Our Views: A lesson of Mumbles

Quite disrespectfully, they called him Mumbles. That’s Mayor Mumbles to you, the elocution-challenged head of Boston for a generation.

Tom Menino, mayor since 1993, has retired with a round of plaudits for his management of the queen city of New England. The economy is booming and Menino, whatever his speaking style, earned a reputation for being able to keep in touch with the neighborhoods while still boosting the complex real-estate deals that provided both commercial development and affordable housing in an expensive city to live in. His legacy offers important insights for Louisiana’s leaders as they try to grow the regional eonomy.

The lessons of Menino’s tenure as Boston’s longest-serving mayor are in part about the times as well as about his own skills. After all, he was an accidental mayor, having taken the job when his predecessor resigned to become an ambassador. But Menino made the job his own through skilful balancing of voter blocs and interests, something that every big city tries and many fail to do.

The times, though, helped.

The giant wealth created by a knowledge-based economy did not pass by a city that for decades invested public and private funds in higher education. “We have eight research universities and 15 teaching hospitals, and there’s nothing else like it in the world,” Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation said. “The innovation economy gathers around institutions like these.” The importance of colleges and universities as engines of economic growth has special urgency in Louisiana, where state budget cuts in recent years have taken a toll on higher education. Grogan told The New York Times that Menino was mayor at the right time, in a flowering of the economic and social benefits of colleges: “The world changed in a way that assigned a new value to them.”

Tom Menino was not the man who invented the Internet in a tech company along Route 128. He was the urban mechanic, another of Mumbles’ titles, who understood that smart urban planning and smart people go together.

In the years since Richard Florida has published books about “the creative class,” the Boston formula for economic success has become much better known around the country. Many cities now understand and act on the principle that the quality of life is not just a nice thing to have, but essential to attracting the knowledge workers who bring major economic benefits along with their bike paths and authentic bagels.

Menino also ran an honest shop.

Louisiana and Massachusetts were two states with colorful politicians, the euphemism for political machines that rewarded who you knew instead of what you did. Massachusetts has overcome that perception in recent years; Menino’s retirement has brought a flood of plaudits about Boston’s economy and standard of living.

But an urban mechanic cannot work very well if there is a politics of connections and clans that throws wrenches into every deal, particularly the sometimes controversial public-private partnerships Menino herded into being in Boston. That’s another lesson of Mumbles’ tenure in Boston.