DÉJÀ VU: Twenty-five years ago, seemingly unbeatable Mayor Kevin White (right) was going for a fifth term, then dropped out of the race under pressure of a corruption investigation. Will Tom Menino (left) succumb to the same circumstances?
Will Mayor Tom Menino pull a Kevin White? That's the question that some City Hall observers are asking themselves these days of the once-invincible-seeming four-term mayor, as striking parallels emerge between the upcoming mayor's race and the historic race of 1983. In the latter, considered one of the great mayoral campaigns in Boston history, White dropped out at the last minute under the withering pressure of a corruption investigation.
Obstacles and obstinacy
The current fire-department disability-claims investigation was prompted by reporting in the Boston Globe, which has recently looked at Mayor Menino's ties to the Boston Licensing Board at the center of the Dianne Wilkerson scandal, and at the troubled Columbus Center project backed by both Menino and Wilkerson.
In fact, some within the Menino camp tell the Phoenix they are increasingly convinced that the Globe is determined to bring down the mayor. Nevertheless, all signs indicate that Menino has every intention of running again, and winning, despite anything that US Attorney Michael Sullivan or the Globe might throw at him. In fact, some long-time Menino observers say that the more enemies he perceives, the more determined he will be to prevail.
Back in 1983, it was long assumed that then-Mayor White was unbeatable in his quest to extend his 15-year hold on the office. But complicating the incumbent's path to re-election, White was increasingly under scrutiny from Massachusetts' ambitious Republican US attorney — a go-getter by the name of William Weld, who was determined to expose corruption in the White administration.
Weld ultimately indicted more than a half-dozen City Hall aides in his attempt to build a case against White. He never succeeded. But he did create enough pressure that White made the surprise announcement, in June 1983, that he was withdrawing from the mayoral race. White's last-minute withdrawal opened the door for a frenzied free-for-all election.
Few are expecting 2009 to bring a similar scrum — but they forget that the same assumption prevailed at this stage in 1982. Menino, who took office in 1993, is considered equally as formidable as was White before he withdrew from the race for his fifth term. Today, of course, Boston is being rocked by a corruption investigation that has thus far led to the arrests of State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner. Menino himself has not been implicated. But Republican US Attorney Michael Sullivan — considered a likely candidate for US Senate — has demonstrated in the past his own eagerness to pursue high-profile Boston Democrats. (Just ask former House Speaker Tom Finneran and Sheriff Andrea Cabral.)
And, as White's case demonstrated, it is not necessary to convict a mayor to drive him out of a race. Sullivan's office has already reportedly subpoenaed Menino's right-hand man, Michael Kineavy, for the investigation. If the scope of the investigation widens into projects supported by both Wilkerson and Menino — Columbus Center, for example — the role of the mayor and his staff will get more scrutiny.
And that is not the only ongoing federal investigation into city officials. The office is looking into the Boston fire department's handling of disability claims, in the wake of a scandal over "disabled" firefighter-cum-bodybuilder Albert Arroyo. That scandal has already brought down the Boston Retirement Board's top executive, Robert Tierney, who resigned in August. The city's elections commission and police department are also under federal scrutiny.
Although he has said nothing publicly about his intentions, Menino has continued his solid fundraising pace, taking in nearly $800,000 this year through November, after breaking the million-dollar mark in '07.
Even more telling, Menino reported a $30,000 payment in late November to a California firm known for political polling. Menino insiders would not confirm to the Phoenix that the mayor has begun polling for his re-election bid, but did not discourage that interpretation.
The assumption that Menino is running has kept the local political scene quiet at a critical time. Most political observers say that serious mayoral candidates would need to start raising money before the end of the year. That's because the very low annual-contribution limits under state law — $500 per calendar year — make it much harder to raise large sums in 2009 alone.
Looking ahead to potential competitors, if he stays in the race, Menino will likely face challenges from two at-large city councilors with similar profiles, Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, who are both conspicuously considering taking on Menino.
They are the only two making noise so far about a possible run. But that could change quickly if Menino, like White, shocks the city and withdraws — assuming he did so before petitions are due next spring.