His nickname is Mumbles, for the way he sometimes swallows his words, leaving listeners perplexed. He is known for messing up the names of athletes who play for the teams of this sports-mad town.
But Thomas Menino, the long-time mayor of Boston, inspires devotion for the way he makes the city work – and for the way he always, somehow, shows up, rain or shine, in good neighbourhoods and bad.
He proved that once again in the days since the deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon.
At the time of the attacks, Mr. Menino was hospitalized after undergoing surgery for a broken leg, the latest in a string of health troubles. But at each key moment in the response, he managed to be there, reminding his city’s residents to stay strong and united.
There was the first press briefing after the explosions, where Mr. Menino arrived with a hospital bracelet still on his wrist. There was the memorial service, which he attended in a wheelchair. And there was the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which he learned of from the passenger seat of his SUV in Watertown, the Boston suburb where the manhunt ended.
The “people of Boston are proud of you,” Mr. Menino said over the police scanner minutes after the suspect was apprehended, the Boston Globe reported. “Especially the mayor of Boston.”
One police officer responded: “We did it for you, boss.”
Moments of crisis in a city’s history are often a time for myth-making. Think Rudy Giuliani of New York City, who will forever be remembered for his calm after witnessing the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, and the take-charge leadership that followed.
Mr. Menino, 70, is in some ways the anti-Giuliani. He has no greater political ambitions than the job he has held for the past 20 years. Last month, he announced he would not seek re-election in the fall after serving an unprecedented five terms. More tellingly, Mr. Menino’s reaction to the crisis was not to put himself at the centre of things, partly out of necessity, given his semi-incapacitated state.
“To his credit, he is not grandstanding,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of American politics at Tufts University in Boston. Still, the tragedy came at “a really unfortunate time for him,” Prof. Berry added. “He didn’t take charge the way Rudy Giuliani did after 9/11. But the city responded very well.”
It’s hard to overstate how popular Mr. Menino is in Boston. A recent poll by the Boston Globe found he enjoyed a 74-per-cent approval rating, an astonishing figure for any politician, let alone one who has been in office for two decades. What’s more, half of the respondents in the survey said they had met the mayor personally.
Mr. Menino has thrown himself into recovery efforts. The day after the attack, he created the One Fund Boston together with the governor of Massachusetts. By Tuesday, it had raised $20-million to assist victims of the attacks.
He is working to jump-start businesses in the vicinity of the bombings, some of which have been shuttered for a week. On Wednesday, he announced the city would allow free parking at metered spots in the area to encourage shoppers and diners to return.
Near Boston’s City Hall, a boxy, concrete building where the flags were flying at half mast last week, there was great affection for Mr. Menino. The mayor is “out there with the people every day of his term,” said Sean Tully, 41, who works at a nearby veterans centre.
He praised the mayor for persevering despite his injury. “He was still there in that wheelchair,” Mr. Tully said. “He wasn’t at home, saying, ‘I don’t feel good.’ ”
The city’s first Italian-American mayor, Mr. Menino has embraced progressive causes. He championed gay marriage long before it was fashionable and continues to boycott Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade due to its exclusion of gay groups. He reached out to new immigrants to the city. And he joined the movement for stricter gun control.
Boston has prospered on Mr. Menino’s watch. Residents note the number of building projects under way, the relative lack of tension between different ethnic communities, and the absence of major corruption scandals. Mr. Menino is also ultimately responsible for the police and emergency services, which moved with speed and courage to save lives in the minutes after the explosions.
For some Bostonians, the enduring image of Mr. Menino in the aftermath of the bombing will come from last Thursday’s memorial service. There Mr. Menino was wheeled to the altar for his speech by his son, who is a Boston police officer.
Slowly, he wrestled himself out of the wheelchair to stand. “Nothing can defeat the heart of this city, nothing,” he said, gripping the podium with both hands. “Nothing can take us down because we take care of each other.”
When he sat down, the nearly 2,000 people in the cathedral burst into sustained applause.