Kickoff event shows Menino's strength

Yawu Miller | 4/29/2009, 5:46 a.m.

The campaign organization backing Mayor Thomas M. Menino filled the auditorium at Dudley Square’s Hibernian Hall last Wednesday with an army of supporters who came together to mark the four-term incumbent’s official entrance into this year’s Boston mayoral race.

With scores of supporters shouting, “Four more years,” Menino pledged to build on the record his administration has amassed during his 16 years in office.

“I want to be there four more years,” he said. “Working together, we will move Boston forward.”

That theme of “moving Boston forward” appears to be the core of Menino’s campaign message.

It’s a decidedly simple message — stay the course — and not particularly ambitious. But then, with a campaign organization as broad and deep as the one showcased at Menino’s kickoff, message is not as important as machine.

The Menino machine, which has at its core the 20,000 city workers who form the largest voting bloc in Boston, was in evidence at Hibernian Hall.

“I think it’s a clear choice,” said Darryl Smith, assistant commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, in explaining his support for Menino. “The mayor has been a leader in the city in terms of having a clear-cut vision for everyone in our city.”

Smith and others in the room pointed to Hibernian Hall and other formerly vacant large buildings in Dudley Square, which were refurbished and completed with more than $10 million in federal Empowerment Zone funds channeled through the Menino administration.

Moving deeper into Ward 14, where Smith has served as chairman of the ward’s Democratic Committee, the Menino administration is widely credited with focusing redevelopment efforts that have seen virtually every city-owned vacant lot sold off and developed.

The redevelopment of Blue Hill Avenue was a campaign promise that dated back to Menino’s first run for the mayor’s office in 1993, when he was still serving as acting mayor after Raymond L. Flynn vacated the seat to become U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Over the last 16 years, Menino has made investing city resources in neighborhoods a cornerstone of his administration — a penchant that earned him the title “the urban mechanic.”

His attention to the city’s neighborhoods has also earned him approval ratings that have hovered at 70 percent for much of his tenure.

But this time around, things could be different, according to Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, who points out that Menino is facing three opponents in the midst of a recession and severe budget cuts.

“He can’t take the competition for granted when he’s got layoffs, no funding for summer jobs and increasing violence,” Small said. “These are the worst times we’ve ever been through. Nonprofits are closing down. The government is cutting [almost] everything … Who’s going to help the people?”

Menino’s challengers in the mayoral race, City Councilors-at-Large Sam Yoon and Michael Flaherty and South End developer Kevin McCrea, are hoping to capitalize on the appetite for change among voters that helped propel both Gov. Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama into office.

And in an election year where there are some 20 candidates for at-large seats on the City Council — including 12 people of color — the base of conservative white voters that has historically dominated Boston politics could be overwhelmed by new voters and voters of color.

“There’s going to be a lot of field organizations with a lot of new people voting,” Small said. “It opens up a lot of possibilities.”