Yvonne Abraham

Flaherty’s big contribution

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 1, 2009

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Whatever happens on Tuesday, Boston should be grateful to Michael Flaherty.

Watching him over the last week, hammering away at Mayor Tom Menino over the state of the schools, the lack of diversity in his top posts, and his autocratic leadership style, I was struck by how remarkable this city councilor’s challenge has been.

Menino batted away previous opponents, ignoring and outspending them into irrelevance. He managed to avoid debates - or to schedule them so that only insomniacs surfing through cable Siberia bore witness.

But there was Menino at Faneuil Hall last week, making a very public case for his reelection - in his third debate since September’s preliminary. “I believe the city’s moving forward,’’ he said on that storied stage.

“I happen to think Boston is stuck in neutral,’’ Flaherty countered.

The polls are indicating that more people see things Menino’s way, and the increasingly pugilistic Flaherty seems to know it: But in a meeting with the Globe editorial board Wednesday, the councilor compared himself to Victory Gallop, the stallion who came from way behind to beat Real Quiet by a nose in the 1998 Belmont Stakes.

The thoroughbred didn’t have to contend with voters like those in the Grove Hall Dunkin’ Donuts on Monday morning, however.

“Wooooo!’’ yelled one woman when Menino stopped in for orange juice and love. For the entire campaign, Flaherty has been making the case that it’s time for a fresh perspective, that Menino’s longevity is a liability. It’s not a problem here.

“I want you to knock ’em dead,’’ said the man behind the counter. “You’ve been around too long for them to knock you out!’’

Still, even if you love the mayor, Flaherty (along with Sam Yoon and Kevin McCrea) has done the city a huge favor by holding Menino’s record up to scrutiny, forcing residents to focus on how Boston is faring.

The city’s schools may be better than Flaherty claims, but they’re still in trouble, with high dropout rates and too many flameouts among those who make it to college. More and more residents say they have considered moving out of Boston because of the schools.

Pressure from his rivals made Menino do something surprising and forward-thinking during this campaign: embrace charter schools, albeit his in-district version of them. That was real progress, though the mayor seems to be backpedaling on charters now that victory is in sight.

The councilor is right to call Menino on his leadership style, and - though Flaherty himself has been an imperfect messenger for this issue - on the transparency of his administration. And he has a good point when it comes to Menino’s constant need to get credit.

Voters may decide that none of this matters, that the many good things Menino has done outweigh such shortcomings, that they’re happy enough with the city, or wary enough of Flaherty, to reelect the incumbent.

But that decision will be better informed than in previous years. An unprecedented fifth term will only be stronger for the fact that Menino has had to work harder for it this time. And the city will be richer for having discussed the issues.

You’d think even the mayor would concede that. On Friday, I asked him whether the campaign had changed his outlook, if he had had occasion to rethink his approach to schools, diversity in City Hall, the way he operates.

At first, the mayor copped only to an inadequate communications strategy.

“What this campaign has shown me, we need to educate the public better about the good things that are going on in the Boston public schools,’’ he said.

Pushed, he allowed: “There’s always room for improvement. I wouldn’t be running for reelection if I didn’t think that.’’

A grudging concession it may be, but it’s something. And in large measure, we have Flaherty to thank for it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at