The conditions seem perfect for Kevin McCrea's latest YouTube video: warm for February, reasonably sunny, no sonic competition from nearby construction. Standing in front of the Winthrop Square parking garage, the builder-turned-mayoral-hopeful runs through his spiel. The garage could be worth $100 million; Mayor Tom Menino shouldn't have ceded control of it to the Boston Redevelopment Authority; thanks to a "backroom deal" between Menino and City Councilor/mayoral hopeful Sam Yoon, Boston residents aren't benefiting from the money it generates.
But then, in the midst of a Web-worthy take, a flock of birds flies straight in front of the camera. McCrea — who looks like a younger, less florid incarnation of CBS Late Show announcer Alan Kalter — appears grateful for a chance to relax. "We could sell this one piece of property," he quips, "and we wouldn't have to lay off a single pigeon, firefighter, police officer, or teacher!" Beat. "This is a problem caused by Tom Menino!" People stroll by, throw McCrea a quizzical glance, and move on; they seem unsure whether to pay attention.
The Boston media have had the same problem. After Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty formally announced his candidacy on January 27, for example, a Boston Globe editorial cheered the fact that Menino finally had a legit challenger; McCrea, who'd entered the race five days earlier, went unmentioned. And the Boston Herald's recent flurry of mayor's-race exposés — Flaherty's efforts to tweak police-exam protocol as his wife tried to join the force; the mayor's failure to disclose his son Tom Jr.'s job with Suffolk Construction Company; Sam Yoon's 1995 name change from Sang Hyun Yun — ignored McCrea entirely.
Yet in Globe reporter John C. Drake's March 16 piece on the politics of Boston's budget deficit, McCrea had a starring role. "Some critics," Drake wrote, "suggest [Menino] is painting a dire budget scenario and holding back on more optimistic projections so that he can later portray himself as a savior when he is able to prevent massive layoffs." Cue McCrea: "The mayor is trying to make the budget deficit as large as possible," he opined. "When he puts all the money together, he can look good in the public's eye and say, 'Look . . . I'm fiscally responsible.' " Yoon and Flaherty weren't quoted; in fact, they weren't mentioned at all.
All this suggests a strange, still-evolving political story line. Everyone's been anticipating Boston's most competitive mayoral race in a decade and a half. Until Menino makes his intentions clear, though, the campaign can't really start.
But McCrea isn't waiting. Instead, he's already launched into full attack mode. And by taking this leap — never mind his slim chances of making the final, or slimmer chances of actually winning — he's becoming a political player.
Four years ago, when McCrea ran for City Council, the prospect of him playing any kind of role in this year's mayoral race would have seemed far-fetched. In the September 2005 preliminary at-large election — which winnowed the field from 15 candidates to eight — McCrea placed 10th, behind Sisyphean stalwart Althea Garrison and just 39 votes ahead of Roy Owens, another perma-candidate. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, McCrea didn't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this losing effort; campaign-finance records show that he loaned himself more than $500,000, but only spent about $40,000. Even so, nothing about McCrea's showing suggested he'd go on to seek the city's top job.
And his problems went beyond the ballot box. Four years ago, Candidate McCrea's blog — at electkevin.blogspot.com — was titled "The BIG Campaign" (emphasis his). He also referred to his South End home as "The BIG House" (ditto), and invited the press to his September wedding ("It is sure to be a memorable occasion, full of surprises!").
Collectively, such tics created a portrait of the candidate as an egotist/exhibitionist — an impression bolstered by a Globe profile that revealed, among other things, that a toilet seat in McCrea's home is illuminated by a Chinese character signifying "big."
Then there was the blog entry McCrea posted on November 30, 2005 — from New Orleans, where he'd gone to build homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — which made you wonder if his campaign had actually been a form of therapy. "A couple mornings ago in New Orleans I woke up and just decided to not let my anger and cynicism get to me," wrote McCrea. "I will be happy! I'm really so lucky. To go from suicidal childhood with abusive alcoholic father, to being happily married to a wonderful woman, having a killer stereo, a motorcycle and a place of my own who am I to ask for more [sic]."
McCrea 2.0 is different. You won't find the word "BIG" on his Web site or his campaign literature. He wears a suit and tie. There's more emphasis on his business background — he's co-founder and owner of Boston's Wabash Construction — and less on his idiosyncratic tastes. He's no longer driving a motorcycle to campaign events. And his overall self-presentation is muted, even guarded.