The Lessons of Boston Mayor Tom Menino

Boston Mayor Tom Menino dies, Boston Marathon bombingsBoston’s longest serving mayor, Tom Menino, died last week at the age of 71. Menino was mayor of the city for 20 years before health problems forced him to decline another run. Though clearly disappointed, he remained active and involved until just a week before his death. His passing, so soon after he announced he was suspending cancer treatments, came as a shock to many.

Listening to, and reading, the many tributes to the former Mayor and his legacy, I can’t help but compare them with the brutal politics of this year’s state and national elections and the destructive rhetoric that is ever present on the campaign trail, on the floors of the House and Senate, and in useless, accusatory, media grandstanding. It’s no secret that none of these people are actually accomplishing anything.

By contrast, Menino got a lot done. He certainly had his detractors, often because he was a bit of a micro-manager, but he was widely respected and admired for his involvement, his work ethic, and his high expectations for the city he loved.

Menino didn’t play the politics of resentment. He didn’t scapegoat minorities or immigrants and he never encouraged one group to blame another for their troubles, economic or otherwise. Growing up Italian in a heavily Irish city, and with memories of Boston’s busing riots, he vowed that he would not tolerate discrimination against anyone. That attitude extended to participating in Boston’s Pride Parade, and being on hand to greet the first same-sex couple to be married in the city in 2004.

He also famously sent a letter to the President of Chik-fil-A, Dan Cathay, to discourage him from trying to open a restaurant in Boston. Cathay is vocally anti-gay and has contributed widely to anti-gay groups.

There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail,” the Mayor wrote, “and no place for your company alongside it.

Unlike so many politicians working for campaign contributions, Menino worked for the people of the city, and he loved it. He never lost sight of his constituents, no matter what neighborhood they lived in. The Mayor believed in community policing, in bringing different groups together to solve problems. He believed in infrastructure investment, restoring parks and playgrounds, and bringing in new businesses in an effort to revitalize neighborhoods. He worked with law enforcement, teachers, and clergy to connect to at-risk youth and counsel them to stay on the right path. Over Menino’s tenure in office, violent crime dropped fifty percent.

Tom Menino won reelections, not by riling people up, but by raising them up. Instead of claiming that the poor don’t want to work, he pushed a lot of private companies in the area to offer summer jobs to local kids. Over the years, there were as many as 200,000 young people hired for summer jobs, doubtless contributing to a much-admired drop in Boston’s crime rate, but also building a foundation for the future in the lives of many.

Of course, one of the most enduring memories of Tom Menino will be his insistence on being present at events immediately after the Marathon bombings last year. Recovering from a broken leg, he checked himself out of the hospital and spoke at a service honoring the dead and wounded. Rising from a wheelchair, and clearly in pain, he spoke of courage and strength.

“No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city, and its people.” He added, “It is written that hatred stirs up strife but love covers all sins.”

Our whole country could learn from these words.

Voters could learn from Menino when they are making their choices on Election Day. I recognize that the job of mayor is very different from being a governor or a legislator, but many of the principles should be the same. Work for the people who elected you, not the companies that take advantage of them. Show up; you can’t honor the needs and expectations of your constituents if you know them only through polling data. Don’t disparage one group of voters to gain the votes of another. Approach problems in a spirit of working together; not from a position of punishment. Don’t abuse your power for personal gain.

Tom Menino clearly used and loved the power of the Mayor’s office, but what he gave in return is a transformed, world-class city, safer communities, and a host of opportunities.

Saying goodbye to the Mayor is hard. Through his leadership and his tireless efforts, Boston has once again become that “shining city on a hill” that other politicians can only preach about.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License

Melissa Tingley is a writer, instructional designer, and twelve-year veteran of her local school board. A history and political junkie, she has been a blogger since 2006.  She lives and argues politics in Massachusetts.

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