When I first became Speaker in 2009 one of the people to call me was Mayor Menino.
“How are ya, pal?”
We already knew each other from afar: from my time as Chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means and from interacting at events in the neighborhood where I spent my early years and drive through every day to get to the State House, East Boston. When I became Speaker in 2009 that relationship deepened as municipal and state leaders alike confronted the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression.
Right after I was elected, Mayor Menino invited me to the Parkman House, the city’s outpost on Beacon Hill. Over lunch, we talked about the State House, the economic climate and ideas that might help the city and the state get through this difficult time.
As a former aide to Senator Joe Timilty, Mayor Menino understood Beacon Hill. His relationships ran deep. In two decades as mayor, many of his former staffers became legislators. His mentorship and support of them gave him a louder voice and an ability to keep a close-eye on State House issues.
Over time, I also observed how he became a leader on important issues, such as education, gun violence and civil rights, all areas where the House has taken action in recent years.
Because of my early professional experience as a selectman, the years I spent as a boy living in East Boston and our joint Italian-American heritage, I felt an affinity with Mayor Menino. More importantly, some of his priorities, such as providing cities and towns the ability to fund their budget needs through the “local option,” and giving cities and towns greater independence in devising health care plans that save municipalities money, were ones I had studied for years at Ways & Means and ultimately championed as Speaker.
His greatest passion as mayor was the city’s children and this is reflected not only in the policy we worked on together –the landmark Achievement Gap law – but how he spent his time, often in classrooms meeting children. I remember after we passed the law the mayor called me at 1:15 in the morning and saying “we’re going to give every child the opportunity to succeed.”
Clearly, for the mayor, his professional relationships were not solely about policy. For Mayor Menino, politics was about people. He’d always ask me about how things were with me and he was sincere. Trust me, politicians quickly learn to distinguish the two. Because of that authenticity he was able to connect with people, iron out differences, and find solutions through friendships.
At the beginning of my Speakership, Mayor Menino told me how different things would be from any other role I’d had in government. As I grappled with the change from representing my district to being Speaker of the entire Commonwealth, the mayor’s advice and background became invaluable. He shared the challenges he faced as he transitioned from city councilor of one council district to the CEO of a diverse city on the verge of great change. He used this background and his instinctive knowledge of State House politics to help me as I began as Speaker.
Through the years, our most comfortable meeting place was in East Boston over Italian food. I marveled at his connection with the voters of the city and the punishing schedule of neighborhood events he kept. He believed in the importance of getting out of the office and talking to people, an important lesson for anyone in an executive or legislative public role. For me, that has meant meeting with folks from all walks of life across the state.
As an Italian-American who annually approaches the annual St. Patrick’s Day comedy breakfast in South Boston with trepidation, I also appreciated the way he handled the challenge of being funny on demand in a high-stakes setting.
For Mayor Menino, politics only mattered with respect to the people he served. When I hung up after our first call five years ago, I immediately knew what Mayor Menino was all about. In the ensuing years, I’ve been fortunate to learn more about the mayor and more from the mayor.
Mayor Menino had the courage to do things differently and for that Boston and Massachusetts will be forever changed. I, like many citizens and public officials, have become beneficiaries of his generous spirit. We are grateful. Knowing the incredible demands that mayor’s office placed on him, I am deeply saddened that he did not get to spend more time with Angela as well as his children and grandchildren. All of us on Beacon Hill will miss him greatly.
Robert DeLeo is the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.