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In Bid For Mayor, Consalvo Bets The City Is Quite Happy As Is

This article is more than 7 years old.
Rob Consalvo, at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Rob Consalvo, at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Mayoral candidate Rob Consalvo has knocked on a lot of doors in recent weeks. He's talked to a lot of people. But one exchange, in particular, stands out.

"I'm voting for you," he recalls a woman saying at her doorstep, "because you remind me of a big old plate of comfort food."

It was, at least in part, a riff on Consalvo's bearing: the city councilor is short, round and chatty. But it also speaks to the core of his political appeal.

Consalvo, more than any other candidate in the 12-person race, is wrapping himself in the legacy of departing Mayor Thomas M. Menino — another stout Italian-American from Hyde Park.

"Mayor Menino has brought this city to such a high level," said Consalvo, before a recent campaign stop at the Corrib Pub and Restaurant in Brighton, "that the biggest challenge [for the next mayor] is to make sure that the city doesn't go backwards."

In a city fixated on its shifting demography — talk of the "new Boston" is constant — there is something striking about his embrace of a rather traditional mayor. And the strategy has its skeptics.

But there is a certain logic to the approach.

Menino is popular in both the "old" and "new" Boston, after all. And Consalvo, himself, has done well in a rapidly changing district that includes Hyde Park and parts of Mattapan and Roslindale — a district that is now 72 percent minority, as he likes to point out.

In Consalvo world, a status quo strategy is something like a no-brainer.

"He's only got a 90 percent approval rating," Consalvo said of the mayor, after pouring a couple pints of Guinness for the boys at the bar. "Anybody that thinks they're looking for change — I've got news for ya."

A 'Kid From Hyde Park'

Consalvo, 44, grew up in Hyde Park — first off River Street and later in the Fairmount Hill area.

He played Hyde Park Little League. Spent endless hours at the YMCA. He calls his time working for the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as a driver and press assistant "an incredible experience for a kid from Hyde Park."

When he returned from Washington, after the first of two stints with Kennedy, Consalvo joined the board of his childhood YMCA and met his wife Michelle, now a 22-year employee of the organization.

Consalvo got active in the Sons of Italy. He served as a legislative aide for state Rep. Angelo M. Scaccia of Hyde Park. And in June 2002, he won election to the City Council.

Like Menino, he has built his political career on hard work, constituent service and sheer ubiquity.

On a recent afternoon, a reporter wandered into Logan Square Barber Shop in Hyde Park and found an Elvis-like barber — shag hair, glam sunglasses — tending to Bob Smith, 70, a former Massport employee.

"Do I know Robby Consalvo?" Smith asked, a little incredulous.

The councilor, he said, is everywhere: "If there's a fundriaser, Rob Consalvo is there, if there's a funeral, Rob Consalvo is there." And like Menino, he's accessible, Smith said. A regular guy.

"It's nice when you can walk up to a politician and say, 'Hey Robby, she's feeding you well, ain't she?' " Smith said.

The Next Mechanic?

Consalvo mentions the weight jokes quite a bit.

It's a self-effacing gesture. But he clearly bristles at the jibes. And he's not above deflecting the critique with a bit of his signature braggadocio.

He would like you to know that, despite his appearance, he plays a lot of tennis. A lot of basketball, too. And he's a better athlete, he says, than you might imagine.

After a barbecue at the Fanueil Gardens public housing complex in Brighton last weekend, he walked across the street with his old friend Kevin G. Honan, a state representative from the area, and started shooting hoops.

His first few attempts fell short. "These double rims are a killer," he said.

But then Consalvo and Honan, who played junior varsity at Boston College years ago, picked up one of the neighborhood kids and played a quick game of three-on-three.

The councilor set a pick-and-roll, made a couple of good passes, hit the winning shot. And he was still crowing about it when he got back to the campaign headquarters in Hyde Park.

His staff seemed happy to oblige him, though — Consalvo's bombast a harmless byproduct of his energetic, competitive approach to everything.

That includes his work on the City Council.

A weak body in a strong mayor town, the council is a bit of a political backwater. But Consalvo has been able to wring a few accomplishments that he mentions on the campaign trail.

There was the pilot of Shotspotter, an acoustic technology that alerts police when a gun is fired in the neighborhood; an ordinance pushing banks to keep up foreclosed properties; and a measure known as "John's Law" mandating that a car seized in a drunk driving arrest be impounded for 12 hours.

He got the idea while running on a treadmill at the YMCA. A New Jersey family was on "The Today Show," telling the story of a man who was arrested for drunk driving, got out on bail and landed behind the wheel still intoxicated. He killed their son in an accident.

"I contacted the family because I thought it was incredible," said Consalvo, a father of three. "How could any city be releasing a car out of a tow lot to a drunk guy who just got bailed out of jail?"

It was classic Consalvo: practical, small-bore problem solving.

And it's at the heart of the councilor's effort to position himself as an heir to Menino not just in geography and appearance, but in style: a second urban mechanic for a city that flourished under the first one.

Is It Enough?

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, is skeptical that the approach can work.

"I think he's a serious legislator," he said. "But unfortunately, his accomplishments are largely invisible."

The council, he said, is a poor platform.

And Consalvo's nuts-and-bolts mayoral campaign — he's spoken of expanding Shotspotter, putting more cops on the street and providing the sort of sound fiscal management that can attract private investment to the city — is not enough to seize the public imagination, Berry argued.

The candidate, he said, will have to grab onto a big idea if he is to land in the mayor's office. And perhaps he will.

But it's not clear how important vision will be in the short term.

The mayoral campaign is really two distinct contests — a Sept. 24 preliminary election that will narrow the field to two and a Nov. 5 general election.

The preliminary is shaping up as an on-the-ground scramble for the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 votes required to send a candidate through to the final round.

That puts a premium on turning out core supporters — on getting a candidate's neighborhood to the polls.

Consalvo, to be sure, does not have Hyde Park to himself. Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, for one, grew up in the neighborhood and represented it on the City Council for a decade before moving to West Roxbury.

But early polling and a phalanx of blue Rob Consalvo signs in Hyde Park and sections of Mattapan suggest he's in a relatively strong position on his home turf. And it is a turf populated with active voters.

His council district spans Ward 18 and a portion of Ward 20, which typically have the highest voter turnout of all the wards in the city.

Consalvo is making a play in West Roxbury, too. And he's hoping to turn the support of East Boston state Sen. Anthony Petruccelli into votes in that neighborhood.

Reasonably strong showings outside his district could vault him into a first- or second-place finish in the preliminary election.

And at that point, the kid from Hyde Park could face pressure to articulate a new and expansive vision for the city.

But the current mayor's strength was never in the big speech or broad overhaul. And he won a few elections.

This program aired on August 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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