Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Mayor for life? Or will Marty Walsh set his sights on something bigger?

Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke with Governor Charlie Baker at a 2016 groundbreaking in East Boston.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File
Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke with Governor Charlie Baker at a 2016 groundbreaking in East Boston.

This is a tale of two Martys.

One becomes mayor for life, or at least for a long time.

The other runs for governor.

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Anything can happen on election day. But it looks like Mayor Martin J. Walsh will beat City Councilor Tito Jackson. That’s the way incumbency works in Boston. Walsh’s predecessor, Tom Menino, was mayor for 20 years. Before that, Ray Flynn was mayor for almost 10 and before that, Kevin White was mayor for 16.

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Walsh turned 50 last April. Does he want to turn 60 or even 70 in Boston City Hall? What if he took on Governor Charlie Baker in 2018? That would put a fiery populist up against a governor who is popular but passionate about one thing: Finding the safe, dull middle.

It comes down to this: What does Marty want? Job security akin to that of king, pope, or tenured professor? Or is he up for something friskier?

“Tom Menino proved that if one wants to be mayor for a long time, one can be,” said Larry DiCara, a longtime Boston lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for mayor the year that Flynn won. As far as running for governor, DiCara added, any “mayor of Boston is automatically a potential candidate for statewide office.”

All Menino wanted to be was mayor. He brought enormous energy to the job, along with a pragmatic street level view of Boston’s needs. A 2008 Globe poll became famous for its finding that more than half of the Bostonians who responded to it said they had personally met the mayor. While Menino insisted he was no visionary, today’s boom was launched during his tenure. Menino wasn’t a fancy speaker, but the urban mechanic mastered the language of neighborhood renaissance.

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Flynn resigned during his third term to become US ambassador to the Vatican. But White is the mayor remembered for ambition beyond Boston. He held statewide office as secretary of state before he became mayor in 1967. From City Hall, he was a catalyst who brought the city from malaise to shiny, new metropolis. But that was not enough for him. In 1970, he ran for governor, winning the Democratic nomination, but losing the general election. In 1972, he almost made it to the national ticket as George McGovern’s running mate — and “almost” haunted him.

You have to go back more than 70 years to find a mayor who successfully made the leap. Maurice Tobin was mayor of Boston from 1938 to 1945. He won the governor’s office in 1945, and served only one term. Before that, James Michael Curley served four separate terms as mayor, including part of one served while he was in prison. He also served as governor from 1935 to 1937, a tenure marked by criticism of his spending habits and devotion to patronage.

Which brings us back to reality and Walsh.

The mayor can sell himself as the agent of Boston’s latest rebirth and rebranding. The city’s bond rating is Triple A. He helped lure GE to the Seaport and is making a pitch for Amazon. He’s not afraid to think big. Just look at the buildings going up. He has taken up the progressive flag and is leading the charge against President Trump. A former state lawmaker, he also knows the ins and outs of the State House.

Yet Boston’s success story favors the privileged and elite. The public schools are not yet completely turned around. Crime is a problem in some neighborhoods and affordable housing is a problem everywhere. Walsh has also had some high-profile failures, such as his disastrous effort to bring a Summer Olympics to Boston and to host the Indy Car race. Two Walsh aides face federal extortion and conspiracy charges for allegedly pressuring music festival operators to hire union workers.

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The tale of two Martys runs up against the tale of two cities. For Walsh, there’s the rub.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.