Scot Lehigh

Menino needs to make the ‘future’ now

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / November 4, 2009

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LAST NIGHT, the man who came to the mayor’s office almost by accident assured himself a special place in Boston’s history by winning an unprecedented fifth term.

His impressive showing speaks well of a mayor who has never lost touch with voters. Sadly, it says far less about Tom Menino’s vision for a fifth term. Truth be told, he really didn’t offer one. Instead, he talked of a city that was making progress, of “moving Boston forward,’’ and of helping improve people’s lives a little.

Queried about what a new term would bring in a recent visit to the Globe, the incumbent spoke only in vague terms. Pressed for a few concrete things he would do, Menino replied: “I can’t give you concrete things. I’m just thinking about some of the things we can do.’’

Yes, Menino may have insisted the campaign “was all about the future.’’ In actuality, his real message peered directly into the past: If you’re reasonably content with the way things are going, keep me in office.

Boston voters were - and did.

But the results also speak to a challenger who built his way steadily toward a competitive race, only to blow his big opportunities in crunch time. Teaming up with former candidate Sam Yoon was a smart move on challenger Michael Flaherty’s part. Their informal partnership caught the city’s attention and created some excitement, at least for a time.

It could have become a potent symbol of a different kind of candidate. But Flaherty let his first televised debate with Menino pass without forcefully highlighting his arrangement with Yoon. That lost opportunity made him seem like a candidate who couldn’t quite bring himself to share a full measure of the spotlight with his defeated rival.

Flaherty’s larger challenge, however, was finding the proper distance from Boston Fire Fighters Local 718, a union that was both his enthusiastic ally and Menino’s bitter foe. Like 718 itself, Flaherty seemed oblivious to the way the controversies that have rocked the Fire Department have changed the public’s view of the firefighters. There, the mayor understood the public mood much better.

Instead of rebuking his union allies for their over-the-top political tactics, Flaherty usually either lent them moral support or kept silent. His reluctance to speak even a mildly critical word of them - let alone offer a sharp scolding for their fear-mongering - called his fortitude into question. In a broader sense, that failing destroyed any hope Flaherty had of casting himself as a convincing change agent.

So now the mayor has earned a fifth term. Here’s hoping it’s his last - and I mean that in a constructive way. There’s something liberating about knowing you won’t be running again. It lets you confront big challenges without forever worrying about the political consequences.

Indeed, the mayor seemed to recognize as much when he came to the Globe in the campaign’s closing days. “I have some great opportunities,’’ he said of the next four years. “I have a lot of political capital out there that I haven’t used.’’

He hasn’t used it because he’s been worried about his own political future. If he had spent that capital, he wouldn’t be nearly so popular - but the city might well be a better place.

And that’s why, in his next term, the mayor should move beyond the cautious incrementalism that has characterized his long years in office to confront some deep-seated problems. One of those problems is an area where Flaherty showed more urgency in this campaign: the public schools. Menino needs to stick forcefully by his newly minted pro-charter-school stand, even if he doesn’t get his preferred version, in-district charters. Educating its students is one of a city’s biggest responsibilities, and a mayor who can look at the Boston system and award himself a B+ or B simply hasn’t been impatient enough about the pace of progress.

Menino’s 16-plus years in office have already made him the city’s longest-serving mayor. Here’s hoping his next four make him one of the city’s most memorable ones.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at

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