Sixteen years after he rose to power as an unassuming master of street-level minutiae, Thomas Michael Menino cemented his place as a singular force in urban American politics today, withstanding his fiercest challenge yet to capture an unprecedented fifth term in office and extend what is already the longest mayoral reign in Boston history.
The 66-year-old former insurance salesman from Hyde Park easily defeated Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty Jr., 57 percent to 42 percent.
More than 110,000 voters went to the polls, the highest number in a mayoral election since 1993.
Menino claimed victory in a jubiliant speech before hundreds of supporters gathered tonight at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel. Some in the crowd wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the words "History Made" and the number 5 on the sleeves.
“The headlines may read that today we were elected to a fifth, historic term,” Menino declared to cheers. "Let’s be clear: We haven’t made history with this election, but we will, with what we create of it."
Flaherty, a 40-year-old lawyer from South Boston who was first elected to the City Council in 1999, appeared somber at his post-election reception at Venezia, an Italian restaurant in Dorchester, where supporters shouted "Never Give Up" and "Keep Fighting, Mike."
"Although the outcome of this election was not what any of us had hoped for, we have had some important conversations over the last year and we've also raised the expectations of Bostonians throughout every single neighborhood,” Flaherty said. "We've given a voice to many people in this city who have not been heard for years.”
The win puts Menino in a league with a handful of legendary urban titans who have towered over their cities for years, including Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, who has been in office since 1989.
Menino's victory demonstrated once again the degree to which Bostonians have embraced this unlikely leader, a self-styled urban mechanic who freely acknowledges, "I’m not good looking, I can’t speak well, I’m not smart. I’m driven,'' while presiding over a city that is known as a center of learning, finance and culture.
Voters interviewed across the city described the race as a referendum on the incumbent and his 16 years in power. Those who believed the city was headed in the right direction opted to give Menino four more years in office while those who voted for Flaherty spoke of a desire for change more than a preference for the long-time city councilor.
"He's done so much for the city in 16 years," Claudette Desmond, a 53-year-old from Roxbury, said after voting for Menino at the Boys and Girls Club near Dudley Square. "He's one of the best mayors we've ever had … Housing, parks and recreation, there's so much to say."
But David Wilhelmi, a 59-year-old financial officer at Children’s Hospital, echoed the sentiments of Flaherty voters across Boston after he voted in Jamaica Plain.
“The mayor has been in office too long,” he said “I like him. He’s helped us, but we need some new blood.”
This year's mayoral race was more competitive than any Menino has faced since he took office in 1993. Three challengers, including two at-large city councilors with wide bases of support among city voters, jumped into the race early, and repeatedly criticized Menino's lengthy tenure, his aversion to technology, his oversight of development, and his governing style, which Flaherty characterized as dictatorial and secretive.
Menino, although famously thin-skinned, largely ignored the attacks, spending his time attending a series of ribbon-cuttings, city-sponsored luncheons, and corporate announcements. Menino's unrelenting focus on the city's neighborhoods has paid clear political dividends: an astonishing 60 percent of the city's residents say they have met the mayor, according to a Globe poll last month.
Menino also had a huge fundraising advantage -- he spent $2 million to Flaherty's $1.3 million this year -- which meant Menino had ads on television, and Flaherty did not.
Menino won just over half the vote in the Sept. 22 preliminary election, but, in a bold move widely hailed as a potential game-changer, Flaherty, the second-place finisher, forged a surprise alliance with the third place finisher, Councilor at Large Sam Yoon, hoping that their combined forces would enable them to defeat the entrenched incumbent.
The pair, dubbed "Floon," crisscrossed the city attacking the mayor's record on crime, education and job creation. They tried to persuade voters that it was time for a change, and described themselves as the next generation of Boston leadership.
But some political observers say that was a tough case to make.
"Michael Flaherty's challenge to sell himself as a candidate of change -- given that he has been in government for 10 years, he's from South Boston, and that he was supported by the firefighters and superior police officers -- was an insurmountable challenge," said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former city councilor and longtime observer of Boston politics.
He said the mayor, on the other hand, stuck to a simple message: that the city has improved under his leadership, and he wants to keep "moving Boston forward,'' in the words of his campaign slogan. Menino's steadiness and focus on basics have endeared him to voters; the mayor first arrived in office after a period in which the city had been riven by strife over school busing, public housing integration, and urban renewal projects that resulted in the destruction of the city's West End.
"Against that background, Menino comes in and he becomes -- he epitomizes -- security, solidarity, no surprises," said Thomas H. O'Connor, a Boston College historian who writes about the city's political history.
"To a people who are by this time shell-shocked by the 50-year period that went before, this guy comes in and this is Mr. Solidarity,'' O'Connor said. "What he promises now are basic things the people need, and above all, no changes."
But, the Flaherty campaign raised larger issues that Menino may face pressure to address in his next term, such as the number of jobs available for city residents at construction sites, the state of the city's schools, and the role of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
"There are a number of things that Flaherty and Yoon put on the table that I think are helpful, that I think the mayor would do well to improve," said Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, a political strategist. "My hope is that he will take some of the constructive criticisms that were lodged and turn those things around to build a legacy."
Menino will be sworn in for his fifth, four-year term in January, but already the challenges are clear and enormous.
The city faces a financial crisis caused by a sharp drop in tax revenues during the recession. Menino has already cut the city workforce by 4 percent, negotiated wage freezes with 22 city unions, and temporarily closed firehouses.
Going forward, the mayor faces more grim choices: Cutting social services, permanently shuttering firehouses, or laying off teachers or police officers, said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
“The fiscal challenge is going to dominate what the next mayor of Boston is going to have to confront over the next two or three years,” said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “Hard choices are going to have to be made.”
David Abel, Noah Bierman, Maria Cramer, Brian MacQuarrie, Eric Moskowitz, Andrew Ryan and James Vaznis of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Jack Nicas and Abbie E Ruzicka contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.
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