Speaking poetically of the people and neighborhoods he had tried to help, Mayor Thomas M. Menino proclaimed his devotion to Boston today but said that, after a bout of serious illness last year, he would not seek re-election to the office he has held for two decades.
“I am here with the people I love, to tell the city I love, that I will leave the job that I love,” he told a crowd packed into historic Faneuil Hall.
Menino said that, after the string of maladies that landed him in the hospital for eight weeks last year, he could not keep up his grueling “Menino schedule” — and he didn’t want to do the job any other way.
“I miss hitting every event, ribbon cutting, new homeowner’s dinner, school play, and chance meeting,” he said. “Spending so much time in the neighborhoods gives me energy. Being with our residents builds our trust. It may not be the only way to lead Boston, but it’s the only way for me.”
He said he was “humbled and grateful” for the chance to serve as mayor and “I will be very proud if I have changed our city in some ways that last.”
News broke last night that Menino, the first Italian-American mayor in a city long known for its Irish politicians, would not seek a sixth term. Accolades poured in today for the mayor, whose administration was marked by attention to neighborhoods and quality of life — and a lack of corruption. The praise came from his fellow elected officials, his staff, and people on the street.
The announcement drew a who’s who of the state’s political elite, including Governor Deval Patrick, Treasurer Steven Grossman, US Senator William “Mo” Cowan, US Representatives Stephen F. Lynch and Michael Capuano, and Attorney General Martha Coakley, along with city councilors and members of the city’s State House delegation.
The White House press office issued a statement from President Obama, which said that Boston “is the vibrant, welcoming, and world-class city it is today because of Tom Menino. For more than two decades, Mayor Menino has served the city and every one of its residents with extraordinary leadership, vision, and compassion.”
Menino, who entered the hall to thunderous applause and Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” on the public address system, said in his speech he never dreamed he would end up as mayor of the city during what he trumpeted as “its best years.”
“Jobs, graduation rates, construction, and credit ratings are all at a record high. Population, school enrollment, crime rates, and housing all have hit their best mark in years. Boston’s neighborhoods are thriving as they never have. Most important to me, we are a more open and accepting city. It was a new day when you picked a mayor with Italian grandparents. It’s a much newer day now,” he said.
Menino said in his speech that he wouldn’t pick a successor. “I just ask that you choose someone who loves this city as much as I do,” he said.
Menino said “one of the great blessings of this job was meeting half the people who live in this city. I get asked all the time how I met so much of Boston. I just did what I loved, and then it wasn’t too hard.”
He then launched into a combination litany and tour of Boston, citing accomplishments such as the rebuilding of Roslindale’s Main Street, construction of a supermarket and shopping mall in Grove Hall, the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, the building of a West Roxbury park, new libraries in Mattapan and Brighton, and bringing computers to classrooms. He also spoke of welcoming immigrants and rallying with gay friends and neighbors.
“If you want to meet half the people in this city, all you do is go to their homes, their jobs, where they raise their families, where they strive to improve their neighborhoods and say this: Boston is the greatest city on earth. The buzz around the city is amazing. It’s a history-making place. It gets better every day because of you, and as long as you work together that will never change,” he said.
After the applause died down, a jovial Menino returned with some unscripted comments, saying, “All I’m doing today is saying I am not running. I have nine months left. Just think of what I could do in nine months,” he said. “We could have some real fun.”
Earlier in the day, Menino had met with tearful staffers at City Hall. “I know I could win but not on my terms,” he told them.
Still earlier, leaving his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood, he had said, “When you have something you really loved, you lived 24/7 the last 20 years, it’s tough to say no. But there’s a time and place for everything. . . . I’m excited about it. It’s a sad day, but it’s a day that will always come in your career.’’
“I might change at 4 o’clock, you never know. I may say something different and pull a Kevin White,’’ Menino joked, referring to a famous incident in which White told the Boston Herald he would run for reelection as mayor one day before he announced he would not run again.
Menino went into the hospital in late October. He was initially diagnosed with blood clots and a severe respiratory infection, and doctors later determined he fractured a vertebra and has type 2 diabetes. He spent time at both Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, then moved to the city-owned Parkman House for a period to further recuperate, returning home only this past weekend.
Menino’s announcement has set the political world in Boston spinning.
On April 17, candidates can apply for nomination papers, the first step in getting their name on the ballot for the preliminary election, scheduled for Sept. 24. The top two vote-getters will compete in the Nov. 5 final election.
So far, City Councilor John R. Connolly has formally declared his candidacy. Those who have said they might run for an open mayoral seat include State Representative Martin J. Walsh of Dorchester and City Councilors Rob Consalvo and Tito Jackson.
But Menino’s departure will do much more than trigger the first open mayor’s race since 1983. It will mark the end of an era, a watershed moment in Boston akin to the retirement of Ted Williams after his two-decade run at Fenway Park.
Starting as acting mayor on July 12, 1993, Menino took office as a relatively unknown 50-year-old city councilor from Hyde Park. Candidates vying for the mayor’s post dismissed Menino as a caretaker keeping the seat warm until the November election.
Menino proved them wrong, maximizing the power of the office to run as an incumbent and win a resounding victory. He will leave City Hall early next year at age 71, the only mayor a generation of Bostonians has known, the man who guided the city into the new millennium and set its course for decades to come.Suzanne Kreiter, Todd Feathers, and Brian Ballou of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globe AndrewRyan. John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.