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Joan Vennochi

Courting the king

For Menino, it can be about ego and power, not reason

(Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Vennochi
September 8, 2011

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IT’S GOOD to be king.

For several long minutes, Mayor Thomas M. Menino stared stonily to the left, rather than engage the woman seated to his right at Boston’s annual Labor Day breakfast. Finally, he rotated her way, began chatting, and eventually generated the photograph that made the news. It captured the city’s longest-serving mayor smiling benevolently at Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor, consumer advocate, and novice politician who is testing the waters for a Senate run.

Whether Menino really wants Warren - or any Democrat - to defeat Republican Senator Scott Brown is open to debate. He periodically pronounces Brown “unbeatable,’’ and shortly before Warren’s Labor Day debut, he publicly questioned whether she is “saleable.’’

He has a point, up to a point. Warren is a political unknown who will have to prove herself beyond standard liberal audiences. And any Democratic candidate who takes on Brown must be good at retail politics. From barn coat to Army National Guard fatigues, Brown is a master of the photo-op. Like Menino, he also knows how to press the flesh.

Yet when it comes to issues that Menino champions with skill and passion, Brown’s record is anything but supportive.

That would seem like reason enough for Menino to work hard to beat him. But to know Menino is to know that reason does not always propel him. Sometimes, ego does.

Boston’s top Democrat has a long history of playing footsie with select Republicans, from Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci to Brown. He’s also highly motivated by perceived personal slights. To Menino, Warren’s hiring of consultant Doug Rubin is an unwelcome sign that Governor Deval Patrick’s political operation is now in charge of an important Senate campaign. It doesn’t help that Rubin ran Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, and Patrick defeated Tom Reilly, the attorney general Menino favored in that Democratic primary. Rubin also ran Peggy Davis-Mullen’s mayoral campaign against Menino.

Menino loved the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy for many reasons, from the slew of federal money and programs Kennedy sent Boston’s way to his willingness to hang out with Menino on election eve and eat Italian food.

What Menino likes about Brown is much harder to quantify. He may relate to his hardscrabble roots, but on a wide array of issues, they have little in common.

At Monday’s breakfast, Menino told the Greater Boston Labor Council that job creation should be government’s priority. Yet one of Brown’s first votes was a deciding one against summer jobs for at-risk kids. Brown also voted for the House Republican budget proposal that would have cut federal funding for Massachusetts jobs - along with funding for the federal Head Start program, which Menino also embraces.

Menino is always pushing for more federal investment in rail and infrastructure. He recently stood in South Station with Senator John Kerry to celebrate money Kerry captured after Florida’s Tea Party-loving governor rejected it. Brown calls the stimulus bill that generated that infrastructure money a “slush fund.’’

Menino wants Boston to lead the way on so-called “green’’ jobs, and actively promotes the environmental benefits of improved air quality. Yet Brown voted against EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Menino courageously lobbies for stricter gun control laws and leads the US Conference of Mayors on that issue. In January, after the Tucson shootings that killed six and injured a dozen others, including Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Menino urged Brown to support federal gun control legislation. Brown rebuffed him, calling it a state and local matter. Menino also supports a federal program that provides emergency funding for needy families. Brown voted three times against an amendment that called for extending that fund.

So, why sidle up to Brown, if he doesn’t come through on issues? How can the mayor who supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama because he believed in substance over style now fall for charisma over ideology?

Playing hard to get makes Democrats work even harder to get Menino’s backing. Maybe it’s smart inside baseball, but at what cost? The king is thinking more about power and glory and less about his kingdom.

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