BOSTON — As Tom Menino’s police-driven SUV makes its way through the streets of downtown Boston, construction workers wave.
It’s like this all day: students, school teachers, other city employees. His press secretary and frequent travel companion, Dot Joyce, says everybody wants to say hello to the mayor.
“You can’t imagine how many people want their picture taken with him and all that,” Joyce says, then laughs. “You sort of take for granted who you are and the stature you have.”
“It’s only me. I can’t get over it,” Menino says, sitting at the large conference table in his enormous office in City Hall, overlooking Faneuil Hall. “I’ve been mayor 16 years. It still amazes me.” On his desk is a sign that says “No whining!”
But for most of the day, the mayor doesn’t run the city from his office; he does it from the front passenger seat of his city SUV.
“Hey, what’s going on, pal?” Menino says to someone on the other end of the phone. “You should have heard me at the mosque. Good. Yoon was there. Yeah. All right. Talk to you later, I’m going off to Hyde Park next. Bye. Heh! Heh!”
Joyce laughs. “That means he’s up to something,” she says. “Getting things done.”
“You don’t have to be in the office to get things done,” Menino says. “All you need is a phone. See, I have two phones here. One’s mine and one’s the city’s.”
The mayor is well-known for calling in to complain about the potholes and the garbage that hasn’t been picked up.
“On Blue Hill Avenue, from Columbia Road to Washington Street,” Menino informs the operator of his own complaint line. “The curb is — all kinds of trash. I need Public Works there. Thank you.”
Menino’s personal involvement in the details of city life brings criticism from two of his opponents in the mayor’s race, City Councilor Sam Yoon and South End developer Kevin McCrea, who say there has to be a better way to fix problems than wait for the mayor to spot them.
Menino disagrees. “The problem with government — that personal touch is missing,” Menino says. “You gotta maintain the personal touch out there, and it’s unfortunate that some of these people say, ‘You shouldn’t be doin’ this, you shouldn’t be doin’ that.’
People want to see the mayor, they want the mayor to take of their issues, Menino says. “That’s part of the quality-of-life issues in Boston. I mean, you have to know the city. But hey, who am I? It’s easy to throw rocks. It’s very difficult to get the job done.”
Menino is known for taking credit for the ideas of other people at City Hall. But he’s frustrated that, as he sees it, his opponents let him get the job done, then turn out to take the credit. He’s just broken ground for a new Olympic swimming pool at the Hyde Park YMCA, a project he’s worked on for years because it involves the permanent closure of a city street where the pool will be.
Menino is annoyed that his opponent, Sam Yoon, shows up at the ceremony. “I’m always amazed at elected officials. They just have no idea what to do at those things,” he says. “They just show up because it might get them an opportunity to get a picture taken. But to lift a finger? Oh, no. No transparency in the process.”
That’s a dig at Yoon, who criticizes Menino for not being transparent in the way he conducts business. Menino says he goes to so many events because it reassures people that their government is there.
“Even their little small little events they might have — the mayor — it’s respect to those people, respect to that neighborhood,” Menino says. “I went to a meeting the other night in Charlestown. Everybody said, ‘Why are you going?’ Because I learn from people about certain issues that I wasn’t up to date on.”
There are few issues on which the mayor is not up to date, and he is not happy when caught off guard.
“Oh yeah? When’s he leaving? Today?” he asks, answering a call from one of his subordinates. “Somebody should have told me earlier. I mean, Jesus. You guys just do everything — you march to your own drummer. How long have you known he was leaving? Who knew?”
Menino has just found out that the golf pro at Franklin Park has resigned. It’s just as the mayor is touting the city’s golf courses. The Boston Globe is in the middle of a week-long series about the lack of support for high-school athletes, and Menino is hoping that more students will take up golf to take advantage of college scholarships.
He blames the city’s athletic director for not bringing to his attention the problems that are now the focus of the Globe series. “Like the athletic director of the city, right? I met him once.” Menino says. “Don’t ask me how come. I ain’t chasing him.”
Normally, Menino’s day begins with an hour-long bike ride around Hyde Park. He didn’t go this morning, because he thinks it’s too dangerous to ride when the roads are wet.
He did call his grandchildren, as he does every morning. Menino has two children and six grandchildren, ages 5 to 11. “Grandkids are the best thing that ever happened to you,” he says. “They’re better than kids.”
Menino has to make his monthly 8 a.m. meeting with heads of departments, so he doesn’t have time to stop for coffee at his favorite place, the Dunkin’ Donuts in Grove Hall.
“People will be mad if we’re late,” Joyce tells him.
“Do we have coffee? We have coffee, don’t we?” Menino asks her. “We used to have breakfast for our department heads. We cut that out of the budget. Gone!”
They mayor pays close attention to news coverage of the city. On the way to his meeting, he hears a report on the radio by WBUR’s Steve Brown — a report about something the mayor has cut from the city police budget.
“The Boston Police Mounted Unit! Oh my God!” the mayor exclaims. “Nobody understands that issue at all. It hasn’t been reported properly, because we all love horses — everybody loves horses — but there’s a decision you have to make when you’re mayor, when people want officers on the streets. And if you’re on a horse, you’re not doing that. Horses only go on the street for three hours, four hours at best.”
Menino has lived his entire life in Boston.
“See that place right there?” he asks. “Empire Loan? That was the best Jewish deli around at one time. The Premier Deli. My uncle had a factory right next door.”
Menino was raised by his uncle and aunt in Hyde Park, about a mile from the modest two-story Readville house where he lives now. Throughout the day, he worries about his cousin, who is undergoing surgery.
For much of the day, press secretary Dot Joyce tries to make time in his schedule so that he can visit his cousin, but in the end he says it would just make him too sad for all the other appointments he has to keep.
Sometimes, they are appointments he would not be so sad to miss. Over lunch at the B.Good on Massachusetts Avenue, Joyce breaks it to him that his next appointment might be canceled.
“Looks like we might get a rain-out at our Frog Pond,” Joyce says.
“Hope so,” the mayor replies. “Not one of my favorite things. I don’t like it all. I don’t like things that just say, ‘We did it last year. We’re going to do it again.’ Who really cares? Let’s do something different.”
Despite the rain, the annual opening of the Frog Pond on Boston Common is on. But Menino is soon back in the SUV.
“Control tower!” he exults as he answers the phone.
This is the first in a series of profiles of the Boston mayoral candidates.