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Boston's Four-Term 'Accidental Mayor' 08:07
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Mayor Thomas Menino, with his wife and granddaughters, is sworn in to his fourth term in Jan. 2006. The longest-serving mayor in Boston's history, Menino is still sometimes referred to as the "accidental mayor" because he first came into office as acting mayor when Ray Flynn left to become the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. (AP)
Mayor Thomas Menino, with his wife and granddaughters, is sworn in to his fourth term in Jan. 2006. The longest-serving mayor in Boston's history, Menino is still sometimes referred to as the "accidental mayor" because he first came into office as acting mayor when Ray Flynn left to become the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. (AP)

REV. RAY HAMMOND HAS KNOWN THE MAYOR since Thomas Menino was a city councilor in the '80s. They've worked together for years to improve public schools and develop strategies to stop youth violence on Boston's streets.

Hammond has an interesting theory about Menino, and why a man who has such high approval ratings is still called thin-skinned.

"I think it has to be seen in the context of what's been a century-old battle in Boston between the average guy and the elites," Hammond said. "And I think the mayor very much sees himself as a champion of the average guy and is very sensitive to anything that looks like disrespect. I think it leads to some very testy relationships."

And by elites, Hammond means the media, business people and academics. Anyone who might make fun of the way Menino speaks or may have a different vision for the mayor of Boston.

Menino has identified with the average guy all his life. That's what impressed former Sen. Joe Timility, who put Menino in charge of helping constituents in his Senate office.

"He had a demeanor with people of need," Timility said. "He had a demeanor with them. It was inbred with him."

Menino attributes this empathy to his Italian-American mother.

"We lived on Hyde Park Avenue in a 2-family; there was a six-family house right next to us," the mayor recalled. "A lot of the folks came over from Italy, when I was kid, who needed help. My mother was the person who helped them learn how to feed them, change a diaper — all that stuff. And for me, that's what life is all about: caring for people. I have a soft spot, because I just wish we could just give everyone a guarantee they will be a success."

THE STORY OF MENINO'S OWN SUCCESS
was anything but guaranteed. He skipped going to college.

"I was a fool, when I graduated high school there were other things that were more important to me," Menino said. "I broke my father's heart — look at Harry Truman, that's the old days."

Menino was on the city council, and 40 years old, when he went back to college.

"So, I signed up at the University of Mass. Boston, my daughter signed up at the University of Mass. Amherst," the mayor said. "We're freshmen at the same time. When she did her homework she did it much faster than I did. And — this is a great story — in four years, I didn't miss one class. I was afraid to miss class."

What Menino doesn't have in intellect, he's made up for with sweat, according to Timility.

"I don't think either one of us, either Tom Menino or myself, are Einsteins," he said. "Probably both of us had to work harder than most to get where we wanted to go. There's nobody who could match Tom Menino's work ethic."

That helped Menino get elected in the first place. He got the chance to serve as acting mayor while the city held a special election to replace Ray Flynn, who left to become the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. It was a temporary opportunity for Menino.

"The strategy, very simply, was for him to be mayor for 120 days, and prove to other people that it was very natural," Timility said.

ONCE GIVEN THAT OPPORTUNITY, Menino never stopped running for mayor, Timility said. Maybe that's because Menino still feels insecure about his position. He's still called the accidental mayor, even 16 years later. So if that drives Menino to seek respect, that might be one reason he works so hard and involves himself in the most minute decisions.

And why he's known to become irritated when his judgment is questioned.

"They've been saying that I'm thin-skinned, I yell, I'm domineering," Menino said. "But just ask my staff, I'm the biggest teddy bear out there."

He may be a teddy bear, but those who've tangled with him over development issues have felt his bite. And that bite, said Greg Selkoe, creates a culture of fear.

Selkoe used to work for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, or BRA, as an assistant planner. Selkoe said it was his job to share planning information with people looking to build in Boston. But one time he was scolded for giving basic information to the wrong business. One pharmacy wanted to locate in a neighborhood where there was another pharmacy — and that pharmacy was owned by a friend of the mayor.

"It was told explicitly to me, this pharmacy is next to the pharmacy that's a close friend of the mayor," Selkoe said. "It's his good buddy's who's down the street and he doesn't want it there."

Selkoe tried to explain to the mayor's staff that he wasn't supporting the competition, but that he felt it wasn't his place to pick and choose. But he said the mayor's staff didn't back down.

"I had to basically sort of grovel to the mayor, and it was suggested to me that I go to the pharmacy, the pharmacist, and apologize, not by the mayor, but by the mayor's people," Selkoe continued. "Why I was apologizing, I don't know why, since I didn't do anything wrong. It was told to me: 'If you want any future here, you have to make good with this guy too.' "

Selkoe said seeing inside the BRA made him support Michael Flaherty, Menino's challenger.

The thing is, Menino knows all this. And Menino readily admits he didn't want the competitor to build there. It didn't, and now there's a Staples office supply store in that spot, which the mayor says the neighborhood needed.

BUT MENINO INSISTS THERE IS NO CULTURE OF RECIPROCITYat City Hall, or the BRA.

"There's no reciprocity. Who say that are people who want to do things in Boston that aren't good for the city," Menino said. "Don Chiofaro wanted to build this building that would block everybody's view, put shadows on the Greenway. He said, 'The mayor won't listen to me.'

"My job is not to make a developer rich," the mayor went on. "My job is to make development work for people who live in those neighborhoods."

Menino was talking about a project to build two towers on the Greenway. Menino said the towers would block the view of residents of an existing building. Meantime, the developer said it would only block a portion of the apartments, and said his project would put hundreds of construction workers back to work at a time when no one is working.

Still, Menino hasn't met with the developer. Is that because the developer hasn't shown Menino enough respect?

"He hasn't shown respect and humility to me? What about the people in Harbor Towers? Here's his constituents. They're my constituents too. But he wants to dictate policy for the city. There's only one person. The BRA does that."

According to Greg Selkoe, the former BRA employee, that one person who controls development is Mayor Menino. But even Selkoe isn't completely critical.

"I think the mayor's heart is in the right place, he really cares about the city, he's not trying to line his pockets," Selkoe said. "His currency is power and respect, being the mayor, the big guy."

And maybe, if the mayor wins this race — against what some say is his toughest challenger in years — he will finally shed the moniker of the "accidental mayor."


This is the second of two profiles of the Boston mayoral candidates. Click here to read and listen to WBUR's profile of Michael Flaherty.

This program aired on October 19, 2009.

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