Saluting a Mayor Who Knew How to Listen

by Jeremy Loudenback

photo credit: Office of Governor Patrick via photopin cc
Tuesday, June 18, 2013 – Governor Patrick and Mayor Menino make an announcement relative to career pathways partnerships at Roxbury Community College. photo credit: Office of Governor Patrick via photopin cc

The book of disappointing mayors is a long one. The ledgers are full of entries on bumbling bribe-takers, sexually harassing hizzoners, influence peddlers, and kickback artists, with a special section devoted to the crack-smoking shenanigans of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Great leaders, unfortunately, are much harder to come by, as the city of Boston knows. Earlier this week, Boston mourned its longtime mayor, Thomas Menino, who died last week on October 30 at age 71. Thousands lined city streets to say their goodbyes to the mayor who was responsible for Boston’s recent renaissance.

Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Menino retired in 2013 after held office for 21 years and was hailed by many as an old-school mayor with a nose for innovation. Under his watch, Boston’s rundown south waterfront saw a dramatic turnaround from a largely abandoned area to a world-class hub of high-tech startups and entrepreneurial development that leveraged the possibilities offered by the city’s many universities. As a result, the area—now dubbed the Innovation District—has attracted new companies along with housing, green space, restaurants, and retail.

But it wasn’t just the sleek developments that won over Bostoners. His broad New England accent and penchant for malapropisms were much loved (most famously he once said he had an Alcatraz around his neck); during his unprecedented fifth term, he earned a 74% approval rating. Throughout his tenure, Menino never stopped sweating the small details of governing, from attending as many community events as he could to always stopping to ask Boston residents how he could make their lives better.

The occasion of Menino’s death prompted several encomiums and glowing assessments of his governing style, but one extraordinary statistic speaks volumes about his ability to connect with his constituents and their concerns. A 2008 poll of Boston residents found that an amazing 54% of respondents said that they had personally met the mayor, a remarkable feat for a large city like Boston.

In a 2013 interview with the New York Times Magazine, Menino laid out the secret to his success.

I used to go to three or four coffee shops in the morning, just to find out what people are thinking. And I don’t drink coffee. I drink cranberry juice. But coffee shops are the best barometer of public opinion — not these poll numbers and all that stuff.

There’s a lesson that more mayors would be wise to consider.