As long-serving Boston Mayor Tom Menino bows out and turns his attention to his own health, the city of Boston has an historic opportunity to inject a measure of health into its democracy.
In 2009, I ran for mayor because after serving four years as a city councilor at-large, I saw how unhealthy our democracy was, as practiced inside Boston City Hall. As one Boston historian told me, the form of government practiced in Boston was not so much a “strong mayor system” as it was a “municipal monarchy.”
In a strong mayor system, the mayor is vested with virtually all executive and administrative powers to run the city, while the powers of the 13-member city council are strictly limited. This form of municipal government is not uncommon. Many small to medium-sized cities practice it. However, Boston is the only city in America where the power of the mayor’s office has, throughout history, become such a political juggernaut.
When I took office in 2006, I saw that the only real constitutional power of the City Council was to approve the Mayor’s budget. However, I learned that city councilors were expected by the mayor’s office to vote for his budget without really questioning it. I also learned that the best way to implement a good idea was to have the mayor’s office “steal” it. My idea to lower the interest rate on loans to low-income seniors who owed back taxes was implemented by the mayor my first year without any attribution to me. This may seem like a small example, but the total accumulation of these types of things over four years took its toll.
Tom Menino did not create this system. He inherited it. It has been passed through generations of Boston mayors, beginning in the 1940s and 50s. City jobs, city-employed campaign workers, building permits, and kickbacks — legal and illegal — were all tools that mayors regularly used to accumulate power. It was a power that both citizens and councilors feared and respected. So much so that for decades it enabled these mayors to decide on their own terms when to end their mayoralties. The last Boston mayor to lose a bid for re-election was James Michael Curley in 1949. After Curley served a five month prison sentence in 1947, he famously returned to City Hall and promptly insulted the city clerk John Hynes, who had been running the city in his absence. In a fit of pique, Hynes ran against Curley and won.
The question for some is: If things are so bad, then why does Menino, in the sunset of his career, enjoy such high favorability ratings?
During my campaign in 2009, I answered that question with another: As compared to whom? There is no political leader other than Menino. Therefore, having a favorable impression of the mayor is tantamount to having a favorable impression of the city itself. The mayor and the city are one.
As Boston city-dwellers know, Menino’s name is on everything. His stamp, his brand permeates all official signage and public language. The “Mayor’s Hotline” solves all constituent problems. During his storied career, Menino himself was everywhere. In the 2009 election his very ubiquity was the campaign message: “Have you met Tom Menino? Over half of the city has.”
So do Bostonians like the mayor? They do. They like where the city is going, and they attribute its progress, naturally, to him.
But would Boston be better if things were different? Yes, if the people were given an alternative. But because the mayor undermines competition for good ideas, there is only one viewpoint, only one party, and only one leader. People generally make the right choice when they hear opposing points of view, but in Boston, for the last 60 years, there has only been one choice.
The ill health of democracy in Boston is why I gave up my safe seat on the City Council in 2009 to campaign for mayor and talk about this problem. I argued that a free flow and exchange of ideas is essential in a democracy, and that in our current strong-mayor system, we didn’t have it.
During my four years in City Hall, debate and deliberation were too often viewed with suspicion or tinged with fear of retribution. As a city councilor I learned why not to ask how taxpayers would be reimbursed if the mayor went ahead with plans to build a skyscraper on a city-funded garage. Why not to ask how much it costs to maintain obsolete fire safety equipment. Why not to ask for more funding for youth programs. There were severe political consequences just for asking. This was bad for the City Council as well as for the voters and taxpayers of Boston.
Tom Menino is a good man whose decades of public service should be celebrated and honored. As he bows out gracefully and on his own terms, my hope is that the upcoming mayoral campaign focuses on the systemic change that Boston needs to realize its full potential.
Legend has it that George Washington declined the title “king” and chose the more prosaic title of “president,” given his interest in sharing power. In that spirit my hope is that Menino’s successor realizes his or her power not through the history, culture, and habits of the mayor’s office, but in the building of a healthy democracy in Boston.