A personal bond, hard to break this November.
by Kevin Sowyrda
When I met Tom Menino for lunch, Friday last, at the Dry Dock Cafe in the ever transforming Southie Waterfront District I made two strategic decisions. The first, was that I would try the Haddock because my friend Susan told me it's the best in the Hub. She was right. The second was that I was not going to interview Mayor Menino. Instead, I decided to have a conversation with Tom Menino, and from the friendly and straight forward discussion that ensued I discovered a guy who is pretty hard not to like and will be very hard to beat in what will be the mayor's bid for a fifth term as the city's chief executive officer.
Tom Menino didn't tell me he's running for reelection and I didn't ask. Tom Menino didn't tell me that he's ready for a political fight, and I'm not so dumb that I needed to ask. He's always ready. But Tom Menino told me in so many words, and through gestures, inflections and other mannerisms that he loves the city so much that not being mayor is simply something Tom Menino's not able to do. And it's not a power trip. It's just a genuine love affair. The type of Frank Sinatra, might have written a song about.
It was days after our lunch, on Tuesday, that Menino did make his bid for an unprecedented fifth term official. No surprise there.
I think the surprise will be how Menino runs his campaign. In this modern-day pandemic of cyber personality - i.e. twitter, face book, IM's, text messaging, email and all the rest of the no real human contact - Menino, at first glance, is the old fashioned exception to the trends of the day. But it has nothing to do with being out dated. Instead, Menino strikes me as above the gadgetry gimmicks because they're beneath his unbeatable work ethic. As a veteran of city politics, known for rising well before dawn and burning enough midnight oil to dry out OPEC, Menino's a lot smarter than the Twitters. He's more sympathetic than the Face book crowd. He realizes that Joe and Mary Bostonian prefer the personal touch to the You Tube politicking any day of the week. It's even paid off in political dividends. A recent Boston Globe poll shows that more than half of city residents say they've actually met the mayor in person and His Honor's popularity ratings remain high, despite a foundering economy from which Boston has hardly been immune.
So on this particular Friday, Menino does what he does best. While chatting with yours truly about everything from the failed lights-out policy at the Zakim Bridge to the recent Easter Weekend traffic debacle at the Mass. Turnpike Authority tolls, he smoothly takes time out here and there, between bites of the clams with bellies and sips of the ice tea with lemon, to warmly greet the regular constituents who come to our lunch table at a steady pace to pay their respects and share a musing or two. He knows each one by name and knows just what to ask. How did that situation work out, how is so and so, did my folks get back to you, etc. Menino may not speak like he's the Socrates of the day, but how he's able to brilliantly remember all these names and all their problems right off the cuff is impressive and would appear to be proof positive that Tom Menino is a smart guy who simply chooses not to use a lot of fifty cent words - and his particularly homespun style, even in the blackberry, techno age - has hardly hurt him since he assumed leadership of the city in the early nineties upon the resignation of then Mayor Raymond Flynn.
So what makes this guy tick? I think what we've overlooked - or at least I have on sufficient occasion - is that Tom Menino is a people guy and a people guy can't retire. Before he'd send you an email he'd prefer being at your local bakery at about five in the morning ready to hear what you have to say and then jumping back in his new Hybrid vehicle to call the right department head to fix the problem. I'm' willing to guess that about a thousand pot holes in this city have been promptly fixed simply because a constituent asked the mayor to do it, and then he did.
Imagine that. I'm sitting here with a politician who you can actually go up to and then get something done as a result of a quick dialogue. He might even be the last of his breed, and I don't sense any huge movement in the city to send Tom Menino to that place which I sense he may equate to Purgatory - i.e. retirement. Boca Raton might sound inviting to the rest of us, but not this guy. Menino isn't heading for Boca - he's marching forward to a reelection campaign against three contenders who may not even appreciate the juggernaut they're up against. "He has the most tireless work ethic of any official I've ever seen," said City Councilor Rob Consalvo. "He has a laser like focus on the job and what peoples' problems are. He's the ultimate grass roots mayor."
But back to the niceties of dining in Southie with the most recognizable politician in New England. Does Tom have any particular gripes on this beautiful Marathon weekend, as we break bread together for the first time in too long a time? Not really. He arrived with Dot Joyce, the best and most reliable press secretary he's ever had, and seems excited about the positive lime light on Boston, hopefully assuaging the tragic story of the past days concerning the Craigs list Killer, a case solved in record time by D.A. Conley and Boston Police. We're even introduced to a visiting foreign dignitary - I think it was the High Lord Mayor of London - whose taking in all things Boston before the start gun fires on Monday. The Mayor is pretty pumped. When he toiled for nine years as the district councilor from Boston's Hyde Park he probably didn't imagine all this - but fate works it's magic, doesn't it?
And Menino keeps working his magic - or maybe it's just a Midas touch he was destined to yield in the mayor's office. I ask him about the rather glaring juxtaposition between state and city government, of late. While Governor Deval Patrick has been having a less than marvelous time lately......being governor........Menino's principality has been relatively free from controversy. No state senators being offered silly job deals, no ludicrous trail of emails from staffers, and no hideous traffic jams triggered by any of the mayor's cabinet members. The mayor's not one to criticize the governor (I'm guessing he'll leave that to folks like me) but he makes it pretty clear that on his watch toll booths wouldn't be shut down so that people can admire, for hours, the beautiful pavement at the Mass Pike.
The mayor pretty much brings the episode back home, and emphasis that his style of leadership is polar opposite that of some big time bureaucrats. It's anything but hands off. If he sees a problem he gets it fixed, and chances are there are plenty of department heads and their deputies and City Hall Plaza who have their early morning or late night call stories about a call to action from the boss. Sort of like what Hillary said. What will you do if the phone rings at three o'clock in the morning? I suspect the answer from city hall officials would be - do what he tells me to do because he doesn't suffer fools well.
But he does suffer atleast one slight with dignity. By the time I finished the perfectly cooked Haddock I asked Menino what he thought about a no lights policy at the Zakim; keeping in mind that I've always considered the spectacular array of blue lighting in the evening to be the one meritorious aspect of a bridge which should never win any architectural hurrahs. Believe it or not, the brain trust at the Turn Pike Authority never consulted with the mayor. "I learned about it by reading the paper," he said. But he wasn't angry nor thin skinned about it. It's as if the mayor has become used to a state government that often forgets the basic rules of protocol, and he's just happy the lights are back on, the way they should be.
Should this column leave any of your questions about Tom Menino unanswered, don't fret. Just keep your eyes open long enough and you'll see the Mayor pretty much everywhere in the city greeting pretty much everybody by name. His opponents will have the formidable task of competing with that personal bond. It took decades of hard work to build, and no one's likely to break it without a prolific message and a great deal of luck.