patricia McGovern, former state representative Jim Segel, Gabrieli, former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman, and Partners Healthcare chief operating officer and former US deputy secretary of labor Thomas Glynn.
"In my business, the problem is you get isolated," says Menino. "We think weíre the smartest people in the world, but weíre not. I know Iím not smart, so I need help from people to help me think through these issues."
Menino brings a similar approach to politics. He has a small circle of advisers he checks in with frequently. These include, among others, political consultant Ed Jesser, former policy chief and long-time aide Peter Welsh, and pollster Tubby Harrison, whose findings seem to fuel the mayorís perennial insecurities about his political viability. Of Harrison, who polled for former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas, and who is widely respected in political circles, Menino says: "Heís a bad-news-bear guy. Ever tell you any good news? He always tells you bad news."
Menino takes it all to heart. He is relentless about keeping his political organization together, relying mostly on "loyalties" and "personal relationships" ó which can be shorthand for if-you-cross-me-Iíll-double-cross-you. That said, he understands that todayís urban voter is different from the voter of the past and that his organization is far different from that of either the first mayor Daley in Chicago or Bostonís James Michael Curley.
"There are the fragments of an organization," Menino says. "Itís not like the old days when youíd be able to bang heads. People donít vote today Democrat/Republican. You might run on the Democratic ticket, but you donít control the Democratic Party."
MENINO ALMOST instinctually recoils from talking for too long about matters beyond Bostonís borders. He wonít comment on the third-term troubles that plagued Flynn, who dreamed of a career of diplomacy, and White, who once weighed a presidential run. He expresses no interest in going anywhere other than City Hall. "It is just grind it out, grind it out every day," Menino says. "Iíve studied this business pretty well. People say Iím a micromanager."
He probably is. You have to be in order to be a successful mayor. That said, nearly every politician works hard. But Menino says he can think of only one other politician in his universe who wakes as early as he does: House Speaker Tom Finneran of Mattapan. The notion that Finneran might challenge Menino was first raised in the fall 1998 edition of the Boston Latin Schoolís Bulletin and was picked up in a spring 2000 CommonWealth article, titled "Is Finneran Contemplating a Run for Mayor?" (See "Run, Tom, Run," News and Features, January 11, 2001.) "I donít know what he wants," says Menino when asked about the House Speaker. "This job is a different type of job. This job is 24/7. People see me on weekends. Everybody has to be suited for their job."
Unlike Finneran, though, Menino has no outside job. Heís not an attorney. As he says over and over again, he loves his job. And he might run again. "It all depends," he says. "There are a lot of things I need to finish."
One reason Menino is so relentless, so obsessed with detail, is that he doesnít have anywhere to go. Unlike most sitting politicians, who allow themselves to believe that they are the center of the universe, the mayor doesnít seem to think that way. Maybe thatís because he was a relatively late bloomer, a man who didnít earn his college degree until 1988. He uses the trappings of power, but doesnít truly believe they are real. "Since Iíve been mayor, I have millions of friends. When I walk out that door, 10 people will talk to me. I understand that," he says, noting that itís all because heís mayor. If he leaves office, itíll all come to an end. "A lot of elected officials donít understand that," he adds. "I leave this office and Iím not mayor. Iím ex-mayor Menino."
To Menino, this is perhaps the driving force, the element that keeps him going. "A lot of folks donít understand that," he says. "They think it lasts forever. It doesnít last forever. Itís a chapter in the book of life."
The next year and a half will say much about Menino and his legacy. How he handles the convention will go far to define his mayoralty. A flub, a high-profile malapropism, a Daley-esque temper tantrum ó all these could send Meninoís reputation plummeting. But even that might not undo his political grip on the city.
Even Daley, for example, who was seen on national television mouthing the words "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home" in response to Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoffís criticism of the Chicago police during the 1968 riots, survived as mayor. Mike Royko concludes his book Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (Dutton, 1971) with Daley winning a fifth term in 1971. Reporters asked Daley whether he had been congratulated by any of the presidential hopefuls, who included Edward Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and Edmund Muskie. The book concludes: "Daley smiled. ĎAll of them did.í"
Sounds like Menino. The mayor has crafted a new political organization in Boston. Barring the inconceivable, someday he will decide whom to give it to. But for now, as he says, heís mayor for as long as he wants to be.
Seth Gitell can be reached at email@example.com