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Boston Content With Mayor 'Mumbles'

In a city historically known for political ferocity, Thomas M. Menino approaches his fourth term as a bland, reliable administrator.

November 13, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Time was, this city hummed every four years with competing campaign songs and thundered with fiery oratory from those who would be mayor. Candidates were proud to be known both as gentlemen and as scoundrels. Scandal abounded, and neighborhoods all but went to war for their favorite contenders.

But the city that for centuries reveled in fierce City Hall contests was strangely sleepy this campaign season. Tuesday's election had all the excitement of a supermarket opening as Thomas M. Menino won by a 2-1 ratio over City Councilor Maura Hennigan, his only challenger.

The victory granted an unusual fourth term to a bland figure whose greatest claim to fame is his ordinariness. Boston does not have term limits, but no mayor has served more than four four-year terms.

Menino, 62, is a career civil servant who lives with his wife in Hyde Park, the working-class neighborhood where he was raised. He is known for his devotion to the city's neighborhoods -- and despised by those who accuse him of blocking progress by imposing excessive demands on builders.

The mayor's distinctive syntax earned him the nickname "Mumbles" -- a sobriquet that in this election, Menino flat-out embraced. Dynamic speaking was not his strong point, he said over and over. In the contest against Hennigan, Menino's speeches were short and safe.

The nearest the campaign came to controversy was when Hennigan parodied the mayor in a television ad called "Make Way for Menino" -- a play on one of the city's near-sacred icons, the "Make Way for Ducklings" statue in the Boston Public Garden.

The contest "was pretty anticlimactic," said Christine Hazzard, 32, as she pushed her baby daughter, Lydia, in the city's Jamaica Plain district.

"Neither of these candidates made me feel excited," continued Hazzard, a waitress. "I felt like I should vote. But I do wish there was more fire."

Thomas H. O'Connor of Boston College, who is an expert on this city's history, said the 2005 mayoral election was "very ho-hum. It seems like the city is going through the doldrums."

Traditionally, O'Connor said, the mayor's seat was "up for grabs; people came out of the woodwork -- people you'd never heard of." John F. Collins, who ran the city from 1960 to 1968, "was registrar of probate -- what the hell job is that?"

Among the most legendary mayors was James Michael Curley, who first took office in 1914. Besides four terms heading the city, he served two jail sentences, two stints in Congress and a term as governor. He was a shameless grafter, according to biographer Jack Beatty -- a master of political farce and the inspiration for Edwin O'Connor's novel "The Last Hurrah."

Curley lived in a grand house with shamrock shutters that was built at no charge by the contractors he regularly squeezed for donations. Beatty relates in "The Rascal King" how Curley noticed similar signs on every block as he rode through the city's South End in one of his last campaigns.

"Who is this fellow 'Pizza'?" Beatty writes that Curley asked. When his chauffeur explained, Curley replied: "Oh, I thought he was like Howard Johnson. I figured we might get a contribution out of him."

By comparison, current Boston politics "is in suspension," Beatty said -- or a state of remission. The highly energized, "rhetorically appealing" candidacies of the past emerged from urban friction, Beatty said.

"That may come again in Boston," he said. "But there is not a lot of anger now."

And, it seems, not a lot of people who want to be mayor.

Boston has become very prosperous, said former City Councilor Lawrence DiCara.

"Large numbers of people are making lots of money," he said. "And people who are making lots of money tend not to want to seek jobs where they make less money and where whatever they do, they are criticized for it."

DiCara himself ran for mayor in 1983 but was defeated by fellow City Councilor Raymond Flynn. These days, he said, almost no one wants the job.

"Except for Tom Menino. That's his one interest: being mayor," DiCara said.

Boston Herald political columnist Joe Sciacca calls Menino "the maintenance mayor" -- a leader who focuses on "quality-of-life issues such as flowerpots in median strips and fixing potholes."

Menino often walks the streets -- and, to encourage his constituents to be more active, enlisted the support of the "Make Way for Ducklings" statue by putting jogging shoes on the ducks' little bronze feet.

The maintenance strategy works, Sciacca said: "People who live in the city, they are not outraged by anything that's happening. They are happy with the flowerpots in the median strips."

The excitement may return to Boston politics, but for the short term, "it looks like it's Tom Menino and steady-as-she-goes," Sciacca said.

As voter Jim Graham, 63, left his polling place Tuesday not far from where the mayor lived, he said it was hard to take issue with a city administration that was running smoothly.

"I think it's OK," said Graham, an international development consultant. "I think the administration is honest, and I think [Menino is] honest. That's important. I didn't vote for oratory. I voted for a guy who does a decent job."

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