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Revisiting The Menino Political Machine: Muscle Or Meh?

Paul McMorrow: Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s role in swinging major elections has been far more muted than the mythology surrounding his campaign machine would have it. (AP)
Paul McMorrow: Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s role in swinging major elections has been far more muted than the mythology surrounding his campaign machine would have it. (AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

The retirement of former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino looks like it should be bad news for Martha Coakley. The Democratic attorney general is locked in a dead heat for governor against Republican Charlie Baker. Coakley's chances of winning in November will turn, in part, on whether she can turn out the Democratic base in Massachusetts cities. In any other year, Coakley’s first phone call after Primary Day would have been to Menino, the last of the country’s great machine politicians.

In his new book, "Mayor for a New America," Menino boasts that politicians across Massachusetts feared, respected and coveted his campaign machinery. “The road to victory led through Boston,” he writes. “‘Team Menino’ could make you or break you.”

Some have speculated that, without the help help of Team Menino, Coakley’s odds of taking the Corner Office have gotten considerably longer.

A closer look at statewide election returns shows Menino’s role in swinging major elections has been far more muted than the mythology surrounding the Menino campaign machine would have it. Boston’s size gives it an outsized role in Massachusetts politics, but it responds to the same forces that shape elections across the state, not the whims of a single political machine.

Menino highlights a handful of landmark elections in "Mayor for a New America": Deval Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial election; Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 U.S. Senate victory over Scott Brown; Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary campaign against Barack Obama; and Bill Weld’s 1994 reelection victory over Mark Roosevelt. Menino vastly overstates his own role in driving the outcome of these contests. He backed the loser in two of these races, and when he was on the winning side, the results in Boston echoed broader statewide political trends.

Menino’s decision to claim credit for Patrick’s 2006 election is especially surprising, given that Menino backed one of Patrick’s opponents, Tom Reilly, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary that year. Patrick captured 50 percent of the vote in a three-way primary contest. Reilly came in a distant third, across the state and in Menino’s Boston, where he trailed Patrick by 40 points. Menino backed Patrick in November’s general election. Patrick carried Boston by similar margins to the ones he enjoyed in other large, liberal urban areas.

A Menino endorsement also failed to pay off for Clinton in 2008. She took the Massachusetts presidential primary by 15 percentage points, but she lost to Obama by 9 points in Boston, despite a heavy lift from Menino. It’s notable that some urban areas with sizable minority populations, like Lynn and Lawrence, went big for Clinton, while Boston voters bucked their mayor and lined up behind Obama.

Warren did carry Boston by huge margins. But she did equally well in places like Cambridge, Springfield, Brockton and Lawrence — cities that lie outside the reach of the Menino machine.

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Menino’s decision to reference the 1994 gubernatorial contest looks especially odd. “I withheld support from a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the '90s,” he writes, "and he lost Boston and the race by 42 points.”

What Menino doesn’t mention is that the Democratic candidate in question, Roosevelt, lost to Weld pretty much everywhere. Roosevelt carried just six of the state’s 351 cities and towns, and suffered the most lopsided defeat in modern Massachusetts gubernatorial politics. His defeat didn’t have much to do with Boston in general, or Menino in particular; instead, the city went along with the statewide tide. Roosevelt’s 29,000-vote loss in Boston amounted to 3 percent of Weld’s 900,000-vote margin of victory in 1994. Boston was actually one of Roosevelt’s best cities in 1994.

And four years later, Menino issued a half-hearted endorsement of Democratic Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and then sat on his hands as Harshbarger lost a close race to Paul Cellucci. Boston was among the most Democratic-voting cities in the state.

None of this means that Menino was an inconsequential politician. Far from it. He was a dominating force in Boston when his political machine was working to advance his own cause. Menino won a record five mayoral contests, the closest of which was a 15-point snoozer against City Councilor Michael Flaherty, and he left office with an 80 percent approval rating. But his political muscle didn't transfer as easily to other candidates as the mythology had it.

This isn’t exclusively a Menino phenomenon. Warren Tolman had the support of Patrick, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and much of organized labor, and he was still blown out in his recent bid to become attorney general. Endorsements can help a candidate’s prospects. But candidate quality, campaign organization and local demographics matter, too.

Paul McMorrow is associate editor of CommonWealth Magazine and contributor to WBUR's Poll Vault.

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