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Too much of a good thing?

Mayor Menino is well liked, but residents wonder if it's time for a change

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By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / May 13, 2009
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Henry Crede was almost insulted by the question: Had he ever met Mayor Thomas M. Menino?

"Of course, I've met him personally," said Crede, 86, from West Roxbury.

As in, who hasn't?

"If you're going to have your dog [spayed], and you call him," he said, "he'll be there."

OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. In his 16 years in office, Menino has been willing to come shake hands at almost any event in any corner of Boston, a polyglot potpourri of 600,000 people. With his trademark "Heyhowaya?" he can be found any day of the week at pancake breakfasts, ribbon-cuttings, Christmas tree lightings, Italian feasts, ground breakings, even at a celebration honoring Edgar Allan Poe, no lover of Boston he.

As a result, Menino, 66, begins his campaign for a record fifth term with a level of visibility, name recognition, and familiarity most politicians would die for. Fifty-seven percent of respondents in a Globe poll of Boston residents released this week said they had met him. Yet, some say his overexposure argues for fresh blood at City Hall.

"It's just my job," the mayor said in an interview on a recent morning after dropping by a Roxbury community center, one of four stops within three hours. "I don't do anything special to meet everyone. I just go about a schedule that includes people."

Interviews around the city show the fruit of that work, from Menino's home base in the West Roxbury-Hyde Park area to the outer reaches of East Boston.

Kenny Mallory, 53, a plumber from the Grove Hall section of Roxbury, recalled meeting Menino at a Jamaica Plain playground. Rebecca Spunt, 7, from West Roxbury, met him at the Children's Museum. Dan Festa, 79, a part-time van driver from East Boston, met him at the former Ritz hotel honoring couples married 50 years or longer.

"And, you know, he gave us all a dinner," Festa said, recalling the trip to Anthony's Pier 4.

This is what Menino's two main challengers, city councilors Michael F. Flaherty and Sam Yoon, are up against as they try to unseat the man poised to become Boston's longest-serving leader. Businessman Kevin McCrea is also in the race.

"His name's on everything, so, of course, he's a presence; he's a big presence," Corey Sullivan, a 31-year-old from Dorchester who works for a fund-raising company, said of Menino.

Sullivan is right about that. Within a hundred yards or so of where he was standing in Grove Hall, Menino's name was visible in at least six places: on a building mural of Noah's Ark; a black park bench; a neighborhood-revitalization sign on a shuttered storefront; a sign celebrating African-American history; a blue welcome-to-Roxbury sign; and a tattered yellow-and-green sticker on a trash can that says "Help make Boston shine!"

And yet, all this familiarity also holds the potential to damage Menino at the ballot box this fall. Flaherty, Yoon, and McCrea are all pushing messages of change, and interviews suggest voters could be receptive. Some residents said that, despite supporting the mayor in past races, they felt the time had come for fresh leadership at City Hall.

"It's about the time he could move on," Glen Christopher, 62, a retired hazardous-materials specialist from Grove Hall, said despite calling Menino "one of the best mayors we ever had."

"Flaherty and the other guys who want possession - they should be entitled to it," Christopher said. "Because five terms in the same position is too long for any mayor to be holding on."

Pamela Chase, 45, a West Roxbury mother, sales director, and wedding planner, said she and other parents would strongly considering voting for a challenger if that candidate vowed to shift the school system to a neighborhood model, in which students would always attend their local schools.

"I talked to him about the school system and how parents were very frustrated with the lottery system," Chase said of a recent conversation with the mayor. "His attitude was pretty much, 'Well, you live in West Roxbury; you guys have some of the best schools.' "

Others, such as Gertrude Blais, 89, from West Roxbury, said they were torn. On one hand, they know Menino and like much of what he has done. But they wonder if it is time for a new direction.

"He's been a very good mayor," Blais said. "That's why you don't know whether to bring him back or get some new ideas."

Rose Petraglia, 74, was sitting with friends on a recent afternoon in the Dunkin' Donuts in East Boston's Orient Heights. When asked to list all of the places she has run into Menino, she quickly listed five and stopped with a look that said, how long should I go on?

"I mean, he's been here for 16 years," Petraglia said, "so you can be sure: We've known him very well."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.