Death of a Legend: The Ballad of Thomas Menino

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on November 6, 2014.

One week ago marks the fall of a political legend. Thomas Menino, Boston’s longest serving mayor, lost his battle with cancer, and there is no doubt that many Bostonians feel lost.

Although I have never been a resident inside Menino’s jurisdiction, and although I never paid much attention to local politics during my childhood, he has presided over the city of Boston for as long as I can remember. He began his five-term run while I was blowing out the candles on my second birthday cake. He watched me perform at chorus concerts at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which he insisted on hosting in Boston despite vehement opposition (and brought 15 million dollars to the city in the process.) He spearheaded his Beantown to Greentown campaign to reduce carbon emissions as I navigated driver’s education and the SATs. When I graduated college this year, he graduated from public service, probably feeling that five terms was more than enough, thank you very much, and that it was time to give somebody else a bite of the apple. However, even after successor Marty Walsh assumed office this past January, we still had not quite registered that he had gone. He was still a benevolent ghost watching over the city.

As I sifted through the barrage of State Department emails that clutters my inbox on a regular basis, one particular headline that grimy Thursday afternoon stuck out like a sore thumb. “Passing of Tom Menino,” it stated in its no-nonsense, Times New Roman, Bold, size 12 font. I looked again, wondering if it had been a mistake to leave my glasses at home. Surely, this was a tragic coincidence. Surely, this e-mail referred to a different Tom Menino who worked somewhere in the State Department, perhaps the ambassador to an Ebola-plagued nation. After all, where would Secretary Kerry even find the time to announce the death of one of least 10,000 U.S. mayors when he had more pressing issues such as ISIS to contend with? As I opened the email, I realized that an important part of Bostonian history had died. As Kerry so eloquently stated in his press release, “Mayor Menino is Boston.”

This line, more than any of the others, resonated with me. How can one person embody an entire city? The more I thought about these words and the more I familiarized myself with Menino’s career, the more I realized the truth to Kerry’s statement. Staunch and unwavering as a Puritan (or a Red Sox fan), progressive as a citizen of the People’s Republic of Cambridge on the other side of the Charles, and with an Boston accent as thick as any Seth McFarlane character, Tom Menino represented the relentless pioneering spirit of Boston.

Mayor Menino was affectionately known as “Mumbles” throughout the city, but, as any Bostonian knew, you would have to have been a fool to let his soft spoken manner fool you. When the man wanted to get things done, oh boy, did he deliver.

When he first assumed office in 1993, Boston was experiencing a serious case of white flight, an all-too-common urban malady. Boston is now at least 50% white citizens, according to 2010 census data. Hold the phone, some of you are saying. Why is adding more white people considered a positive development? Because it meant that fewer and fewer middle- and upper-middle-class Bostonians fleeing to the suburbs. Additionally, the increase in revenue and business development he brought along to South Boston’s water front created more economic opportunities for people of all races and socioeconomic statuses, to create the thriving city we all know and love today.

He was also a catalyst in expanding the health care and technology sectors. Although these were always the city’s strongest industries, given the presence of Harvard, MIT, and many major research hospitals, I would even go so far as to argue that, during the two-plus decades of Menino’s term, Boston has transformed into the East Coast equivalent of the Silicon Valley.

His greatest legacy though, would have to be his accomplishments in education reform. From the get go, he made it a primary priority. During his 21 years as mayor, the Boston public schools have seen a decline in drop-out rates, higher test scores, and an increase in charter schools. In addition, he made full-day kindergarten programs accessible for all five-year-olds living in the city, regardless of racial, ethnic or socioeconomic background. Although the achievement gap between inner city schools still exists, something which Menino acknowledged, nobody could doubt his progress and continued persistence in this arena. In fact, other big city mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg followed in his wake to create more comprehensive educational initiatives.

His career, however, was not without controversy. On August 28, 2013, he commented in an interview with New York Times Magazine that he would “blow up Detroit and start all over.” While his language was undoubtedly figurative, it was still an extremely insensitive comment for a mayor whose city had suffered a large scale terrorist attack only four months previously. However, he acknowledged this in his apology less than a week later. No scandal, no PR cover up, just a mea culpa on his end.

Not only did the city of Boston lose a passionate and honest politician, a rare and (literally) dying breed, it has also lost a beacon of hope. The ramifications were especially felt in the most recent governor’s election. While comparing a governor to a mayor may seem like a comparison between apples and oranges, the election does give us a snapshot of the leadership choices presented to residents of Massachusetts.
The winner, Charlie Baker, projects a good old boy, pro-status quo, members-only image. From watching him in debates, I received the distinct impression that he wore a class ring, pledged a fraternity, golfs regularly, and summers in Nantucket (and uses the word ‘summer’ unironically as a verb). Whereas Menino was born and raised in Boston’s blue collar Hyde Park neighborhood and dropped out of college, Baker grew up in Needham, a Bostonian suburb so affluent that it is completely removed from the city’s public transportation system, and attended Harvard. He is hardly a man one would assume to continue Menino’s progressive legacy.

His opponent, former Attorney General Martha Coakley, possessed Menino’s fighting spirit and can-do attitude, as evidenced by the cool, calm, and collected demeanor she presented during debates and her accomplishments in litigating sexual abusers and crusading for abused children. However, she lacks Menino’s warm and down-to-earth nature, and therefore comes across as cold and lofty. She is not somebody who would inspire Bostonians to flood the streets, holding up “We Miss You” signs at her funeral.

Another candidate in the race, United Independent candidate Evan Falchuck, embraced the everyman image. His cries for internal collaboration within government and his appeals to frustrated, indebted college graduates and destitute citizens living in the western part of the state echo Menino’s passion for social justice. However, his idealist claims and proposed projects to bring public transit to the rural pioneer valley and create affordable housing lack substance and experience to back them up. Falchuck had no chance to put his money where his mouth was because he did not belong to a major party.

Does Menino’s death truly mark the end of an era? Will Massachusetts continue to build on Menino’s vision, or does Menino leave a vacuum as wide as the Big Dig that our current leaders just cannot hope to fill? In either case, 2014 undoubtedly marks a pivotal political turning point for Boston. We just have to wait and see whether it is for better or worse.

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