Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s longest-serving mayor, who presided over one of the most successful urban renaissances in modern American history, died Thursday in Boston. He was 71.
The cause was cancer, Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said.
Menino, a Democrat, was City Council president in 1993 when the sitting mayor left for an ambassadorship and he automatically became mayor. Dismissed early on as an “urban mechanic,” Menino consolidated his power over two decades into one-man rule. In the process, he helped transform Boston into a thriving economic and cultural center and a magnet for innovation.
He left his imprint on the skyline, especially downtown and in South Boston, where empty warehouses and a decrepit waterfront gave way to glassy condos, corporate offices and upscale restaurants.
But even as he revitalized Boston’s urban core, protecting it from what he called “Manhattanization,” Menino remained a creature of its neighborhoods. He spent his whole life in Hyde Park, where he was born. He spent his days ambling along the city’s streets, talking with residents, reporting potholes and rarely missing a ribbon cutting. In a remarkable achievement for a big-city mayor, he met more than half of Boston’s 625,000 residents in person, according to polls. He left office with approval ratings at an astronomical 82 percent.
“Bold, big-hearted, and Boston strong, Tom was the embodiment of the city he loved and led for more than two decades,” President Barack Obama said Thursday in a statement.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and a native Bostonian, once called Menino “the mayors’ mayor” and said he would be ranked with America’s greatest municipal chief executives, including Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, and Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M., of Chicago.
Like those power brokers, Menino held an iron grip on his fief. He cultivated power, rewarding friends and intimidating foes. He favored certain developers, handing them tax breaks and unsnarling red tape, and received generous campaign contributions from them. Few construction projects were built without his approval. Some were altered to suit his tastes.
Notoriously thin-skinned, he nursed grudges, and his adversaries often ended up in the political wilderness. Menino, who never groomed an heir, suggested in his memoir, “Mayor for a New America,” published this month, that the image of him as an autocrat was exaggerated but that he exploited it to maintain leverage.
“Fear is power,” he wrote. “I owed it to my city to keep fear alive.”
It was a formula that worked. He ended each fiscal year with an operating surplus, drove up the city’s bond rating and avoided being tarred with a major scandal.
In an academically minded city like Boston, which has called itself the Athens of America, Menino cut an incongruous figure. As a young man, he had no interest in college. While he championed a high-tech “innovation district,” he was a technophobe.
And though he took lessons in public speaking, he never mastered the art. He swallowed his words, which were coated in a thick Boston accent, earning the nickname Mumbles; at political roasts, videos in which he appeared were affectionately labeled with subtitles. He had a penchant, too, for malapropisms, once saying that the lack of parking in the city was “an Alcatraz around my neck.”
But he came to embody the spirit of Boston, never more so than after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which left three people dead and 260 severely wounded.
On that day, he was recovering from ankle surgery. But as officials gathered to brief the news media on the bombings, Menino checked himself out of the hospital and arrived at the briefing in a wheelchair, groggy, a hospital bracelet on his wrist.
A few days later, at a prayer service, he struggled to rise from his wheelchair, grimacing in obvious pain, to address the congregants, who included Obama.
“No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people,” Menino said from the pulpit.
He never aspired to higher office, which helped account for his longevity in the office he loved. He was not a visionary. “Visionaries don’t get things done,” he said. Rather, he focused on plowing the roads, fixing the streetlights and cleaning up the parks.
“I’m not good-looking,” he once said. “I can’t speak well. I’m not smart.” But he added: “I’m driven. I have the opportunity to change people’s lives.”
His proudest accomplishment, he told The New York Times, was making the city more hospitable to immigrants and minorities, particularly after the violent upheaval in the 1970s over court-ordered busing to integrate the public schools.
“My No. 1 thing is bringing racial harmony to the city,” he said.
He attributed his empathy for immigrants and outsiders to being an ethnic minority, Italian-American, in a city dominated by the Irish. And he watched his mother help neighbors with their problems and struggles. He was the city’s first Italian-American mayor and its first mayor not of Irish descent since 1930.
Ideologically, he was a liberal Democrat representing a liberal Democratic base. He pushed for tougher federal gun laws and refused to march in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade because it excluded gays. He was among the first mayors to extend benefits to same-sex partners of city employees.
He sat atop a powerful political machine, kept humming by an army of loyal city workers who helped him rack up enviable vote totals in all his bids for re-election.
“Menino has assembled the most extensive political operation in modern Boston history over his 16 years in office, rivaling that of legendary mayor James Michael Curley,” The Boston Globe wrote in 2009. “He’s done it the old-fashioned way, by blurring the lines between politics and policy, between city work and campaign work, delivering services to everyday residents and warnings to his rare foes - many of them intended to strengthen his electoral standing.”
He occasionally activated his machine on behalf of others. In 2008, he sent 100 of his “campaign pros” next door to New Hampshire to help Hillary Rodham Clinton in her difficult presidential primary against Obama. He claimed in his memoir that his team “put Hillary over the top.”
Still, there were challenges that Menino could not overcome. While student test scores improved, he fell short of his promise to overhaul the city’s public schools. Housing was another problem area. The city created millions of dollars of high-priced housing and left longtime residents priced out of their newly gentrified neighborhoods.
Thomas Michael Menino was born on Dec. 27, 1942, in Hyde Park. His grandparents, who occupied the first floor of the family home, had emigrated from Italy. His father was a factory foreman at Westinghouse Electric.
Menino graduated from high school in 1960 and briefly attended night classes at Boston College but dropped out, saying college was not for him. Besides, he said, his hero, Harry S. Truman, never attended college. But Menino later regretted that decision and in 1988, at age 45, finally earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Out of high school, he sold insurance for Metropolitan Life. He met his future wife, Angela Faletra, in 1963 when they were playing tennis on adjacent courts. They married three years later and had two children, Susan and Thomas Jr. In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by a brother, David; a sister, Carolyn Phipps; and six grandchildren.
Menino quickly migrated to politics, working on local campaigns and getting elected to City Council in 1983. A decade later, when President Bill Clinton appointed Mayor Raymond Flynn ambassador to the Vatican, Menino rose to the corner office. He won election later that year to a full term and served four more full terms.
His decision last year not to seek an unprecedented sixth term was excruciating for him. In October 2012, felled by various ailments, he was hospitalized for two months and underwent a lengthy convalescence. The city - and several would-be mayors with pent-up ambition - watched and waited to see whether he would run again.
In March 2013, in an emotional ceremony in Faneuil Hall packed with the city’s power elite and its working classes, Menino said he would not seek re-election. He said he had run out of steam and could not manage the city the way he wanted.
He left office in January 2014 at age 71 and took a position at Boston University. In February, he was found to have an advanced form of inoperable cancer that had metastasized. Still, for several months, he showed up around town, assuming an unofficial role as mayor emeritus.