Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 722

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 722


This is the grave of Thomas Menino.

Born in 1942 in Boston, Menino grew up in the lower middle class. His father was a foreman at a Westinghouse plant. Menino went to St. Thomas Aquinas High School and then briefly to Boston College. But he hated it and dropped out. He did later get an associate’s degree at now defunct Mount Ida College, but that was it all the way until 1988, when he was rising in politics and so got a BA in Community Planning at UMass-Boston. Well before that, he had worked in the city’s housing agency, as a housing relocation specialist and then as a research assistant for the state’s committee on housing and urban development.

Menino first ran for office in 1983, winning a seat on Boston’s city council. He rose in city politics pretty fast. Easily winning reelection, he became chairman of the city’s finance committee in 1988. Soon that would be renamed the Ways and Means Committee and Menino headed it for the rest of this time on the council. Menino had his eye on bigger things though. In 1992, he planned to run for Congress. But this is when it was thought Massachusetts would keep its 11th congressional district. It was very close over whether that would happen. It did not and it was the district that Brian Donnelly was leaving due to retirement that got erased. Menino did not intend on running against any sitting members of Congress and so he never did run for the office.

In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed Boston’s mayor Raymond Flynn ambassador to the Vatican. Menino was president of the city council at this time. That made him acting mayor. He easily won election later that year for his own term. He would serve five terms in the office, making him one of America’s iconic mayors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. As a general rule, Menino governed as a moderate liberal. He very much pleased gay rights groups by opposing the expansion of Chik-Fil-A into the city as it discriminated against gay people. He also wanted strong restrictions on handguns and worked closely with Michael Bloomberg on this. He certainly pushed to redevelop the city, making it the east coast version of the Silicon Valley. Of course, this also came at a terrible cost–no one can actually afford to live in Boston anymore. One can see how Menino or anyone else wouldn’t have really seen this as a true possibility, for when this urban boom started really kicking in during the 1990s, there was still a ton of blight in the cities and lots of cheap housing available. Abandoned warehouses were through cities, including the Boston waterfront. Rebuilding these areas and attracting new, hip industries seem like a golden ticket. In many ways, it was. But it also created long-term new problems for the city that Menino did not ever truly grasp. He did however care very deeply about these issues. Said one Boston Globe story:

“Never before in Boston, and perhaps nowhere else in the nation, has a mayor obsessed so mightily, and wielded power so exhaustively, over the look, feel and shape of the built city. Routine construction projects on remote streets need City Hall approval; prominent towers that climb the downtown skyline carry his mark; independent city boards bow to his will.”

Menino got a big feather in his cap by running a successful Democratic National Convention in the city in 2004; alas, the general election was less satisfactory. Menino also did a good job on trying to build a more sustainable city, pushing bicycling as a major part of his administration. In 2008, Popular Science named Boston the third greenest city in the United States. It’s good that he included climate change into urban planning into the city. The success of the program is something I am skeptical over, though this is more because of disastrous national leadership than anything to do with Menino’s legacy itself.

Being an urban machine politician of the old school while also seeing himself as a crusading leader of the new school, Menino managed to push forward new initiatives while also understanding the neighborhood-based politics of the city, with all the tensions within that. A 2010 poll of Boston found that an astounding 57 percent of respondents had personally met the mayor at some event or another. And the man loved his local events. Some people charged Menino was just being an incrementalist with no great vision and maybe that’s true, but that’s also not a particularly damning statement given the complexity of governance in a city such as Boston.

Menino was not without his controversies. He initially claimed he would only serve two terms, but of course served five. Who cares, term limits are idiotic. There were some dealings with some sketchy figures that ended up serving time in prison, but this is pretty standard fare for urban mayors. The left was mad at him when he evicted Occupy Boston, but given that by the late fall of 2011, Occupy protests had served into homeless encampments run by anarchists with no end game, I can’t really criticize him for this.

Menino was also legendary for his terrible public speaking. Mumbles Menino often had trouble even being understood by his audiences. He was also a king of malapropisms. Of course, this is the kind of folksy thing that can endear one to their constituency and that was certainly the case with Menino, who always had very high approval ratings. His personal charisma was limited too; he may have loved his neighborhood barbecues and the like but he was no gladhandler. And yet this seemed to give him a patina on authenticity in the city.

Finally, Menino decided to step out of the mayor’s office after the 2013 election. By this time, he was the longest serving mayor in Boston’s history. He was looking forward to sweet retirement as a senior respected figure, teaching some classes, and living the life. Boston University hired him as Professor of Practice in Political Science in 2014. The idea: teach a few classes, run some think tanks, live the good life. He wrote his memoir titled Mayor for a New America that also came out in 2014. He co-founded the Initiative on Cities that year with a BU colleague as a think tank on economic development and sustainability in the twenty-first century city. But only two months after this started, Menino was diagnosed with an aggressively spreading cancer. It killed him in October 2014. He was 71 years old.

Thomas Menino is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other American mayors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tom Bradley is in Inglewood, California and Carl Stokes is in Cleveland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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