It will take years to assess Mayor Menino’s two-decade impact on Boston. But the candidates seeking to replace him have only a few months to decide how they will imitate the Menino model or deviate from it. The voters have just a little longer to think about it.
Menino defined the role of Boston mayor in some ways that we should now consider non-negotiable. Look at other big cities and you’ll see how incredibly lucky we are to have a mayor who is plainly not motivated by money or dreams of higher office, who genuinely adores—and builds—the neighborhoods as much as downtown, and who combines pragmatism with socially progressive attitudes. Voters should continue to demand such commitment to and fine-grained care for the city.
The praiseworthy, and cautionary, essential fact is that Menino is motivated by his gut instinct of what is best for Boston. What the rest of us think may or may not factor in. The enormous centralization of City Hall power under Menino was intended to make the bureaucracy fairer for everyone. But over time, it also incarnated Menino’s penchant for secrecy and, not always but too often, overt disdain for public input. His harshest critics call him a dictator; it is more accurate to say Menino is a patriarch. Whether we continue that leadership style is a big choice of the race.
The hallmark of Menino’s reign is astoundingly resilient economic strength by current American standards: rising incomes, rising population, rising buildings and rising real estate prices. The flipside is gentrification, displacement and increasing corporate control of public resources. Menino has responded with “affordable” housing that itself is increasingly unaffordable, and by increasing the housing supply only to see prices continue to climb. How the next mayor sustains Boston’s economy is crucial. What he or she does about a system’s inevitable downside will be an interesting question.
The great irony of Menino’s tenure is that, for all the respect and fear of his power, he can’t change a speed limit on a Boston street, let alone create a new tax to reduce property-tax burdens—at least, not without permission from the state legislature. An ancient, outdated “home rule” system puts Boston at the state’s mercy in many silly ways. Menino gave up fighting to reform the insanity years ago. Home rule is a hard issue to make sexy for voters, but maybe a new mayor will take a shot.
Like all leaders, Menino sometimes gets too much credit and sometimes too much blame for things beyond his control. Unlike many, he has canny instincts for garnering the former and avoiding the latter. Menino is a brilliant politician in the best sense of the term, with an aw-shucks regular-joe persona that makes him underestimated by foes and over-defended by allies. Any candidate would do well to learn from his savvy.