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He made Boston a better place

This week marks the end of an era –the Menino Era – for our city. On the first Monday of this new year, Jan. 6, Hyde Park’s Tom Menino will step aside as mayor of Boston Mayor, leaving an office he has filled for more than 20 years.

It was on July 12, 1993, that City Council president Menino was sworn-in to succeed Raymond Flynn, who was off to serve as US Ambassador to the Vatican. Beyond the political class — who had long known of his talents— little was known of Menino, who had been a district councillor from Hyde Park since 1984. Within the insider political world of Boston City Hall, it was believed that he had been elected council president in the belief that he would not be a likely candidate to fill the mayor’s seat if, as expected, Flynn left the job.

Indeed, even with the advantage of serving two months as acting mayor, in the September preliminary election, Menino claimed just 27 percent of the votes from the 111,000 cast. But in the final election, he scored a resounding 64 to 35 percent victory over his opponent, Dorchester state Rep Jim Brett. For the next two decades, his vote tally never went below 50 percent again. So much for conventional wisdom!

What the political wise guys failed to note about Tom Menino was that he had quietly but effectively developed an instinct for street-level retail politics in Ward 18, his home neighborhood and in doing so, he made scores of allies all across Boston’s southern tier of elective politics.

I first came became aware of the man – we knew him as Tommy – when he worked as an aide in the state Senate. Sen. Joe Timilty was a man on the move in Boston in the 1970s, mounting three campaigns to unseat Kevin White – in 1971, 1975 and 1979. Menino was known as Timilty’s go-to guy.  When the senator joined Mel King in organizing weekly roundtable meetings to help curb racial hostility during Boston’s busing crisis, Menino was highly visible in reaching across the neighborhood divides.

When Dorchester state Rep. Brian Donnelly campaigned for Congress in 1978, Menino helped to deliver a huge vote across Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Roslindale. By then, it was part of the political bible that candidates for office citywide should seek his support.

A 1983 change to the city charter reconstituted the Council, establishing nine district and four at-large seats. The new Hyde Park/Roslindale district was tailor-made for Menino and he was swept into office that year, and in each succeeding election. In fact, in more than 30 years in elective office, Tom Menino never lost an election.

The media has made much of describing him as the “urban mechanic,” someone who kept his eye on the small details that contribute to quality of life issues across Boston’s neighborhoods. On a personal basis, I found a more accurate description of Tom Menino: He was, and is, a neighborhood guy, first, last and always. Somehow, for any significant event in the neighborhoods, the mayor was always there. A great example: He came to Dorchester every year on Mother’s Day to support the annual Louis D. Brown March for Peace. But the visit was more than just showing support; he typically led the march and set the pace, walking up Dot and Talbot avenues, through Codman Square to Columbia Road, and back down Geneva Avenue. to Casey Town Field. It was only in recent years that injuries caused him to curtail making the full walk.

A personal vignette offers some insight into this legendary Boston political figure: In the fall of 1993, the newly-elected mayor came to our newspaper offices for a chat. He told me he believed that local weekly newspapers have an important and cohesive role to play in neighborhood life, and he would make himself available for interviews whenever necessary. He said he would have his staff assist him in reaching out to the neighborhood with regular mayoral columns, and he invited me to let him know my own opinion on issues.

Over the ensuing 20 years, I have followed through, and only seldom have I expressed an opinion that took exception to his policies. For me, he was approachable, open-minded on the big issues, and shared a concern for the working families of our neighborhoods that helped to make a sustainable city.

And the big take-away is this: As Tommy Menino retires from public service, he leaves behind a better city than the one we lived in two decades ago.

– Ed Forry