City still smitten with its mayor

In Globe poll, Menino holds commanding lead

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 10, 2009
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Mayor Thomas M. Menino, showing unbending political strength as he embarks on a bid for an unprecedented fifth term, has sustained his extraordinary approval rating and would trounce any one of his three challengers in a head-to-head matchup, a Boston Globe poll indicates.

With a 73 percent approval rating, Menino finds himself, despite a crumbling economy, deep dissatisfaction with city schools, and increased fears about job losses, in at least as strong a position as he was a year ago, when a Globe poll indicated he was recording a 72 percent rating that was unchanged from a poll in 2005.

Menino would easily defeat his expected opponents, swamping Councilor Michael F. Flaherty by 61 percent to 23 percent, Councilor Sam Yoon by 63 percent to 21 percent, and South End developer Kevin McCrea by 70 percent to 7 percent.

Menino's support spanned the city's demographic groups, and included newcomers and longtime residents and people of different ages, races, incomes, and neighborhoods, including Dorchester, Yoon's neighborhood, and South Boston, Flaherty's neighborhood.

The mayor's approval ratings remained high, the poll indicated, even as the city's public schools were rated as fair, poor, or very poor by 59 percent of respondents. Thirty-nine percent of poll respondents with children said they had contemplated moving to a community with better schools.

The poll paints a portrait of an extraordinarily resilient figure on the American political landscape: a big-city mayor who, despite 16 years in office, has increased his political standing and avoided voter revolts over schools, crime, city services, or scandal that have toppled other longtime politicians.

Menino's ratings would be the envy of his urban counterparts. Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, elected in 1989, has watched his approval ratings sink in recent years, to as low as 41 percent in a recent poll. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York has also been slipping; 52 percent of those surveyed in February said he was doing an excellent or good job, down 9 percentage points from October.

One reason for Menino's durability: In the Globe poll 57 percent of residents said they had personally met the mayor, up from 54 percent a year ago. Extrapolated from Boston's adult population of about 450,000, that means Menino has personally met about 250,000 voting-age residents. The polling figure lends credence to Menino's oft-stated belief that his electoral success stems from his countless meet-and-greets in the neighborhoods.

"He's in good shape for reelection," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, which conducted the telephone poll of 508 randomly selected Boston adults between April 30 and May 6. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. "I don't see any weaknesses here, unless a scandal comes up."

Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said Boston is headed in the right direction; 27 percent said it is on the wrong track.

The poll indicated, however, rapidly shifting political terrain that could alter the contours of the race and provide openings for a new line of attack against the 66-year-old mayor.

The economy and jobs surged into a tie for first, with crime and violence, as the most important problems facing Boston, according to the poll, with 23 percent of respondents listing them, up from 7 percent a year ago. Whether Menino's opponents can successfully argue that he has failed to alleviate economic fears remains to be seen. Voters typically blame economic problems on higher-ranking officials, such as governors and presidents.

Crime and violence, by contrast, has waned as a concern; it was cited as the most important problem facing Boston by 23 percent of those surveyed, down from 42 percent a year ago. A summer of violence could, of course, reignite concerns; on Thursday, a 15-year-old male was shot and killed while waiting for a school bus in Roxbury.

Housing costs were named by 2 percent of residents as the most important problem facing Boston, down from 4 percent a year ago and 16 percent in 2005. Smith, the pollster, said responses from residents on other issues were equivalent to a grade of C for the schools, a B for the transportation system, and a B+ for the Police Department.

Charlene Tubberville, a 37-year-old from the Uphams Corner section of Dorchester, was among the 23 percent surveyed who cited crime and violence as the most important problem facing Boston.

"A lot of black youth are dying for no reason at all," said Tubberville, who was laid off a year ago from her job as a counselor at the Pine Street Inn. "There should be more jobs available for them, more training available for them."

Still, she said, "I can't knock the mayor."

"I think he's doing an excellent job because he does have things out here in the summertime to get the youth involved, but they're so caught up in the wrong thing," Tubberville said. "He does express a lot in the community, he helps out, and I always see him, and I think he's done a really great job dealing with the inner city."

Michael Lynch, an 84-year-old retired engineer and lifelong West Roxbury resident, was among the 62 percent of those surveyed who said Menino should run for a fifth term.

"I think he's doing a grand job," Lynch said, recalling how Menino once granted a friend's request to plant trees on her street in Hyde Park. "It was a small thing to take care of, but he did it, so people like him, and he's personable."

Flaherty's approval rating, 43 percent, was unchanged from a year ago. His strongest ratings came from those who have lived in the city for more than a decade and those who earn more than $60,000 annually.

Yoon's approval rating was 38 percent. His strongest ratings came from those with postgraduate degrees and those who earn between $60,000 and $75,000 annually.

McCrea registered a 5 percent approval rating and was unknown to 86 percent of those polled.

The poll signaled some dangers for Flaherty.

While his five union endorsements have provided him with ground forces for his campaign, his endorsement by the Boston Firefighters Local 718 could hurt him, the poll indicated.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they had heard "a great deal" about the firefighters' battle over mandatory drug testing. Twenty percent of likely voters said they were less apt to vote for Flaherty because of the endorsement, compared with 11 percent who said they were more likely to vote for him.