BPR Interview: Thomas Menino

Thomas Menino is the former longtime Mayor of Boston and co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He was recently appointed co-director of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. He recently sat down with BPR’s Sam Rubinstein. 

Brown Political Review: What kept you in Boston for so long?

Thomas Menino: I never had any ideas about running for any other position but mayor of Boston. It’s the best position to have in government, because you are closest to the people. What kept me in Boston is the people. I love this city, and I tried to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s why I stayed on as mayor, and why I’m a lifelong resident of Boston.

BPR: Many commentators have argued that today’s mayors are some of the most effective actors in American government. Do you agree?

TM: Mayors are the most [effective] actors in government. Congress and state governments are gridlocked, and the action is with mayors. Mayors deal with issues they can’t duck, like education, public safety, homelessness and sustainability. Washington is politically paralyzed. We won’t see another piece of great legislation passed in this country until we get over that nonsense.

BPR: To what extent do cities experience the repercussions of federal gridlock?

TM: There is no money left for cops or public housing. Health care and job training funds are held back. It’s certainly affecting the quality of life in our cities.

BPR: It seems that Providence leaders often invoke Boston when explaining their vision for the city. Is Boston’s growth model applicable to other cities?

TM: Boston’s growth stems partially from its historical role as the nation’s education capital. We continue to turn out brainpower every year from our universities — we have 28 colleges and 250,000 students. When they graduate, they move back here and fill positions. I’m familiar with one company that moved out of Boston, couldn’t find any [qualified labor] and moved back. That’s what differentiates us from most cities. [Other cities] have to make it attractive for people to work there.

BPR: Do you have any advice for the next mayor of Providence?

TM: The new mayor has to look at the financial books, and make sure that the financing is working. That is the first step. Then, the mayor needs to look at the entire budget process — which programs work, and which don’t. Then the mayor has to make tough decisions. That’s what leadership is. — One year I had a tough budget year, and asked departments for cuts, and one department cut 15 divisions out, but nobody noticed. In government, we stack programs on programs.

BPR: You co-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition that lobbies for reforms on the national level. What are the prospects for federal gun control legislation?

TM: It’s not gun control. It’s safety control. We’re just trying to take guns away from people who should not have gotten them in the first place. We should have background checks, not gun show loopholes. We should have a standardized process in America — I believe we are the only industrialized nation without one. The N.R.A. controls this issue. They spend millions of dollars to block legislation. Don’t these Congressmen see every day in the paper how many people are getting killed by guns? Don’t they understand that? Where are they?

BPR: Can you break the back of the N.R.A.?

TM: No. They have lots of money. Until people have the guts to stand up to them, we are going to have this problem.

BPR:  You were in the hospital when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred. Can you describe your thoughts and feelings over the several days you dealt with the crisis?

TM: I got the message through my security staff. I immediately got the police commissioner on the phone for a briefing. I assembled my staff, told everyone to stay calm, checked myself out of the hospital, and went to the press conference. My job was to make the people of Boston understand that we were still in control. I also had to inform the people what was going on throughout that week. We could not have a media blackout — every day we told them more and more about what was going on, and it helped people handle some of the anxiety. The people of Boston came out stronger after the marathon bombings. I never felt prouder of America than at that time.

BPR: How much of the improvement in Boston Public Schools under your tenure do you attribute to the mayoral-appointed school board?

TM: An appointed school board is the way to go in big cities; it takes all the politics out of schools. The school board members running for office have to raise money, which comes from special interest groups. Appointed school boards only care about the education of children. We’ve proved in Boston how it has improved the educational process. I think that most cities in this country should go to mayoral-appointed school boards.

BPR: How can Boston continue to make improvements in education?

TM: We have to make longer school days — we have one of the shortest currently. We also need to coordinate all the services we have in the city under one roof, so that every child is getting the opportunity for extra help.

BPR: Do you support charter schools?

TM: If they take special needs kids, and English language learners, I’m all for them, but most of them don’t, and I’m not a supporter of those that don’t. Boston Public Schools accept every kid, charter schools do not, and that is wrong.

BPR: Can you describe the Institute for Cities, and what you hope to achieve there?

TM: It is a program that was initially started in September. We hope to bring mayors in and folks from municipalities, and work on issues of education, finance and sustainability. We want to help and mentor them, and look for new ideas of how to make cities better. — We hope [local leaders] will discuss what they are doing, and swap ideas.

BPR: What makes you most optimistic for the future of Boston? What concerns you the most?

TM: Optimistic — It’s the people. The people of Boston are stronger. They are resilient, and keep on moving forward. I see the opportunities we have, how business are flocking to Boston, including small businesses. What concerns me most is that we are not able to find enough space in our city for all the businesses that want to come here.

BPR: Are you concerned with the effects of gentrification?

TM: I’m always concerned about the effects of gentrification. Last year I announced a 20/20 plan, to have an additional 20,000 units of affordable housing built by 2020. Boston has more units of affordable housing per capita than any other city in America. The real issue is income inequality.