Friday, April 12, 2013

Boston Mayor Tom Menino

 All of the press coverage of Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s recent announcement that he would be leaving office when his term expires at the end of the year brought back a couple of memories. One is of the opportunities that the departure of a long-serving mayor might provide. The other is a memory of the departing mayor.

When I finished graduate school in 1983 I was desperate for a job and lucky enough to land one with the White administration as an aide to the Mayor’s Housing Advisor. Classes were over, but Commencement Day had yet to arrive. I was slated to start work at City Hall on June 1st. As it happened, Mayor White surreptitiously went to New York to tape a television address announcing he would not be seeking another term. The announcement ran on the local news the night before my first day on the job. It was extremely unnerving to watch, but I summoned up my courage and reported to work as planned.

People in the administration thought I had lost my mind. No-one could believe that I was really showing up for my first day of work. They asked me if I had watched any television or caught the morning papers. I assured them I had done so, and my paperwork was reluctantly processed. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream as I walked through City Hall. The whole administration was leaving.

As the weeks went on, departure styles ranged from orderly to panicked. Typewriter access was at a premium as everyone polished their resumes. Over time, the building became more and more silent as long-time staffers went on job interviews or took sick days.

I hung in. I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I certainly wasn’t going to be let go in the upcoming six months (no-one would have put in the effort), and at least I had a job, unlike some of my fellow classmates. Sticking around turned out to be a great decision. Since most people were missing, or too busy, or still shell-shocked, I got to work on some important and high-profile projects.

I helped research and write the first “Linkage” report attempting to justify extracting concessions from commercial developers to be used for housing subsidies. I worked on homelessness prevention initiatives, on vacant lot re-use and manufactured housing studies. I served as liaison to the somewhat wild-eyed arson prevention researchers, and even represented the City with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the State Banking Commission’s anti-red-lining working group. As George Washington Plunkitt said (in a somewhat different context), “I seen my opportunities, and I took ‘em.”

If this reaches any young, newly-minted staffers in the Menino Administration, they might want to think about sticking around and making the most of a chance to do some good in the next nine months. You can always polish your resume after work, and these days you will even have spell check to help.

Now I don’t know Mayor Menino very well, and he doesn’t know me at all, but one encounter years ago has left an indelible memory.

I managed to survive in city government by backing the right horse in the election to succeed Kevin White and wound up running a program to subsidize new construction of moderate income housing on city-owned vacant lots.  One of the non-profit sponsors in the program, Urban Edge, selected a long, narrow site on Hyde Park Ave. As these things go, it was not a bad site, and my department was backing the proposal, including hosting a community meeting to make the neighborhood aware in advance of the formal approvals process.

We met in a church hall in Roslindale on what I remember as a sweltering summer night. Before the meeting quite got started, then-City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil asked for the floor. O’Neil was the worst kind of ignorant bully, and that night he was at his apex. He took the floor to announce that although he knew nothing about the proposal, and did not care to learn anything about the proposal, he was against it. This got a pretty good round of applause from the neighbors, and I prepared for a rough night. Then O’Neil, reeking of insincerity, said he would allow the meeting to continue anyway.

After a presentation by the brave sponsors, laying out the site plan and building designs and the community benefits of the program, we asked for questions and comments from the audience. After a number of those present took their turns, District Councilor Tom Menino stood up and issued the single most amazing statement I ever heard a politician utter before or since. It was, approximately -

“I have listened to the proposal and I think it will be good for the neighborhood. That is why I will support it. If folks here disagree with me, and want to use that as an excuse to vote against me in the next election, that’s just fine.”

When media pundits wonder how Menino kept getting elected all those years, they might want to talk to people who were in meetings like that one, listening to a guy who stood up for what he believed in, and was willing to face the consequences.

The infill development did get built. It only took about 15 years. 

Mayor Menino cut the ribbon.

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