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Mayor Menino's Bold Leadership

Tom Menino wasn’t considered the most reflective guy around, which is why he sometimes got accused of lacking “the vision thing.” But when I sat down with him this fall, the Mayor talked at length about his own leadership style. It turned out to be one of the last interviews he granted.

The topic was “What makes a bold leader?” – part of a series I’m doing on the topic. “Bold leadership is when you take the side of the minority over the majority,” Menino said. “And we don’t have much courage these days in politics about that.”

That might sound like the usual self-serving rhetoric. But I knew from experience that Menino lived it. Many of the big and little things he did as mayor were textbook examples of bold leadership – pushing causes that were not at all guaranteed to win him votes.

My relationship with him goes back to 1988, when I was covering health for WBZ-TV and he was way out front on a hot-button public health issue – whether the city should provide sterile needles to drug users to reduce the spread of the then-deadly AIDS virus.

At the time Menino was a city councilor from Hyde Park, “one of the most conservative neighborhoods in the city,” as he described it. He’d commissioned a couple of Harvard students to look at Boston’s rate of HIV infection, was shocked at the results, and in typical Menino fashion (even way back then) decided to do something about it.

Then-Mayor Ray Flynn had proposed a small-scale pilot needle-exchange program but Governor Michael Dukakis and legislative leaders were against it.

Five years later, when he suddenly became mayor, one of the first things he did was to start a citywide (not a pilot) needle exchange program – the state’s first, and one of the first in the nation.

In our recent chat he pointed to that long-ago fight with pride. “I stood up for it when it wasn’t popular,” he remembered. “When I first talked about it, everyone was against it. After I worked on it for four months, I had everybody for it. I educated the anti’s on how good it was.”

Some might say that’s a bit of an overstatement. But the point is, he got it done. And that’s not all he did to fight AIDS. He put together an advisory group of public health officials to help him do HIV prevention and fight AIDS stigma.

In 2001, he championed the cause of an AIDS educator named Belynda Dunn, who’d been denied a liver transplant by her health insurer because she was HIV-positive. Menino raised the money for her operation.“

Menino has been, unquestioningly, one of the country’s municipal leaders on the issues of HIV prevention,” the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee said in a 2010 testimonial.

AIDS was hardly the only thorny cause Menino championed. He was early to bat on the right of people to marry others of the same sex.“

I was way out front on that,” he said recently. “And here’s how I got to the point of being really out front. I had a friend who I used to walk with every morning – an Archie Bunker type. So I say to him, ‘Frank, what do you think about same-sex marriage?’ You know, just to get him going. And he said, ‘If they want to be miserable, let ‘em get miserable. I support it.’ That’s the funny part. But I really believe in it....And I didn’t get any static. Once even a priest from the altar said I was right.”

And then there was the way the Mayor engineered the tricky merger of Boston City Hospital with University Hospital. Despite being right next door to each other, the two hospitals had very different cultures. And there were big union issues.

“Everybody said ‘You can’t merge a public hospital and a private hospital,’ but I said, ‘Yes, you can,’” Menino recalled. He had a secret weapon – two, in fact. Dr. Richard Nesson, the CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and John McArthur, dean of the Harvard Business School – the duo who invented Partners Healthcare.“

Dick and John used to meet with me all the time to help me through the issue,” Menino said. “We’d meet at nine o’clock at night and go through what was going on. And then we had a play for the next day.”

And as a result, the most important institution for taking care of the city’s poor and disenfranchised is still in business. Once again, the Mayor got it done.

Jeanne Blake is president of Blake Works, a leadership communications consulting firm.

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