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Boston's Mayor, a Bland Favorite

Election: In a city of fiery politics, the race between incumbent Thomas Menino and Peggy Davis-Mullen plods along sedately.

November 03, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — In this city's political lexicon, there must be an antonym for the word "race."

Not the kind of "race" that refers to skin color or national origin--although in Boston that has always been a sensitive issue.

What turns out to be the dead opposite of any kind of contest here is Tuesday's mayoral election. Thomas Menino, a career bureaucrat who bills himself as Mayor Pothole, is expected to coast to a third term.

His only opponent, City Council member Peggy Davis-Mullen, is struggling for support even in her home territory of South Boston, the Irish American stronghold that violently fought busing when Davis-Mullen was a Southie schoolgirl.

Menino's base is so firm that in September he captured 72% of the primary vote--an even larger percentage than when he ran unopposed four years ago.

The city's two daily newspapers have endorsed Menino, 58. The mayor--so chronically inarticulate that the local press calls him Mumbles--enjoys such clout that he agreed to a single debate with Davis-Mullen only because it was broadcast at 12:30 a.m. on a Saturday.

In the soporific excuse for a campaign, the closest thing to dirt was the disclosure that Davis-Mullen, 41, let trash pile up outside her headquarters.

But Menino's plodding blandness is apparently just what voters are seeking. Boston--a city renowned for dashing political figures--is suffering from charisma fatigue.

"Colorful and charismatic are not what the electorate wants," said Jack Beatty, an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and the biographer of one of Boston's colorful mayoral legends, James Michael Curley.

"It wants services delivered, and it wants competence," Beatty said. "The very fact that he doesn't have any real competition says something. It says the voters must be pleased with his administration."

A former city council member, Menino became mayor in 1993 after Raymond L. Flynn was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Menino assumed office armed with a carefully crafted blue-collar biography.

He claimed to have skipped college in favor of low-level jobs that led him through the ranks of city government.

Days ago, the Boston Globe revealed that Menino actually earned a degree in business management from a small private college. Later, Menino attended the University of Massachusetts, a more proletarian institution.

Lou DiNatale, a professor of political science at U-Mass, Boston, said the flat-line nature of this election suits Boston fine. After the racial issues that roiled Boston in the 1970s, the city is exhausted, DiNatale said.

"You cannot discount the hostility that existed, and the desire for tranquillity. People were glad to get urban politics off the main agenda for the last few decades," he said.

Menino's steady style has earned him a recent approval rating of 85%. He drummed up a war chest of $1.4 million for a campaign that was more like a cakewalk.

By contrast, Davis-Mullen's campaign budget was $85,000. In the critical last days of the non-race, she employed not one paid campaign worker. She reported with pride that she was recycling old yard signs from her city council campaigns to save money.

As an eight-year incumbent in a city with no mayoral term limits, Menino clearly ran with an advantage, said Kathryn Whitmire, who served five terms as mayor of Houston.

Beating an incumbent is difficult, said Whitmire, now a senior fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. "But people do it all the time. I did it," she said.

Menino, Whitmire said, must have kept "his politics very well in order," or he would not have kept the job.

"What people want is for their local government to keep things in order," she said. "They want the support systems to be there for their daily lives: trash pickup, clean streets, jobs. I think it's a plus to be a glamorous figure. A high profile and a national image can offset some of the potholes that didn't get fixed. On the other hand, if you don't have the glamour and flair, people will still support you if you get the potholes fixed."

Former Deputy Mayor Ira Jackson, now director of the Center for Business and Government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said Menino should be lauded for allowing others in the city to pursue "really spectacular innovations." Jackson singled out Police Commissioner Paul Evans, who has overseen a dramatic drop in violent crime here.

Rather than executing grand designs of his own, Jackson went on, Menino "used his political strength to make Boston a more welcoming place for the new Bostonians--not the yuppies and high-tech millionaires, but rather the Guatemalans and the Ethiopians and the Somalians, and the thousands of other immigrants who needed a mayor who would protect them, and make them feel welcome."

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