JP leaders recall Menino’s impact

March 29, 2013
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Leaders of prominent Jamaica Plain institutions are reflecting on the impact Mayor Thomas Menino had on their work as he is expected to announce today that he is not running for reelection.

“I doubt there’s been a mayor in the whole country who’s done more to advance a neighborhood development agenda than Tom Menino has in the past 20 years,” said Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), in a Gazette interview.

He pointed to such JPNDC-related projects at the massive Jackson Square redevelopment and the Back of the Hill housing along Heath Street on the JP/Mission Hill border.

Thal recalled Menino’s “mantra” of, “‘This is about people, after all,” and praised him for putting City money into affordable housing development and small business support. Thal said Menino administration officials are “national leaders” in such public health issues as racial disparities in care and violence prevention.

Benjamin Day, the chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC), expressed a mixed view of Menino’s legacy in an email to the Gazette. Day has sometimes been a Menino critic, once volunteering for mayoral challenger Sam Yoon, and now leading the JPNC in a lawsuit against Menino’s Zoning Board of Appeals over a controversial JP real estate project.

Menino has given him “moments of true awe and inspiration,” as well as concerns about government transparency, Day said. “JP has experienced both sides of Menino’s tenure, and I’m looking forward to the first truly competitive mayoral election of my lifetime,” he said.

On the positive side, Day noted Menino’s recent vetoing of Boston City Council redistricting plans that did not expand minority voting representing and his staunch support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “Mayor Menino almost single-handedly turned the St. Patrick’s Day parade into annual litmus test for solidarity with the LGBT community and for progressives in general,” Day said, referring to Menino’s refusal to join in the controversial South Boston event due to its exclusion of LGBT rights marchers.

“On the other hand, our political system in Boston puts so much discretionary power in the hands of the mayor’s administration, it is a recipe for favoritism in all areas of city life and a barrier to local democracy,” Day said.

Rebecca Haag, president and CEO of the JP-based AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, praised Menino’s pioneering efforts to address the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the 1980s, including with such politically controversial measures as needle exchange programs.

“From the start of his political career, Mayor Menino has pushed for services for people living with HIV and AIDS and he has been an outspoken advocate on their behalf,” Haag said in a press release. “From his first term in office as a district city councilor from Hyde Park, he approached the issue of how to deal with AIDS with an open mind, unlike so many other politicians from that time.”

She recalled that in 2001, Menino raised money to pay for liver transplant surgery for an AIDS Action Committee employee who had been denied coverage from her health insurer due to her HIV-positive status.

Larry DiCara, a JP resident and former Boston City Council president who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1983, praised Menino for improving virtually every facet of city life.

“As the perspective of a guy who’s lived in Jamaica Plain for 24 years now, crime is down, civic life—community life, restaurants and people walking around—is up. City government runs more efficiently than it was,” DiCara said. “Race relations I think are far better than they were a generation ago.”

He also noted that in 20 years, Menino’s administration did not have anyone indicted or jailed for corruption—something that cannot be said for the two previous administrations or for Boston City Council and the State House during that time.

“Is he perfect? Of course not. Do I agree with everything he’s done? No,” said DiCara of Menino. But, he said, Menino made tough decisions to improve the city, such as redeveloping the Seaport, regardless of their popularity.

DiCara is also a partner at the Nixon Peabody law firm and is currently representing the developer in the JPNC’s lawsuit. In his spare time, DiCara is writing a book about Boston in the 1970s and ’80s and how it has changed through political advocacy.