‘Urban Mechanic’ Menino Never Wanted To Be Anything More Than Mayor

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Thomas Menino, in a 2013 file photo (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Thomas Menino, in a 2013 file photo (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

From his parade stand as Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino saw three presidents, five governors and eight world champion teams pass by. He set his own world record in the long jump, perhaps, by getting to be mayor in the first place.

But once there, Menino set another record for longevity. He had his fingers in everything, you could find him everywhere. A 2009 Globe poll showed that 57 percent of city residents — not including school kids — had personally met Menino. And he still had five more years in office.

Former City Councilor Michael McCormack says Menino, who passed away Thursday at 71 after a battle with cancer, never wanted to be anything more than mayor.

“Tom Menino said this is the best job I could possibly have and you know what, it’s the best job ever,” McCormack said.

Mayor Kevin White had dreams of national office. So too did Mayor Ray Flynn, who left the job to be ambassador to the Vatican, then ran for Congress. Menino never set his sights farther south than Hyde Park and his home in Readville.

Menino’s daily rounds were legendary. Days started at dawn — he told reporters to call him at home at 5 a.m. if they ever had any questions. It was the same time he expected associates to tee up for golf. Days generally ended with the last neighborhood meeting.

“If there were nine people on a Sunday night in a snowstorm meeting in Allston to talk about the public library, Menino was there,” said Joe Timilty, a former city councilor and state senator who was Menino’s mentor.

Menino started the year 1993 as a district councilor, representing Hyde Park and Roslindale, without a citywide base of power. That Menino ever became mayor required all the stars in the heavens to align.

If Bill Clinton had not defeated George Bush…

If Mayor Ray Flynn had not campaigned so hard for Clinton…

If the president of the Boston City Council, Chris Iannella, had not died and created a vacancy…

If Ray Flynn had not pushed city councilors into making Menino president…

And if Clinton had not paid Flynn back by naming him ambassador to the Vatican….

…then Tom Menino would never have become acting mayor in July 1993.

“By accident Tom Menino is the acting mayor of Boston. He really was an accidental mayor,” McCormack said.

Friends say that Menino never let go of his resentment at the idea he only became mayor by accident, and he never stopped running to keep the position he never thought he could achieve.

Chance and coincidence may have made Menino acting mayor, but he needed more than that to get elected mayor in November 1993 — and he showed his political skill by acting like he was the mayor.

“Then he announced there was going to be no raise in the water and sewer rates in the city. And no one had ever discussed it — there was no discussion ever about raising the water and sewer rates,” McCormack said. “But Tom Menino announced with great fanfare, ‘We will not be raising the water and sewer rates.’ And everyone said, you know what, there’s the mayor.”

Here Menino emerged as the Urban Mechanic, Mr. Nuts and Bolts. He kept track of snow plows, street cleaning and potholes. Boston historian Jim Vrabel says Menino had seen how effective Flynn had been as an action-figure mayor — going out into the neighborhoods, riding fire engines and snow plows, famously rescuing a Salvation Army Santa Claus from a burning car, and trying to heal the city’s race wounds. Menino followed that example, but with less flash.

“He was as good at taking care of the folks who didn’t have a champion as anyone I’ve ever met in any office, any place in the city or the state or the country.”

– Boston businessman Jack Connors

“Mayor Menino is going to be remembered as a very effective mayor,” Vrabel said. “A really good manager. He was kind of a combination of his predecessors.”

As the mayor of downtown, he was a notorious micromanager. He somewhat famously hated flat-roofed skyscrapers, as he wrote in his recently published book “Mayor For A New America.” So when a previously rejected developer returned to show Menino an alternative scale model he would like, the developer came with a dozen different tops. When the mayor pointed out the one he liked, the decision was made and the building went forward.

“If he didn’t like you, he made it pretty clear he didn’t like ya,” Vrabel said.

In some ways that saved time, because without Menino’s approval, your projects did not go forward, even if you followed the permitting process.

He was well known for his public feuds and often called Tommy Thin-Skinned. Back in the early years, when he was a body guy, constant companion and driver for Joe Timility, he had learned what it meant to be a loser from the brutal scarring mayoral election battles that Timility fought with the incumbent Kevin White. It was winner take all, Timility says.

“Those were the rules of the game, and he played the game by the rules,” Timilty said.

In his book, Menino took a defiant stance to the critics. Sensitive to those who said that the “urban mechanic” lacked a big vision, he derided visionaries as people who can’t get anything done. To those who called him a vindictive autocrat, he wrote that “fear is power.”

“Menino eschewed those lofty goals and he writes: ‘And I owed it to my city to keep fear alive,'” said Vrabel, author of the recently published “A People’s History of the New Boston.” “I think it’s going to hurt him in the long run in his legacy that he saw power as something to obtain in and of itself, rather than use for what the city needed at the time, which is what a vision is all about.”

Sixty floors up in the Hancock Tower, Jack Connors — a business magnate, power broker and philanthropist — takes a high-minded view. When asked about Menino’s personality, the former ad man recalls an old TV ad for Perdue Chicken.

“The slogan at the time was that it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken, and we’ll use that as a descriptor of Tom Menino if I may,” he said.

Connors expresses the greatest admiration for Menino.

“He would call the swells, the haves — one at a time — the suits, the executives, into his office and say, ‘Charlie, I want you to do this,’ and the next day, ‘Jack, I want you to take a look at this.’ And we all thought we were doing a very special one-off favor, but in fact he was building a coalition to help those he cared about most,” he said.

When Menino asked Connors to help city kids dodging bullets in unsafe neighborhoods, Connors pledged $10 million, raised another $52 million and turned the city-owned end of Long Island into Camp Harborview, which serves 800 kids each summer and beyond.

“He was as good at taking care of the folks who didn’t have a champion as anyone I’ve ever met in any office, any place in the city or the state or the country,” Connors said.

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