BOSTON -- Mayor Tom Menino looks around the elevator and reaches instinctively for the hand of the only person in the car he's never met.
"Where are you from?" he asks the young man.
"Somerville," the young man replies.
The mayor almost recoils. "Somerville!" he exclaims with a dismissive wave--there are no votes for him in Somerville--and then says a word that sounds like: "Echhh!"
It was a revealing moment for a mayor destined to go down as an American political legend. If Menino is re-elected on Nov. 3 and serves out his full term, he will have been mayor of this city for 20 years, encompassing the Clinton and Bush eras and more than half of President Obama's term.
His eagerness to meet someone new squares with the most arresting piece of polling data to emerge on this race (and, yes, for the first time in ages, Tommy Menino has a race). A Boston Globe survey asked respondents if they had personally met their mayor. An astonishing 60 percent said yes.
"I just assume it's my job to meet people, to be out there," the 66-year-old mayor says. He speaks as he is whisked in his car from one event, an award presentation to an innovative school, to a ceremonial girder-lifting at a redevelopment project. "I'm always in motion." The characteristic Menino stance is the head cocked to the side, listening as a constituent asks a favor or passes on a bit of gossip.
But there is also the way he dismissed the young man from Somerville, jocular yet firm. Menino doesn't have much patience with those who cross him or don't help him. The sign on his desk at City Hall reads: "No whining.”
If his 40-year-old opponent, Michael Flaherty, has a chance, it is because there is a sense in parts of the city that the mayor has gone unchallenged and unchecked for too long.
Flaherty got a boost last Thursday when the Massachusetts secretary of state concluded that one of the mayor's top aides had improperly deleted thousands of e-mails in potential violation of state public records law. He referred the case to the state attorney general, who said it could not be resolved before Election Day.
The odd thing is that Flaherty's very candidacy confirms Menino's theories about how much Boston has changed. "In Boston at one time, we were a city of hate," Menino says, referring to the bitter racial battles here over school busing in the 1960s and 1970s. "We're not a city of hate anymore."
Flaherty is a proud son of Irish South Boston, a Boston College graduate whose dad was a state representative. "I grew up holding signs, walking in parades," he says in an interview.
But Flaherty is the New Southie. He was the first citywide elected official to endorse Obama's presidential candidacy and is a supporter of gay rights. In an unusual move, Flaherty has formed a ticket with the candidate who ran third in September primary, fellow City Council member Sam Yoon, promising that Yoon would be his deputy mayor. The son of a doctor from Korea, Yoon, a Princeton grad, was the favorite of the city's liberal professionals.
Yoon joins the interview with Flaherty, and they often finish each other's sentences. Nine months younger than Flaherty, Yoon proudly pronounces them "Irish twins," then adds with a smile, "not identical twins." Theirs is the classic reformers' campaign, and they tick off all the things that need to be fixed, from the schools and the crime rate to the comfortable relationship between developers and City Hall.
Flaherty and Yoon do seem to embody the city's future, but that future may have to wait four more years. Bostonians still have affection for a mayor who fractures his syntax and mumbles his way through speeches--a "Mayor Mumbles" Web site memorializes Menino's greatest hits--because most voters more or less accept his image as an "urban mechanic" who loves to fix and build his city.
On a table in his City Hall office, Menino has a copy of a new biography of another story book mayor, James Michael Curley, by Billy Bulger, a legendary Massachusetts political rogue with literary gifts.
Menino says that Curley--a much-loved and much-hated grafter--had one thing he doesn't: "charisma."
"Now," Menino says, "we've got a mayor who is boring as hell and pays attention to his budget." Menino doesn't mumble those words, and he says them with pride.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group