News Analysis

Incumbent has the troops and treasury for a big finish

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / September 23, 2009

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After a campaign in which his challengers relentlessly disparaged him as a machine politician, Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday unleashed his not-so-secret weapon - an army of workers in all corners of the city that pulled thousands of his supporters to the polls.

And now, beginning a six-week sprint toward Election Day, Menino not only has that time-tested organization, but also a massive financial advantage over his opponent, Michael F. Flaherty Jr. Menino is sitting on a campaign fund with, as of a week ago, $939,000 in it, while Flaherty, who spent heavily in the final weeks of the preliminary race, had just $216,000 last week.

City Councilor at Large Flaherty survived the four-way preliminary, but only by spending heavily on a late-season television advertising campaign that helped him beat City Councilor at Large Sam Yoon, but still left him a distant second. Because of this gamble, he is short of funds for the final sprint.

Up to this point, Flaherty, a five-term councilor, has been relatively polite in his criticism of Menino, leading to speculation that he hoped to position himself as a potential successor if Menino is reelected and bows out four years from now. Flaherty must decide if it’s worth it to sharpen his attacks in an effort to shake up the dynamic of the contest, a task that will be made more difficult if he cannot raise sufficient funds to make his case in TV ads.

In this, his toughest reelection fight, Menino took nothing for granted. His aides assembled an enormous field organization, at least triple the size of the team deployed yesterday by Flaherty, and many of them have been making phone calls and knocking on doors since the spring. They combined new technology with old - everything from computerized voter targeting to sound trucks rolling through the streets.

Yesterday was the final phase - making sure that voters for Menino, who is seeking an unprecedented fifth term as mayor, made it to the polls.

A big staging area was Prince Hall in the Grove Hall business district at the Dorchester-Roxbury line. About 300 volunteers, including a large contingent of workers from the Service Employees International Union, were expected to take part late in the day, equipped with street maps and voter lists by address in an area stretching from Uphams Corner in Dorchester to Mattapan Square. They targeted the homes of 35,000 active voters, most of them African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean, or Haitian, while vehicles equipped with public address systems traveled the streets, urging people to vote.

In prior elections, Menino has won upward of 80 percent of the vote in those neighborhoods.

So confident was the Menino camp of the mayor’s dominance in some neighborhoods that his troops executed a so-called “foot pull,’’ a variation of the throwback technique of knocking on the door of every voter, whether they had already been identified as Menino voters or not.

Smaller groups of about 125 in East Boston and more than 100 in Hyde Park and Roslindale conducted a similar exercise, which combines the shoe-leather politics of the past with modern computer-generated lists and maps.

“We pride ourselves on being new old-fashioned,’’ said one of the coordinators of the Menino operation at Grove Hall.

Challenged by two sitting councilors, Flaherty and Yoon, and an unbridled bomb tosser, businessman Kevin McCrea, Menino had to defend a 16-year reign in which improving the quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods was always the first order of business. In the process, he became a better candidate. Unlike in past elections, when he limited his public exposure in debates, Menino participated in two before the preliminary and attended some candidate forums.

The political wiseguys attempted to set the bar as a measurement of success for the mayor before the votes were cast. Some suggested he needed 50 percent in a four-way race, and he was hovering around the 50 percent mark with most of the precincts counted last night.

But it is a mistake to assume that voters who cast ballots for Yoon and McCrea will automatically gravitate to Flaherty in the final election. Some will stay home and some will vote for Menino.

One of Menino’s key operatives in Dorchester, for instance, said yesterday that in seven precincts around Uphams Corner and the Dudley Street corridor, Yoon had made inroads with some younger voters but Flaherty’s strength was negligible.

There is no perfect precedent to compare to the 2009 race, but the 1979 Boston mayoral contest may be the most instructive.

That year, Kevin White was seeking a third term and, like Menino, he was facing the catcalls of opponents who said it was time for White to go.

But White, facing Joe Timilty, who had nearly upset him four years earlier, and a pair of other solid challengers, David Finnegan and Mel King, collected about 44 percent of the vote in the preliminary, compared with Timilty, who finished with 27 percent. But in the final, White extended his margin, capturing almost 55 percent.