On the Trail with Michael Flaherty, Who Wants Thomas Menino's Job

On a cloudy and rainy weekday morning that makes this particular corner of the city look more like Seattle than Boston, City Councillor Michael F. Flaherty arrives at the Forest Hills T Station and starts saying hello to campaign workers and greeting passersby before his feet actually hit the sidewalk on Washington Street.

"Hi, I'm Mike Flaherty and I'm running for mayor," he says to a group of women waiting on a bench. "We know who you are," one of the women told Flaherty, causing the candidate to laugh out loud. "Well, I still need your support," Flaherty replied to woman who said they were waiting for a bus to take the group on a day-trip to a Connecticut casino. "We need a change," another woman told Flaherty as the bus pulled up. "And some luck."

Flaherty, an at-large councillor since 2000, wishes them well, gets the names and contact information for at least one member of the group, which was very focused on its own travels, and jots down a few notes on cards with his campaign information printed on the edges for a follow-up by his campaign staff.

Scenes like this will play out again and again at various spots at the Orange Line station this morning and at other locations across the city. The next morning, Flaherty is scheduled to spend a few hours at Roxbury Crossing. A few nights before he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at English High School's field to kick off the American Legion team's season.

It is the candidate's personal touch that won over Kim Hargaden, Ward 19 coordinator for the Flaherty campaign who was at the station greeting people before her candidate arrived. "For the [American Legion] team and the players and their families, this is a huge undertaking. Mike Flaherty understands what it means to live and work in the city," Hargaden said. "I'm working for him because he's out here now, as a City Councillor and a candidate for mayor, listening to what people want for the future."

Flaherty's Irish roots are as deep as those his family planted in Boston a few generations ago. His parents were born in Boston, but look back a bit further and you'll see three of Flaherty's great-grandparents on his father's side were born in County Galway. Flaherty's mom's family (the McGlones) hails from Galway, Monahan, and Cork.

Spend some time listening over mayoral candidate Flaherty's shoulder and you'll hear a lot about his easy-going personal style and the need for a change. People are listening to this lifelong resident of South Boston, because, they say, they want to hear some new ideas.

Flaherty, who was president of the City Council from 2002 to 2006, is in the biggest race of his political life as he challenges 16-year incumbent Thomas M. Menino, the mayor who was on center stage for some of the city's biggest showcase events: the 2004 Democratic Convention, the Patriots winning three NFL titles, the Red Sox winning two World Series championships, Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, and a huge increase in TV and film production in the city. Menino has also had to deal with a large share of the tough stuff: the deaths of firefighters in the line of duty, acrimonious contract negotiations with various unions, economic downturns, and federal mandates, particularly after 9/11.

Flaherty's strategy for taking on a popular and long-serving mayor who is still engaged in his duties is a simple one: Menino might be "good" but Flaherty would be "better." The Flaherty cards handed out by campaign volunteers echo the ads that have been sprouting up on the tops of taxis, showing up in local newspapers, and popping up on the various online forums and social networking sites. Today, the cards show a computer circa 1988 with the word "good" below it. On the flip side of the card is a spanking new Apple "Air" laptop with the word "better" and www.michaelflaherty.com running along the bottom of the card.

Some politicos in the city thought Flaherty might be taking a risk using this strategy, but it seems to be catching on. So much so that anyone can submit an idea. An old light bulb is "good," but a new mercury vapor light bulb is "better." A few ideas trickle into the campaign's website every day.

"Look, I'll take responsibility for what I've done while in office and what I haven't been able to do. I'm just saying that our city is good and it can be, and should be, better," Flaherty said in between talking with potential supporters as they made their way through the turnstiles to catch an Orange Line train.

Menino, Flaherty, Councillor at-Large Sam Yoon, and businessman Kevin McCrea are all on the ballot, making for one of the largest preliminary races in recent history. The four face off on Sept. 22, with the final election set for Nov. 3. Flaherty thinks he has "just" enough time to change a few minds about whom they will support. "It's about getting out there and getting in front of people, letting them realize they have an option when they go to cast their ballot. And getting my points across and my issues heard."

Flaherty appears to be winning some small victories, on the issues front. On the day he is scheduled to meet a reporter in Forest Hills, his team apologizes for him being 15 minutes late. He's on the radio with WBZ because Menino has just come out in support of charter schools, a position Flaherty and rival Sam Yoon had both endorsed just days before.

"I can say that I like Mayor Menino's position on charter schools because it's my position on charter schools, that the city needs to get out front of our underperforming schools and find new ways to deal with that. Glad I could point the way for him," Flaherty said in between chatting with people moving through the T station.

A former Suffolk County assistant district attorney, Flaherty has been vocal about the city's crime rate. His campaign points to the more than 1,000 homicides in Menino's 16 years as mayor. In turn, the mayor's people are quick to note that in the 16 years before he took office there were almost 1,600 homicides in the city. Another issue Flaherty has been pushing is the modernization of city services, pointing to New York City's extensive 311 system that allows residents to report problems to live dispatchers 24 hours a day, and the real-time "e-policing" data systems used by Los Angeles to recognize problem areas more quickly.

Mention to Flaherty that it seems odd that someone with his curriculum vitae (Irish heritage, lifelong city neighborhood resident, a graduate of Boston College High School, Boston College, and Boston University Law School) would be considered an outsider, and he flashes his quick smile. "It's about modernizing the city. It's about recognizing where we've been and where this city needs to go. Our mayor has been in office for 16 years. That's a lot of ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings, and cookies and coffee meetings. I know we aren't going to solve today's problems with 16-year-old solutions."

Flaherty said these mornings out visiting city communities help move him beyond his daily schedule. He and his wife Laurene live in the same South Boston neighborhood where he grew up with their four children, Patrick, Michael, and twins Elizabeth and Jack. The candidate is a partner with the law firm Adler Pollock & Sheehan, and keeps a full City Council schedule dominated these days by special meetings on the 2010 budget, a process that probably will continue beyond July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

"I like this part of the campaign. I like it when people open up or invite me into their home. That's very special," says Flaherty. "And you never know what you're going to hear or what their concerns are."

Flaherty looks around and returns to his pitch: "I'm Mike Flaherty and I'm running for mayor." As if on cue, people begin to approach. One man pulls the candidate aside, digs a copy of his resume out of his bag, and asks Flaherty to keep him in mind if he hears of any jobs while also imploring him to see what kinds of people are finding themselves unemployed.

Another man, Michael Hampton of Mattapan, spots Flaherty from behind and yells, "Go Mike! We need a change." Flaherty asks Hampton if he'd put a sign on his house or some other show of support and Hampton replies that he would, but "I'm only one vote. Only one." Flaherty doesn't miss a beat: "One at a time. Thanks."

A kindergarten teacher at St. Anne School in Readville hands Flaherty a thank you note from her young charges, whom Flaherty had visited a couple of days before. The teacher's reaction to finding Flaherty at the Forest Hills T Station was a mix of happiness at again seeing the politician who had generously given her students his time and a tinge of regret for having "just" put a stamp on the envelope to drop in the mailbox. "I'm sorry about that," said Flaherty, referring to the wasted stamp.

"Yes, this is the part I really like," Flaherty said as he was leaving the station. The candidate stops to listen to a young man talk about more jobs programs for those students who are trying to finish high school or get their GED, but probably won't go to college. Flaherty asks the man about what kinds of jobs he thinks would help solve the problem and wonders how they could get young people to apply for them. Yes, indeed, he seems to enjoy this part of public life.