THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

The bloom is off Menino's rosy image

By Joan Vennochi
February 26, 2009
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TOM MENINO won't be thrown out of office because a city worker changed a light bulb at his Hyde Park home. But Boston's mayor is vulnerable if voters decide that after 16 years, he is finally out of vision, energy, and touch.

That's the case Menino's opponents need to make and Boston deserves to hear.

Menino has not yet announced whether he will seek a fifth term, but his political machine seems fired up and ready to go. His campaign committee is paying for pollsters and consultants, and his challengers are targets of unflattering headlines.

Boston Councilor At Large Michael Flaherty called the Boston Police Department to criticize the way it handled fitness tests for recruits, after his wife failed the exams. Councilor Sam Yoon is raising money from out-of-state contributors. Before Menino formally gets into the race, hits like that chip away at the credibility of Flaherty and Yoon, the two opponents with even a marginal base of neighborhood support. Boston businessman Kevin McCrea is also running.

So far, the mayor's race is just the way Menino likes it - petty. Over the years, he was able to ignore weak challengers who looked even weaker as their petty flaws were revealed.

But, this time, the bloom is a bit off Menino's rosy image, too.

City workers performed repairs and renovations worth several thousand dollars to homes owned by the mayor and other family members, the Globe reported. The work includes renovations to his son's kitchen in 1997 and the rewiring of his daughter's kitchen and bathroom in 2000. In 2004, a school department electrician also relocated an outdoor light fixture at the mayor's home.

Yesterday, the mayor's wife, Angela, produced $8,252 in checks paid to a private contractor who, she said, subcontracted some of the work to the city electrician without the mayor's knowledge. Neither of the children has produced any documentation that the workers were paid.

The mayor's police detective son, Thomas M. Menino Jr., also enjoys a suspiciously charmed professional life at the Boston Police Department, with lots of overtime; in 2007, he earned $137,000 in salary, overtime, and police details. The younger Menino also took a second job with Suffolk Construction Co., a major city contractor that built city schools and police headquarters. The mayor filed a disclosure statement, as required under state ethics law, only after his son's second job made the news.

On their own, these are tiny thorns that barely prick Menino's well-cultivated image. But they do prick.

Boston may chafe at Menino's known flaws, but for 16 years the residents who turned out to vote for him basically accepted them. He is not smooth or well-spoken. He rewards friends and holds grudges. He maintains tight control over development in Boston, and, for that matter, everything else.

For a long time, he escaped blame for major institutional defects.The Boston Public Schools are losing students and trying to close a projected $100 million budget deficit. The mayor ignored warnings about mismanagement of the Fire Department, and until the pension scandal got too hot to ignore, he let the Firefighters Union push him around. Violence continues to plague poor and minority neighborhoods.

But Menino prevailed because he was viewed as a dedicated, hardworking, and fundamentally honest public servant who is doing the best he can to tackle complicated urban problems.

At a certain point, doing your best isn't enough to keep your job. Or, at least, a mayor should be forced to explain why it should be enough. In the past, Menino was able to skip the explanations by marginalizing opponents.

This time, the city deserves to hear them, and might be finally ready to demand them. After 16 years, Menino is part of the establishment. He's comfortable, maybe too comfortable for voters whose lives are growing less comfortable in today's economic environment.

A desire for change is natural. Massachusetts voted for it by electing Deval Patrick as its governor and the country followed suit by electing Barack Obama as president.

Boston is ripe for similar political change. The only question is whether there's a mayoral challenger strong enough to rally around.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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