Mayor of Beantown Knows Where the Votes Are

Originally posted: May 13, 2005

In Boston, baseball is a big part of the civic culture, and the city is still a bit daffy about the Red Sox winning last year’s world championship. More important, when I visited last Saturday, the Sox were winning and edging up the standings toward first. Proper Bostonians root for two teams, the Red Sox and whoever is playing the dreaded Yankees. Last Saturday, the Yankees were playing dreadfully and slipping toward the cellar.

So, all around town you could sense the optimism. Also, it is an election year, which is usually even more fun. Traditionally, the contest for mayor of Boston is a brawl, a gloves-off grudge match, loud and raucous, among the Irish American pols who controlled City Hall for nearly a century, B.M. (Before Menino)

Tommy Menino, the first Italian American to hold the office, was wrongly considered to be a temporary fluke when he won the job in 1993. In the last election he was unopposed and is now running for a fourth term.

On Saturday the mayor’s schedule was packed. Boston was geared up for a citywide workday, civic cleanup. Also, it was opening day for the Little League. Then a weather front pushed in, dropping the thermometer to the low 40s with a cold, steady rain.

Work and play both were canceled. But the kids still had to get their uniforms, so Mayor Menino decided to spring a surprise. At the Savin Hill community center gym, the mayor came to help pass out team jerseys, including to his own three grandchildren, and also to shake the hands of parents and coaches. He makes a big deal about communities: “Take care of the neighborhoods and downtown will take care of itself,” he says.

Before revealing the big surprise, the priest from Mother Teresa parish offered a lesson in manners and faith: “Take off your hats, gentlemen. Let us pray!” A hundred kids snatched their caps. What’s the surprise? Probably cookies.

Wrong. On stage, a beaming mayor welcomed three Red Sox jackets carrying something large, gold and gleaming: the Honest-to-God Red Sox 2004 World Series trophy. Talk about shock and awe! Then, each team got its picture taken surrounding the historic prize. Any votes Tommy Menino did not have going into that gymnasium, I think he had going out.

Menino’s commitment to neighborhoods comes from his own growing-up, the son of a factory worker, in blue-collar Hyde Park. As a kid, he passed up college. “I didn’t get it,” he explains. He enrolled at U-Mass Boston in his 40s and graduated at 46. “Lemme tell you, I get it now,” he told Boston Globe columnist David Nyan.

Careening through the neighborhoods with his wheelman, a plainclothes cop, I got a street-level, staccato travelogue from the mayor on his philosophy and projects. We passed new schools, housing and community centers, a boarded theater he hopes to re-open. “We’ll start by replacing 150 light bulbs,” he says.

Nyan once described Menino’s basic appeal as his “ordinariness.” He personally sees to it that flower boxes are planted and wading pools are full. There are white picket fences around vacant lots, which the parks department mows. This builds pride in the neighborhood, he says.

Downtown businesses were zoned to accommodate lofts and apartments upstairs. Menino: “People downtown at night gives you livability. Know what I’m sayin’?” He once told a developer, “This is not your city and we are not going to become Houston.”

Over Menino’s 12 years, Boston has been free of corruption. This also begins with little things. When an Italian chef who had just served the mayor a five-star dinner displayed a handful of parking tickets, hoping to get them fixed, Menino smiled and said, “Pay ‘em. We need the revenue.”

Frankly, it’s refreshing to cover a politician who seems to know what he’s doing and does it with broad public approval. “No whining” is his motto, and he is definitely not slick. “I’m not a fancy talker,” he often says, winning him the nickname “Mumbles Menino.” Everyman as mayor.

The mayor will not be unopposed this time. His challengers include a longtime city councilwoman (the Irish entry), possibly an African American, and maybe a Socialist Workers Party candidate.

His aides will not admit that this election is a gimme. But if you’re inclined to bet against Tommy Menino, you might be better off to leave your money in your other pants.

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