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Noncandidate Menino a force in today’s vote

Mayor’s team aiding at-large incumbents

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / November 8, 2011

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In the frenzied month before today’s City Council election, one man raised more money than any other politician in Boston. But his name will not appear on today’s ballot.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino grabbed another $111,150 for his campaign account in October, records show. The fund-raising bonanza was double the amount of money raised by several at-large city councilors fighting for their political lives.

The haul served as a reminder that even in the thick of a City Council election, Menino is the dominant political force in Boston and may be so for a long time. He has made no decision about running in 2013.

“I’ve got the rest of this year and two years after that,’’ he said, adding a quip: “And maybe, four years after that. And four years after that.’’

Against that backdrop, Menino’s political organization is aggressively engaged in these midterm elections, in part to scuttle a comeback by Michael F. Flaherty, who is running to regain the City Council seat he abandoned in 2009 in an unsuccessful challenge to Menino for mayor. If he returns to the council, Flaherty would have a platform to promote his ideas and criticize the administration.

But in Boston, authority is concentrated in the mayor’s office, more so than in most other large US cities. That helps to explain why Team Menino, even though the mayor is not up for reelection, has knocked on doors, manned phone banks, solicited volunteers for polling places, and geared up for a get-out-the-vote effort today across the city.

Much of its focus has been on a bitter fight for an open seat in Dorchester. But Team Menino is also working to help reelect the four at-large councilors, who represent the entire city: Felix G. Arroyo, John R. Connolly, Stephen J. Murphy, and Ayanna S. Pressley.

In defending the incumbents, Menino is trying to deny Flaherty a seat on the council. Flaherty has vowed to be an independent voice who will stand up to the mayor.

“The fact is that members of the council are routinely marginalized by the mayor,’’ Flaherty said in May. He added that councilors are “kept in line by a carrot-and-stick approach that is counterproductive to spirited and thoughtful political debate.’’

Menino and the incumbents disagree, arguing there is significant give-and-take between the administration and City Council.

“People have been throwing criticism around, saying [the four incumbents] do what the mayor tells them,’’ Menino said, without mentioning Flaherty by name. “No. We fought on the issue of community centers; we fought on the issue of libraries, two major issues. This is not a council that just rubber-stamps everything I give them.’’

None of the four incumbent at-large councilors consider themselves puppets. They say they push back when it is good for the city, not to grab headlines for a future run for mayor. Since launching his campaign in May, Flaherty has said repeatedly that he is focused on winning a council seat. But he has not ruled out a run for mayor in 2013.

If Flaherty gets back on the council, it could help him launch another bid for mayor.

“That doesn’t enter my thought at all; [he would be] just one councilor,’’ Menino said. “There [would be] 12 other ones, 12 other ones who want to move Boston forward. I’m supporting the incumbents because they are positive.’’

In October, Menino raised $111,150 from 266 donors. The majority of the mayor’s benefactors, 194 of the 266, gave $500, the maximum allowed under state law. Donors included developers, realtors, lawyers, merchants, architects, teachers, city employees, and one union.

“The mayor has been tremendously responsive to concerns about development at a time of massive unemployment,’’ said Mark Erlich, a member of Carpenters Local 40 and executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. “We make contributions to political leaders who make a difference. It’s pretty clear he makes a difference.’’

Another Menino donor was John M. Tobin Jr., a former city councilor from West Roxbury who at times clashed with the mayor. Tobin said he contributed $150 to Menino’s campaign account because he understood the demands on elected officials to sponsor youth sports teams and neighborhood charities.

“People may vehemently disagree with the mayor on an issue, but that is calmed considerably because they are likely to see him at a neighborhood bakery on Saturday,’’ said Tobin, now a vice president at Northeastern University. “The guy is everywhere. People like that.’’

Menino certainly has supported local charities. In October, his campaign made nine philanthropic donations totaling $2,800, including $1,000 to the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. But Menino has also amassed a political war chest brimming with more than $521,000, a significant start if he runs for reelection.

A century ago, Boston concentrated power in the mayor’s office to wrest control from ward bosses like James Michael Curley and John F. Fitzgerald, the grandfather of President Kennedy. At the time, the city’s legislative branch dominated the mayor. Now the opposite is true.

Menino has lost a little weight as he has resumed his tireless schedule, hopscotching to ribbon-cuttings, playground dedications, and other neighborhood events. It is a marked difference from a year ago, when he curtailed his public schedule during a stretch of ill health that included two knee surgeries.

If Menino runs again, history will be in his favor. The last incumbent mayor to lose a reelection bid was James Michael Curley, in 1949. Mayors serve for a generation, not a term.

“It’s an extraordinary thing because the mayor has all of this power,’’ said Robert Allison, a history professor at Suffolk University. “He has much more power in the city than the governor has in the Commonwealth or the president has in the country.’’

That leaves a 13-member City Council with little real clout. The mayor hires. The mayor appoints. The mayor fires. The mayor writes the budget, and the City Council decides whether to approve it. And the mayor’s office controls the city workforce. City councilors need that workforce to deliver services and solve problems for their constituents, which is their main role.

“This mayor’s voice has been far from eloquent, but his power has been and likely will be largely unchallenged after this election,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “He’s not even running and he’s the leading fund-raiser. Money flows to where the power really lies.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.