Remembering Mayor Menino

The longtime mayor of Boston was an unconventional politician, and that's why he was one of the most successful urban leaders of his generation.
October 31, 2014
Boston Mayor Tom Menino in 2012
David Kidd
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Newly elected mayors like to be judged, and generally are judged, on the breadth of their vision. They march into office following campaigns in which they promise to produce world-class schools, dramatic new efficiencies in management and spectacular economic development. They deliver inaugural speeches proclaiming that, given enough energy and creativity, no goal is unreachable.

When they leave office, however, it is a different story. By then, the public and most of the pundits have lost track of what the original promises were, and judge mayors on how well they handled the details -- clearing away snow, repairing the streets, keeping municipal employees on the job and a myriad of other administrative challenges far beneath the lofty rhetoric of Inauguration Day.

Thomas M. Menino, who died Thursday, understood that as well as any American mayor of recent times. In his 21 years as mayor of Boston, prior to his retirement at the end of 2013, he never effectively communicated a comprehensive vision of the city's future. Nor did he seem to want to. "Visionaries," he once said, "don't get the job done." Instead, Menino focused almost compulsively on the day-to-day problems of Boston's present, none of them too small to occupy his interest. When critics dismissed him as a mere "mechanic," oblivious to the larger questions of modern urban life, he took that description as a compliment, and launched the Office of New Urban Mechanics in city hall to pursue solutions to the everyday frustrations that living in a big city entails.

The understated genius of Tom Menino became clear to me one afternoon in 2001, as I rode around the city with him on an ordinary day of meetings and civic inspection. Coming upon a new food store, the mayor made a boast I had never heard before from any mayor. "In the eight years I've been in office," he said, "we've built 12 supermarkets." Menino was as proud of those stores as he was of anything that had happened during his time in office.

As we drove through the small commercial strips that line the streets of Boston's neighborhoods, he offered comments on the tiniest icons of neighborhood development. He noticed a new picket fence and pronounced it good; he saw some dingy and faded signs above a row of stores and expressed his displeasure. "Those are the things that make a difference," he told me.

Menino was a neighborhood mayor if there ever was one. He occasionally referred to himself in self-deprecating fashion as "just Tommy from Hyde Park." But where most mayors find themselves choosing between an emphasis on neighborhood renewal and ambitious plans for downtown, Menino managed to stress both at the same time, and do it convincingly. Few in the downtown commercial establishment seemed to resent the time he spent on minor neighborhood issues; few in the neighborhoods felt he had become a pliant creature of downtown interests. That helps to explain the 74 percent approval rating Menino recorded as he completed his fifth and final term. If he had wanted a sixth term, there is little doubt he could easily have won it.

It's possible to argue that Menino was as lucky as he was smart. Boston entered the 1990s blessed with an abundance of social and financial capital in the education, health care and technology industries. Thanks to their presence, and to the commercial development boom that they largely ignited, Boston prospered mightily during Menino's two decades in office, suffering less from the 2008 recession than most cities of comparable size. Boston was destined to be a success in the absence of intrusive or neglectful public management. Menino's city hall could be counted on not to make either of those mistakes.

It would be nice to think that the next crop of American mayors will pay attention to Boston's story, grasp the incremental nature of political success, and refrain from promising easy solutions to the most intractable problems their cities face. It would be nice, but it isn't likely. Overpromising is built into the nature of election campaigns, those for mayor as well as those for president. But any emerging urban leader looking for an unconventional route to success will have Boston in the Menino years as a model to study.