Monday, November 3, 2014

Mayor Menino: One of the Last True Public Servants

“The only reason to be in politics is public service. There's no other reason.”
--Malcolm Turnbull

Was Mayor Thomas Menino the last true public servant we’ll see in our lifetimes? I wonder about this, as Boston and Massachusetts mourn the man. I worry that Menino was the last of a dying breed, politicians who embrace the noble call of public service. Men and women who actually believe that when elected to serve the public, their job is to serve the public. Promote the common good.  Protect the interests, not just of the moneyed, powerful or well connected but also the anonymous, the powerless, the every day folks who make up the heart of any community.

A public servant.

Menino: Mayor of Boston for a record twenty years. He did so much.  Shephered the renaissance of Boston as a world class city. Brought new jobs and businesses into the city.  On watch when gang violence dropped to record lows. He wasn’t perfect. He ruled with fear at times: you didn’t want to get on his bad side. His record on the schools was mixed. He was called “Mayor Mumbles” for his less than soaring oratorical skills. 

But what I loved about the guy—and I was blessed to have met him and his wife—was that from the start of his mayoral career, he was in it for the work.  For the job. To do something, anything, every day, to make his city a better place.  He never saw being mayor as a stepping stone to some greater office. His administration was amazingly corruption free.  By one estimate Menino personally met as mayor, more than half the residents of Boston. He lived in the same modest Hyde Park home for years, championed racial reconciliation and embraced the LGBT community long before it was popular to do so. And when things went wrong in his city he showed up. In Dorchester after a shooting. On the day of the Marathon bombings, checking himself out of the hospital.  He was everywhere.   

He was mayor to be the mayor: from his first day in office to his last day at City Hall.

What makes Menino’s departure from the world all the sadder is that public service as a vocation and calling is in crisis in our country.  Who serves the public anymore? The overly obtrusive media makes many reluctant to serve. Cynicism among the electorate is at record highs. The ability of government to get anything done, at least in Washington, is in question. Office holders are afraid to take a stand for fear of being voted out.  Perpetual re-election mode is the norm.  Big money skews elections, democracy for sale. And when pols leave office, so many cash in unashamedly, with high priced jobs as lobbyists, consultants, corporate board members, think tank prognosticators, and media loud mouths: for hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars.

Let Menino’s legacy and death, then, remind us all that public service matters.  That the best elected officials always see their job as a public trust. That the real public servants make a true difference in people’s live, in folks being heard and served: in everything from potholes repaired to a nation summoned to greatness. 

To serve the public is not supposed to be about ego or financial gain or power or celebrity. It’s not about hitting the jackpot with a TV reality show or some cushy gig upon retirement. Public service is about seeing what is wrong in our world and then trying one’s best to make it right. Public service is about entering into the rough and tumble world of politics and doing something, beyond issuing a press release, posing for a photo op or showing up an opponent. 

Doesn’t matter if you are a selectman, a mayor or the President. 

So God bless you, Mayor Menino.  You did well, very well. We will miss you.  Whether or not you were our mayor, you showed us that there is still a need for women and men to hear the call to public service. To roll up one’s sleeves, stand for election, and then work for the public, the greater good for all the people.   

Thank you for being a true public servant.  Rest in peace.

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