Menino and his city

Given his health issues, we might have expected to see a frail man take the podium last night in Faneuil Hall to prepare for his life beyond City Hall.  Instead, the longest-serving Mayor in Boston’s history laid out an aggressive agenda.

He looked great and sounded like a man fully intending on an additional term in office.

The tribal politics that dominated Boston for generations seems to now be a feature of a history most residents no longer recall.  Menino has not only out lasted his political opponents and brought a degree of placidity to the city, he has outlasted all other big city mayors in the nation.

This recent article in Governing, “The Boss of Boston” offers an excellent refresher for those who are not yet familiar with what makes Menino tick.  According to my colleague, Professor Cunningham, “He’s really smart. He’s forward-looking. He likes to say, you know, ‘I’m not a fancy talker but I get things done.’ I think he’s kept both of those promises.”

The Mayor’s notoriously painful syntax is perhaps the perfect symbol of his time in office.  He mentioned it again last night noting that he doesn’t need fancy words to express himself.  There are very few public officials who don’t think about moving up to higher office and who would seek at most opportunities to burnish their public image in the sleek fashion that has become the hallmark of modern politics.

Many years ago I approached the Mayor as he exited Filene’s Basement in Downtown Crossing during lunch.  He was alone walking down Washington Street.  I gave a casual hello and “keep up the good work.”  He mumbled a cheerful greeting and kept on his way.

Try to imagine Rudy Giuliani in a similar situation  It isn’t possible.

Menino doesn’t do flash. He doesn’t need fancy words because they are not necessary for what he seeks to accomplish for his city and for himself.  When he uses them or attempts the rhetorical flourish, the speech doesn’t ring true.  Consider two examples from last night:

Menino declared “This is the era of the city, and we live in the city of the era.”  Didn’t sound like Tommy from Hyde Park to me.

But earlier he noted:

The most tragic loss of human potential is when it is lost to violence. Sandy Hook is now seared into our memory. So are Woolson Street and Harlem Street. Wayne LaPierre and the NRA say more guns are the answer. That is crazy! Every victim of gun violence and their families know that’s crazy. Gabriel Clarke’s mother, Shirley, is with us tonight. She knows that’s crazy. After her son was shot, she called for peace. And LaPierre goes on T.V. after Sandy Hook and called for more guns? Any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for gun reforms is saying that she was wrong and he was right. We can’t let that happen.

He nearly spit out the name of the NRA chief in his comments last night.  For Menino the city is people like Gabriel Clark and he is at his best when speaking about ordinary citizens, city squares, and the local issues that animate life in Boston.  There’s a reason this mayor will spend entire days touring the city during the holidays bringing cheer to every corner.  A colleague who has had the opportunity to watch the mayor in this annual holiday event marveled at the knowledge of every square they encountered, the history of the families he met along the way, and the work that is being done around each corner.

Serving for so long can leave a complex legacy.  For one, other political ambitions in the city can build up into a pressure cooker of sorts.  And there is plenty of talent in Boston to assume the mantle of leadership.  For two, staleness can set in though the article in Governing suggests that in many ways, this is not an issue in Boston.

In any case, after a widely hailed State of the City address, the Mayor doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  He certainly is not keen to move up the political ladder–he would have done so long ago if he harbored other aspirations.  Unlike so many others, his aspirations in the political world haven’t strayed far beyond the neighborhood in which he was raised.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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