As Thomas M. Menino, the longest serving mayor in Boston history, prepares to retire, leaving an impressive legacy behind him, we look forward to the potential for a new leader to bring a fresh perspective into a rapidly evolving city.
In his unprecedented five terms as mayor, Menino has become a Boston institution. Challenging Menino in a mayoral race has long been considered a career-ending move—after an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2009, Sam Yoon ’95, a former city councilor, left the city citing difficulties finding employment, which he attributed to potential employers’ wariness due to his decision to challenge Menino.
Even before Menino became mayor, outsiders in Boston politics have had the deck stacked against them—this will be the first open mayoral race in Boston since 1983. This openness presents a novel opportunity for new leadership, new direction, and new policies to build, expand, and improve upon Menino’s legacy and redefine the role of the mayor in Boston politics.
Central to Menino’s legacy will be the significant achievements in education reform that have occurred during his time in office; however, inequity persists in the education system, and more progress is required. Standardized test scores for 10th graders and six-year college graduation rates have increased, but third-grade reading levels remain woefully low, despite programs such as ReadBoston. Moving forward, innovation within the education system and improving educational outcomes, particularly at the critical elementary school stage, should remain a high priority for the new administration.
A capstone in Menino’s fight for education reform was the historic decision by the Boston School Committee to end busing, taking the step that this newspaper and others had long been advocating. Though we applaud this historic event, Boston continues to suffer from a dearth of adequate schools, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.
Huge gaps in quality continue to exist between schools, particularly between the Latin schools and many of the city’s neighborhood schools. While Boston’s wealthier residents are able to opt out of inadequate public schools into private, often parochial, schools, alternatives are limited for the city’s poorer residents. We encourage the new mayor to use the neighborhood school system—and the budget savings that ending busing has created—to focus on improving access to quality public education for all of the city’s residents.
Elected to his first official term in 1993, Menino became the city’s first non-Irish-American mayor in over 60 years and the first-ever Italian-American mayor. During his tenure, the racial tensions that continued to afflict the city in the aftermath of forced busing in the 1970s largely seem to have diffused, a change attributable at least in part to Menino’s presence and popularity throughout the city.
Still, shifting population dynamics and an influx of immigrants since 2000 have generated new tensions that continue to simmer beneath the surface. During Menino’s 20 years as mayor, Boston has become a majority-minority city—according to the 2010 census, racial and ethnic minorities now make up 53 percent of the city’s population.
Though conditions in Boston’s largest minority neighborhoods have improved since the 1990s, significant achievement gaps persist. Citywide, despite population gains, minorities continue to be underrepresented both in the workforce—which was over 70 percent white in 2012—and in positions of power. For instance, although Asian Americans have been in Boston for centuries and Chinatown boasts a rich history of political activism, Yoon’s election to City Council in 2005 made him Boston’s first Asian American elected official. As rumors swirl about potential candidates to take Menino’s place, we encourage new leadership to prioritize measures that address issues of inequity and tension due to Boston’s increased diversity.
Menino’s departure marks the end of an era in Boston politics. During his tenure, Boston has changed dramatically, and we hope the next mayor will bring an innovative perspective to face the novel challenges and needs of Boston in a new age.