Ethnic voters are Menino stronghold

Long-cultivated groups may be key

A hallmark of Mayor Thomas Menino’s tenure has been his neighborhood visits, like this visit to Dorchester last month. A hallmark of Mayor Thomas Menino’s tenure has been his neighborhood visits, like this visit to Dorchester last month. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson and Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino was not much of an expert on global epidemics or dim sum, but he knew the heart of one of the city’s ethnic communities was in trouble. Chinatown’s bustling lunch business had taken a dive in 2003 because people were afraid they might contract the SARS virus if they ventured into the neighborhood.

So he did the thing for which he is most famous: He showed up.

Tucking into a steaming array of shrimp dumplings and spare ribs at China Pearl, he declared to a battery of television cameras that Chinatown was safe and open for business. In the process, he also reminded yet another ethnic community that he would be there when they needed him.

The city’s growing ethnic and minority communities have emerged as a battleground in the mayoral election and as a crucial source of strength for Menino, the 66-year-old son of Italian immigrants who presides over a city that, year after year, looks less and less like him. Rather than being washed away as a relic in a profoundly changing city, Menino has managed to capitalize on his unpolished charm, countless visits to community benefits, and a steady stream of municipal munificence to build strong support in Boston’s black, Latino, Asian, and gay communities.

He can also point to some concrete accomplishments, like the construction of Grove Hall Mecca, a shopping center in a formerly blighted area of Roxbury; the building of 5,000 affordable housing units; and the creation of a city office to connect immigrants to basic services.

“Every one of Boston’s communities of color can see visible, tangible evidence of his support,’’ said Theodore C. Landsmark, president of Boston Architectural College, who became an icon of Boston’s racial violence when he was photographed in 1976 being attacked by an anti-busing protester wielding an American flag.

“He has succeeded because of his ability to understand and connect with the issues and concerns that affect people of color in the city of Boston,’’ said Landsmark, who worked, years ago, for Menino’s City Hall.

The mayor’s support from minority communities comes in the face of a persistent current of criticism from political opponents and activists who say he has not done enough to help minorities advance. The percentage of minorities in Boston rose to about 50 percent last year from about 38 percent in 1990. But only three of Menino’s 13 Cabinet members are people of color; the percentage of minorities who perform construction work in the city has fallen to 30 percent from 38 percent in 1993; and roughly three-quarters of the city’s 135 schools, where the student body is 87 percent minority, are classified by federal officials as “in need of improvement.’’

Despite such criticism from some community leaders, Menino won a clear majority of voters in Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, East Boston, and Jamaica Plain in the preliminary election Sept. 22. He garnered a whopping 79 percent of the vote in one predominantly African-American precinct in Dorchester along Columbia Road, and topped 70 percent in several other heavily African-American precincts. A three-precinct exit poll of 149 voters by the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund suggests he may even have won more than two-thirds of the Asian-American vote in the four-way election that included Councilor Sam Yoon, the first would-be Boston mayor of Asian descent.

Menino’s approval rating among whites is 73 percent and is higher among blacks, at 75 percent, and Hispanics, at 79 percent, according to a Globe poll in May. Seventy-six percent of Hispanics and 65 percent of blacks polled said Menino should run for a fifth term, compared with 60 percent of whites.

Menino, who is waging a campaign for an unprecedented fifth term, prides himself on the progress he has seen in the city. “We don’t have the nonsense in Boston we had when I took over as mayor,’’ Menino said during a debate Thursday night with his remaining challenger, Councilor Michael F. Flaherty Jr. “We don’t have the racial tensions we had, and I can tell you why: It’s because of the leadership at City Hall, out there in the neighborhoods every day, talking to people,’’ he said.

Flaherty said Menino’s rhetoric is stronger than his record. He has pledged to diversify the leadership at City Hall, and strictly enforce a city policy that requires publicly funded construction projects and large private ones to fill construction jobs with 50 percent city residents, 25 percent minorities, and 10 percent women.

“To date, it’s been all about Menino’s name recognition, and people in those communities should be outraged that they don’t have better schools, safer streets, and more of their neighbors working,’’ Flaherty said in an interview.

But voters have taken note of Menino’s accomplishments. At Grove Hall Mecca, the shopping plaza built with Menino’s support in 2001, Yessayana Hartfield, a 39-year-old Dorchester resident who was stopping for coffee, said she appreciated the area’s transformation from a vacant lot. “You can’t deny the changes,’’ she said, motioning toward a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Super Stop & Shop, and a CVS. “Even a blind man can see the changes.’’

At a time when many white politicians attempt to adapt to the changing face of their cities by dabbling in Spanish, or echoing the cadences of a preacher when they speak in black churches, Menino is cheerfully blasé about learning the particulars of the city’s many cultures - freely acknowledging, for example, that he had no idea what dim sum was when he sat down for his meal at China Pearl. “What do I know?’’ he said. “I just eat.’’

The mayor’s strongholds extend beyond ethnic communities, to those of sexual and religious minorities, as well.

Five years ago, on the day gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, Menino showed up early at City Hall and escorted three of the couples who had sued for the right to marry, as they walked to the registry office and applied for marriage licenses.

This year, when Menino cut the ribbon at a controversial mosque in Roxbury, the crowd repeatedly interrupted his speech with applause and shouts of “Allahu Akbar’’ - God is great. Menino told the audience he was proud to have helped the Muslim community acquire land for the mosque and to have backed the project, even when the transaction was challenged as a sweetheart deal and the mosque’s supporters were criticized for their alleged ties to radical groups.

“I stand with all of you because, when you’re mayor of the city, you don’t choose who you represent,’’ Menino said that day. “You represent all the people, all the time.’’

The mayor is not introspective about his relationship to minorities. In an interview last week, he said he navigates the politics of a city whose demographics have changed dramatically since he was elected in 1993 by making repeated visits to the neighborhoods. “It’s just a lot of elbow grease - being out there, talking to people and listening to them and trying to be of service to them,’’ Menino said.

But some activists, pointing to concerns about schools, crime, and unemployment, say being out there isn’t enough.

“I’m very disillusioned with him,’’ said Reinelda “Chickie’’ Rivera, a longtime activist in the Hispanic community, who threw her support behind Flaherty, after backing Menino in his past campaigns. “He’s failing our youth, he’s failing in education, and he’s failing in public safety.’’

For the first time this year, Latinos edged blacks as the largest group in the schools, at 38 percent. At the same time, more than 10 percent of Latinos in Boston’s high schools dropped out last year, the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group.

“When you have an administration that is not providing indispensable services - all of this adds up,’’ said Samuel Hurtado, coordinator of the Latino Education Action Network. “You have many Latino families who are struggling. . . . There’s nowhere to turn.’’

The Rev. Bruce H. Wall said the mayor has been able to maintain support in large part by directing grants to influential community groups, such as the Black Ministerial Alliance and the TenPoint Coalition.

“The grants, the money, the photo-ops, just being close to the mayor, all of those are reasons why a number of the pastors are in his corner,’’ Wall said.

The mayor’s allies say that, despite persistent problems in the city, his support among minorities is genuine.

“After 16 years, if it weren’t for real, at some point it would have shown,’’ said the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr., pastor of the Charles Street A.M.E. Church, whom Menino appointed as chairman of the Boston School Committee.

“He’s getting older, but he’s not slowing down in his constant travel to the neighborhoods,’’ Groover said. Even if “it’s just a ribbon cutting, he’s there, so it’s got to be real,’’ he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at