Eileen McNamara: Forget re-election plans. It is time for Mayor Tom Menino to retire. He and Boston will both survive. Menino, pictured here on July 22, 2004, has been hospitalized since Oct. 26, 2012. (Josh Reynolds/AP, File)
Diabetes. Crohn’s Disease. Viral Infections. Blood clots in the lung. Pressure fractures in the spine. A five-week hospitalization that ends not with a cab ride home to Hyde Park but with a transfer by ambulance to Spaulding Rehab.
It is time for Tom Menino to retire. He and Boston will both survive.
The longest serving mayor in Boston’s history may well be the toughest, having battled back from myriad ills and multiple surgeries in the last decade. Bostonians who elected him to five terms have every hope he will do it again. But to what end does a man maintain his grip on political power when, a month from his 70th birthday, he faces the prospect of weeks more of in-patient rehabilitation? To what purpose do a city’s residents accept a municipal government operating on near automatic pilot?
That the mayor has chosen not to speak directly about his medical condition is an abdication of responsibility to the city no one doubts he loves. Doctors assurances that Menino is likely “to rebound” at some unspecified time fall somewhere short of full disclosure.
Menino’s unprecedented tenure has lent such an unhealthy air of permanence to his hold on City Hall that few doubt, even now, that he intends to seek a sixth term. It is a long way from his first mayoral campaign when he vowed to serve only two terms.
Instead, across 19 years, Menino has solidified his control over every aspect of public life in this city — the police department, the schools, health care. His unplanned medical leave may be giving those department heads the first breathing room they have ever had. It should also be opening discussion of the post-Menino era.
There are plenty of possible contenders in the wings should the mayor retire — Ayanna Pressley, Felix G. Arroyo and Tito Jackson on the city council; Jamaica Plain’s State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz on Beacon Hill; Dorchester’s Will Dorcena has already announced his candidacy. More will emerge if the mayor signals that he, too, recognizes that democracy thrives on new blood and fresh perspectives — as well as on experience.
Those who scoff at the prospective mayoral candidates beginning to stir have fallen victim to the well-cultivated fiction that Menino is irreplaceable. No one is.
It is worth remembering that the only man many Bostonians have ever known as their mayor was untested and unelected when he got his first taste of the job in July of 1993. As president of the Boston City Council when Mayor Raymond L. Flynn was named U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Menino automatically became acting mayor for four months.
Eight credible candidates competed for the two top slots in the preliminary election that September. Menino topped the ballot and then dispatched Dorchester State Rep. Jim Brett in the general election as decisively as he would all comers for the next two decades. Sadly, the mayor‘s talent for defeating his opponents has not been matched by a commitment to nurturing the next generation of political talent. (Yes, his political operation helped widen Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren’s victory but it mobilized only after Menino spent months either disparaging or ignoring her.)
The mayor’s charm and his strength has always been that this was the only job he ever wanted. The self-styled “municipal mechanic” never coveted an open U.S. Senate seat or climbed Beacon Hill for any reason other than to secure something for his city. It has been a hell of a run. But all runs end and the good ones end by choice, with dignity, when there is time left to enjoy family and make less taxing contributions to public life.
What Menino told his victory rally on the September night he won that preliminary election 19 years ago turns out to be the legacy of his long and distinguished career: “I am not a fancy talker, but I get things done.” What he said next of the city’s voters is also just as true today: “They want to move Boston forward, not cling to the past.”
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