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Menino's rule

A well-tuned political machine, powered by zeal

Menino’s army of neighborhood workers a 24/7 force for constituents, and for him

By Stephanie Ebbert, Michael Levenson, Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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On their own, they are petty encounters: A couple of “friends’’ of Michael F. Flaherty were admonished by city workers to get off his Facebook page; a state aide got advice from a city official that led to a parking ticket being dismissed; a Sam Yoon campaign office was cited by city inspectors for having too many window signs.

But taken together, these seemingly inconsequential incidents offer a rare window into the workings of Thomas M. Menino’s City Hall, a place where not even the most trivial slights go unnoticed and the smallest opportunities unnourished.

If Menino is the urban mechanic who famously knows every neighborhood in his city, and is regularly seen in them all, it is his sprawling machine that knows every building on every block, and has a reach into nearly every one.

Menino has assembled the most extensive political operation in modern Boston history over his 16 years in office, rivaling that of legendary mayor James Michael Curley. He’s done it the old-fashioned way, by blurring the lines between politics and policy, between city work and campaign work, delivering services to everyday residents and warnings to his rare foes - many of them intended to strengthen his electoral standing.

“You have to give Tom Menino credit,’’ said City Councilor Charles C. Yancey, a 25-year council veteran who has not endorsed in the mayor’s race. “He really has mastered the nuts and bolts of politics in Boston.’’

The focal point of Menino’s operation is dozens, even hundreds, of city workers who make the mayor’s political cause their own. By day, they perform constituent services, enforce city codes, issue parking tickets, and tow cars. By night, they volunteer their time for the mayor, attending community meetings or campaigning on his behalf.

Take the case of Jack Kelly, the city’s neighborhood liaison in Charlestown, who sent a friend an e-mail, according to documents obtained by the Globe, asking that he remove himself from Flaherty’s Facebook group.

“If he gets elected I lose my job,’’ Kelly said in the first message. When the friend didn’t immediately remove himself, Kelly followed up with another saying, “You’re killing me.’’

Or take the case of Michael J. Kineavy, the former iron worker who now holds the title of Boston’s chief of policy and planning, but is better known as Menino’s most trusted political adviser and most effective enforcer.

Kineavy was able to rattle off, in an interview, the number of people - 14 - who attended a fund-raiser for Flaherty’s mayoral campaign. How did he know?

“There was a guy in the room that was ours,’’ Kineavy said. “What’s wrong with that? It’s recon. That’s not even negative. It’s knowing what your enemy’s doing.’’

They are called neighborhood liaisons - some two dozen young men and women who work for the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services. In handling request after request from residents, they fill many of the functions of ward bosses of old, helping people land jobs, avoid citations, snag tickets to events such as Disney on Ice.

A review of one liaison’s e-mail, obtained through a public records request, shows there is almost nothing that constituents won’t ask - or the neighborhood liaisons won’t try to get done.

One woman who met the liaison, Jack Kelly, at a ribbon-cutting, wrote to him asking for a job in the city tourism office. “You have quite the inspiring leader to work for!’’ she gushed. Though Kelly acknowledged jobs were tight, he offered to do what he could, saying he would “look at all opportunities dealing with tourism and see if there is a place we could fit you in.’’

In another e-mail, the liaisons were told to distribute tickets from the mayor, who was identified by his initials.

“TMM gave us more tickets to BC women’s basketball game for distribution to youth and community organizations,’’ wrote Nikko Mendoza, the associate director of the office. “Please let me know how many tickets you need and for which groups.’’

In another message, Edward Doherty, the owner of Emma Realty Development Corp. in Danvers, thanked Kelly for scheduling a community meeting so he could get a permit for a Charlestown construction project.

“We have the permit, thanks for all your help. Put me on your fundraiser list,’’ Doherty wrote to Kelly in March.

And an aide to state Senator Gale D. Candaras sent Kelly a message thanking him for his “assistance in fixing a parking ticket for my friend.’’

“After you told me to have my friend designate myself as their surrogate for a hearing, I received a letter from the City saying that the ticket had been dismissed,’’ the aide, Christopher Blood, wrote in the February e-mail. “I appreciate your help, Jack, if I can ever be of any assistance please let me know.’’

Candaras’s office released a statement saying the e-mail was “very troubling’’ and that Blood, who could not be reached, “was suspended immediately’’; he later resigned.

Menino waved away the e-mail, saying that Kelly was only offering advice on how to appeal a ticket. “What’s wrong with that?’’ he said.

Kelly maintained that he is simply doing his job and doesn’t consider it politicking.

“I do not care what side people are on politically,’’ he said. “I treat everybody the same.’’

Liaisons have been caught fixing parking tickets in the past. In 2004, three current and two former neighborhood services employees were suspended after police found they were dismissing parking tickets with the help of a former neighborhood services employee in the city parking department. The mayor described the liaisons as a vital part of his administration, saying they help residents get what they need from City Hall. But he was once a fierce critic.

In 1989, when Mayor Raymond L. Flynn ran the Office of Neighborhood Services, then-city councilor Menino fought to abolish it, blasting it as “tinsel that you put on if you have some extra money.’’

He later relented. And when he became mayor, Menino installed his political allies in the office, firing eight of the 12 liaisons and moving Kineavy from his campaign staff to the office’s leadership. Menino has since increased the office’s budget in all but two of his 16 years in office, giving it $1.3 million this year, up from $848,000 in 1993, according to records compiled by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

After work hours, the liaisons, along with workers from code enforcement, traffic and public works, and other departments hit the campaign trail, gathering signatures, holding signs, and packing rallies.

Their numbers at campaign events are difficult to quantify but they are so prevalent that when a woman at a recent campaign forum in Roxbury clapped loudly after every statement Menino made, despite a no-applause rule set by the organizers, Flaherty looked at Menino and joked, “How many city workers did you bring tonight?’’

In addition to their campaign muscle, city workers make up a significant voting bloc for the mayor. The city has about 22,000 employees - an estimated 12,000 of whom live in Boston, said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former City Council president and longtime observer of Boston politics. Given the low voter turnout in municipal races - 97,000 people voted in the 2005 mayoral race - those city workers give Menino “a big advantage,’’ on Election Day, DiCara said.

Menino said he has no problem with city workers moonlighting as campaign volunteers and said he never asks them to campaign. “They believe in my administration and they’re out there trying to maintain the administration’s credibility in the neighborhoods,’’ he said. “We’re not running a communist state, where I tell people you can’t do this. They have free will and volition to do what they want to do. And if they want to work for me, good.’’

His aides are nothing if not zealous on the campaign trail.

After Charlestown barber Patrick Owens joined a Facebook group for Flaherty supporters, Owens got a visit from a customer who works for the mayor.

“He said I got an e-mail that you joined his group on Facebook,’’ said Owens, owner of the Bunker Hill Barber Shop. “They were just letting it out there to let me know that they know.’’

Kineavy, a self-made son of South Boston, dropped out of high school and became an ironworker, then went back to school at age 21, going on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

At campaign events and city functions, he stands at the back of the room, surveying the scene with arms folded and a cool stare. Gregarious and jovial at times, his mood can tack instantly to icy and angry when he feels that he or the mayor has been insulted, or their orders disobeyed. His grudges are durable.

The linchpin in Menino’s political operation, Kineavy is a key strategist for the mayor’s reelection campaigns. He is also the linchpin in City Hall, handling problems ranging from uproars over prostitution in Bay Village, to flooded homes in the South End and teen suicides.

Kineavy has overseen the Office of Neighborhood Services, directly or indirectly, for most of the mayor’s 16 years in office. The liaisons’ e-mails - 1,700 of which were reviewed by the Globe - are peppered with references to “Michael meetings’’; and asides such as “It’s coming from Michael. I’m just the messenger’’; and “Please call Michael to discuss.’’

The liaisons, who make an average of $37,000 annually, are known as some of the hardest-working employees at City Hall and many residents give them high marks for helping them take care of everything from unplowed and trash-strewn streets to finding new housing after a fire or securing a permit for a block party.

“The mayor was very, very big and very clear on customer calls - listen and respond - and answer all calls,’’ said Dennis D. Galvam, a former associate director of the office. “Hard work was the order of the day and coordinators would be out at times from nine in the morning to 10 at night.’’

The liaisons’ omnipresence at community meetings and their duty to report to Kineavy most everything they see and hear makes them valuable political assets.

Their work inevitably strays into the political. At a recent staff meeting, Marco Torres, the liaison to the Latino community, said he was sure that Menino’s march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade would generate “positive coverage in the linguistic media.’’ He also noted that the mayor was planning to attend a Reggaeton concert at Fenway Park “with the potential for him to meet the two artists for a photo-op, which would be good.’’

Kineavy has also used his position to help the city manage neighborhood dissent. In 1996, he disbanded the Allston Brighton Boston College Community Relations Task Force, which was sharply questioning the college’s expansion plans. He sought to replace it with a panel whose chairman he would appoint, saying he needed to rid the board of “people from outside the neighborhood’’ who were “controlling the group.’’

Over time, Kineavy gained a reputation as the mayor’s chief political enforcer - confronting, for example, a one-time ally who recently strayed to support a Menino opponent. “I have a guy I’ve helped a lot. He’s working for Flaherty right now. So I called him - I go, ‘Hey! What’s the deal?’ ’’ Kineavy said. “I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t beat him. I told him, ‘Hey, you think loyalty’s a big deal? Obviously, it’s not.’ ’’

The mayor makes no apologies for such tough talk.

“Hey, we all have human frailties,’’ Menino said. “But the problem you have is, you get slapped so many times by people who you helped out that sometimes you get a little frustrated and sometimes you have to allow that frustration to be released.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com., Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com., Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.