TOM MENINO has ruled Boston for 16 years, and the city is better for it. Menino speaks to all the communities of his increasingly diverse city. His determination to maintain a vibrant downtown while spreading resources to the neighborhoods is fundamentally the right approach to governing Boston. Now Menino, who came to office with humility as his prime political asset, is attempting something audacious - a fifth term, extending his tenure to an epoch in city life: 20 years.
On Tuesday, voters will decide on two finalists to face off in November. Menino, with his record of steady improvements and his recent commitment to some important reforms, has earned the right to be one of the two finalists. Voters who are looking for an alternative have three challengers to consider, one of whom should give the mayor a serious fight for the right to lead the city for the next four years.
All three performed a vital service in fueling the first real contest over the direction of the city in 16 years. They cast a spotlight on Menino’s closed-door development policies, his unfulfilled education agenda, and his gut-instinct approach to governance. They drew blood and raised questions - some valid, some overblown - about Menino’s fitness for a fifth term. They started a debate that must continue until November.
The challenger who makes the final should be the best suited by skills, experience, and clarity of vision to run the city in Menino’s stead.
That candidate is Michael Flaherty.
Boston has a powerful mayor, and those who dare to challenge an incumbent inevitably seem like Davids before a mighty Goliath. But by the standards of the last two men to take the office, Menino and Raymond Flynn, both of whom were city councilors of medium reputation before emerging as effective mayors, Flaherty is unusually well qualified.
For 10 years, he has been an at-large city councilor, including six as the council’s president. Low-key and approachable, steeped in details and obviously comfortable - perhaps a little too comfortable - in the back rooms of power, Flaherty seems to have modeled his career on the early Menino. Though he came from a political family in South Boston, the scene of past racial tensions, Flaherty sought to be a servant of all neighborhoods. His outreach to emerging communities, particularly Hispanics, won him support from unexpected quarters.
Flaherty’s critique of Menino is less sweeping, but more credible, than those of his fellow challengers. He presents himself as the Menino of 1993 returning to haunt the 2009 version, showing how Menino’s once-sharp instincts have dulled with complacency. Flaherty contends that Menino mishandled the redevelopment of Downtown Crossing, held up construction on the Seaport District for too long, and erred twice in controlling Harvard’s ambitions in Allston. First, Flaherty argues, the mayor failed to realize the university was buying up land on the sly, and then he held out too long for givebacks until the economy soured and residents were left staring at empty holes in the ground. All are reasonable criticisms.
A former prosecutor, Flaherty has special credibility in law enforcement. His calls for updated technology and a more diverse police command structure are modest but well-considered, and implicitly acknowledge the fact that effective policing has been a strength of Menino’s tenure. Flaherty’s acceptance of the endorsement of the obstructionist firefighters union, with whom Menino is engaged in a well-justified standoff over drug and alcohol testing, is more problematic. But Flaherty promises to go further than Menino in demanding random substance-abuse testing of all firefighters.
At 40, the gray-thatched Flaherty is no longer a boy-wonder politician. His calling card is wisdom, not charisma. And his hands-on understanding of Boston - its past, its changing face, and its untapped potential - separate him from Menino’s other two challengers.
Kevin McCrea, an affordable-housing developer with an eclectic resume, speaks for the political outsiders who are fed up with City Hall. He exposed some insider dealings in Menino’s abandoned-lot program, and accused the city government of being “corrupt.’’ Occasionally mean and sometimes overblown, McCrea’s criticisms have nonetheless served a useful function in debates, clearing the air with a bracing condemnation of business as usual. He’s not, however, ready to be mayor. A City Council run would be more plausible.
Sam Yoon, a city councilor for four years, offers a less caustic but equally expansive critique of Menino as an autocratic figure. “The mayor has too much power,’’ Yoon insists, in the signature line of his campaign. He’s not just talking about Menino; he’s talking about any mayor - including himself, potentially - and reforming the office is his animating passion. That line, however, captures Yoon’s strengths and weaknesses alike.
Yoon is right to bemoan the ironclad control that Menino exerts over City Hall, and to look for ways to provide greater transparency in decision-making. But to suggest that the city must fundamentally change its system of governance, as Yoon also maintains, is foolhardy. Whatever its flaws, the strong-mayor system has provided effective and accountable government for decades, giving Boston’s top official the clout to represent residents against powerful businesses, universities, developers, and unions.
Flynn, for one, fought hard to win the right to appoint the School Committee after decades of political wrangling took a devastating toll on the schools. Menino used that power to put the system on a path to improvement. A new mayor might reasonably suggest ways to speed the pace of change. But Yoon, a former teacher, is fixated less on results than on process. He wants a hybrid committee of both elected and appointed members. It feels like a recipe for discord, diverting resources to political patronage. Without a strong mayor to set goals and standards, the system will inevitably fall to drift.
A hardworking city councilor and important symbol of the new Boston, Yoon, like McCrea, has added vitality to the mayoral debate. The time is ripe for a mayor who wasn’t born here and didn’t follow the usual political path. But such a mayor must also have a grounded sense of what the city must do. This has been Menino’s strength for 16 years, and his enthusiasm for the job seems unabated. His willingness to take on the firefighters and teachers unions - the latter over his decision to support in-district charter schools - mark a commitment to reform that was lacking in his third term. And in his fourth, he’s brought new vigor to his administration by recruiting some younger, more forward-looking staffers.
A fifth consecutive term would be unprecedented in city history, and the advantages of such continuity must be balanced against the benefits of a fresh perspective. The Globe is eager to see Tom Menino and Michael Flaherty face off in November.