Long-term city boss who delivered the goods for Boston

Thomas Menino: December 27th, 1942 - October 30th, 2014

 

Thomas M Menino, who has died aged 71, was Boston’s longest-serving mayor and a hugely successful administrator who presided over one of the most successful urban renaissances in modern American history.

Menino was city council president in 1993 when the sitting mayor left for an ambassadorship and he automatically became mayor. Dismissed early on as an “urban mechanic”, Menino consolidated his power over two decades into one-man rule. In the process, he helped transform Boston from a gritty parochial town into the high-powered economic and cultural engine of New England. He left his imprint on the skyline, especially downtown and in South Boston, where empty warehouses and a decrepit waterfront gave way to glassy condominiums, corporate offices and fashionable restaurants.

Yet Menino spent his whole life in the Hyde Park district where he was born. He spent his days ambling along the city’s streets, talking with residents, reporting potholes and rarely missing a ribbon-cutting. He is said to have met more than half of Boston’s 625,000 residents in person and left office with approval ratings at an astronomical 82 per cent.

“Bold, big-hearted, and Boston strong, Tom was the embodiment of the city he loved and led for more than two decades,” President Barack Obama said in a tribute.

Thin-skinned

In a 2014 memoir Menino suggested that the image of him as an autocrat was exaggerated but that he exploited it to maintain leverage. “Fear is power,” he wrote. “I owed it to my city to keep fear alive.” It was a formula that worked. He ended each fiscal year with an operating surplus, drove up the city’s bond rating and avoided being tarred with a major scandal.

Boston accent

But he came to embody the spirit of Boston, never more so than after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, when he checked himself out of hospital and arrived at a briefing in a wheelchair .

Menino was not a visionary but said vision was not part of his job description; he focused on ploughing the roads, fixing the streetlights and cleaning up the parks. “I’m not good-looking,” he once said. “I can’t speak well. I’m not smart.” But he added: “I’m driven. I have the opportunity to change people’s lives.”

His proudest accomplishment, he told the New York Times, was making the city more hospitable to immigrants and minorities: “My No 1 thing,” he said, “ is bringing racial harmony to the city.”

He attributed his empathy for outsiders to his being an Italian in a city dominated by the Irish. He was the city’s first Italian-American mayor – his predecessors in the office bore the names Tobin, Kerrigan, Curley, Hynes, Collins, White and Flynn.

Ideologically, he was a liberal Democrat representing a liberal Democratic base. He pushed for tougher federal gun laws and refused to march in South Boston’s St Patrick’s Day Parade because it excluded gays. He was among the first mayors to extend benefits to same-sex partners of city employees.

Thomas Michael Menino was born in 1942, in Boston’s Hyde Park. He graduated from high school in 1960 and briefly attended night classes at Boston College but dropped out, saying college was not for him. Besides, he said, his hero, Harry S Truman, had never attended college. Later he regretted that decision and in 1988, aged 45, finally earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts.

Out of high school, he sold insurance. In 1966 he married Angela Faletra and they had two children, Susan and Thomas Jr.

His decision last year not to seek an unprecedented sixth term in office was excruciating for him. In March 2013, in an emotional ceremony packed with the city’s power elite and its working classes, Menino said he would not seek re-election. He was ill, he had run out of steam and he could not manage the city the way he wanted.

He left office in January 2014 at age 71 and took a position at Boston University. In February, he was found to have an advanced form of inoperable cancer.

He is survived by his widow and his children.