Mayor Thomas M. Menino continues to command apparently unshakable support from Boston residents of all demographic and economic stripes, an abiding popularity that presents a daunting obstacle for any challenger who might try to block him from winning an unprecedented fifth term in 2009, a new Boston Globe poll shows.
Menino's 72 percent approval rating - unchanged since October 2005 - provides him a cushion of goodwill that any incumbent politician would envy. Fully 61 percent of people said he should seek another term. A remarkable 54 percent of poll respondents said they have personally met the mayor - testament to his relentless schedule of appearances at community events big and small.
Yet, all this support comes amid chronic dissatisfaction with the public school system, jitters in low-income and minority communities over foreclosures, and a notable spike in the number of residents who cite crime as the city's biggest problem, according to the survey. A third of respondents citywide, and more than half in the communities of Dor chester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, said they feel unsafe on the streets at night.
The poll also found a shift in perception about the city's housing affordability, a result of the softer real estate market. The percent of residents who think only the wealthy can afford to live in Boston slipped from 45 percent in 2005 to 36 percent.
But such concerns about the economy, schools, crime, and other issues appear to have little impact on how people perceive the mayor. Building on a reputation as an "urban mechanic," he has attained a level of support that could stop potential opponents in their tracks - or allow him to go out on top. Menino has said he is leaning toward running again next year, but he has not announced any decision.
"I don't see any Menino fatigue. It's across the board that he has strong support," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll of 519 adults from April 12 to April 17. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
"They know who he is," Smith said. They've met him, they've shaken his hand, and they think the city is well-run."
Smith likened Menino's lengthy tenure to city mayors such as Chicago's Richard M. Daley.
"Mayors can keep going like that," said Smith. "If they have the machine going, and it's working, they can stay in pretty long."
In poll questions that tested hypothetical matchups between Menino and other prominent Boston public figures, the 65-year-old incumbent blows away the competition. Menino ran more than 30 percentage points ahead of one-time gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli, Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Suffolk Sheriff Andrea Cabral, and Councilor John M. Tobin. Only Flaherty and Tobin have expressed any public appetite for a race.
It took a Kennedy, specifically former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, to make things more competitive. Kennedy, well known for his programs delivering free heating oil to the needy, won 33 percent support in the poll, to Menino's 45 percent. But Kennedy has expressed no desire to run.
Menino's only geographic weak spots are in the South End and South Boston, communities where he trailed Flaherty, a South Boston native, by about 10 percentage points in a possible race.
Menino has made a concerted effort to solidify his ties to minority communities in the last three years. African-Americans showed the highest level of support for Menino, handing him a 79 percent approval rating. Follow-up interviews with people who participated in the poll indicated that his efforts to reach out to all neighborhoods have been noticed.
"He cleaned up all the playgrounds and parks, and it seems to be evenly distributed, so it's not just in one community," said Joan Rodriguez, 43, of Dorchester, who said she strongly approves of the mayor. "He's visible, and it seems as though every time something's happening in any of the communities he's there."
When it comes to the City Council, residents are less impressed. Sixty percent of those polled thought the 13-member body is very or somewhat effective at solving the city's problems, compared with 83 percent who believe Menino is very or somewhat effective. Nearly two-thirds said they have more faith in the mayor to solve Boston's problems, and less than half said they know who their city councilor is.
The support for the mayor does not mean that Boston residents are happy with everything in the city. Voters have deep concerns on some major quality-of-life issues, with crime topping the list.
Asked to identify the most important problem facing the city, 42 percent of poll respondents said crime or violence, up from 26 percent in October 2005, the last time the Globe surveyed the city.
While the number of homicides in the city this year - 19 as of Thursday - slightly exceeds last year's pace, other violent crime, including, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, is slightly down, police statistics show. Menino pledged in January that, under the leadership of Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, the city would reduce violent crime in 2008.
"Crime has risen dramatically as the most important problem among Boston residents over the past two years, but it has not yet affected the mayor's political reputation," Smith said. " But if crime and violence in Boston continues at the current pace, or if it gets worse over the summer, more people are going be asking the mayor what he has done, and what he is going to do to stem violence in the city."
Respondents gave the Police Department a fair rating, with slightly more than 50 percent saying the department is good or excellent providing protection and safety. Low-income residents were most likely to say the police were doing a poor or very poor job.
Respondents negative perceptions of the public schools are a significant drag on the city, said Smith. More than half of survey respondents said they personally know someone who has moved out of the city to send their children to another school system. Just 27 percent said Boston public schools provide an excellent or good education.
Housing is another concern. While more people say the housing market is affordable for all economic classes, more than half of homeowners under 35, and nearly half of African-Americans in the poll, said they are very or somewhat worried about losing their houses, either because of a rise in mortgage rates or a job loss.
But for all the big, sweeping problems facing the city like schools, housing, and crime, Menino won high marks for attention to the little things, according to conversations with survey respondents who said they would vote for the mayor.
Rodriguez recalled losing her purse at City Hall, with her wedding ring inside. After several frustrating encounters with City Hall staffers, she reported her problem directly to the mayor's office. Within days, she had a call from police saying her purse had been found, and she credits the mayor with getting it done. "That made a big difference," she said.
When Laurence Kranich moved to Roslindale in 1991, Menino was his district city councilor. Not knowing the ways of city government, he called his city councilor's office suggesting officials might want to install a stop sign on his street where Kranich had seen a near-accident.
When he got a call back the next day, Kranich had to ask him to repeat his name. It was Menino.
Within a week, the stop sign had been put up and he later got another call from Menino's office asking if it had been done.
"I've been a supporter of his ever since," Kranich said. "I don't think there's any reason to replace him. As long as he's doing a fine job, give the people a chance to vote to keep him there."
John C. Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.