You don't get to be mayor of a major city for a zillion years without some political skill, and Tom Menino showed us some of what he's got tonight in his State of the City address.
The headline of the speech was Menino's call for a wage freeze for all city employees. That has to be the headline, not just because it's big news but also because Menino made sure not to include anything else remotely resembling news in the speech.
But let's backtrack a moment. Think back a few weeks, when Menino's people put out through the Globe that the police department was contemplating a 'worst-case' budget scenario of laying off 200 cops. Panic!
Then roughly three weeks ago, as I understand it, school principals were all sent 'worst-case' budget scenarios and told to plan for it. Those plans naturally include layoffs and elimination of programs, which sent a panic through teachers and parents across the city. (And, somewhat suspiciously, through roughly 50 students who picketed the mayor's speech tonight by chanting "help the mayor support our schools.")
Then finally, he revealed that the budget gap was looking like $140 million, much higher than previously estimated publicly.
All this set the stage for Menino to swoop in and save the day, declaring that you can either have all these horrific layoffs you've been hearing about, or you can follow my salary-freeze plan to safety. (According to a fact sheet given to the press, the savings could be around $55 million, which still leaves a big hole but certainly would go a long way.)
And, by keeping this plan firmly hidden from sight until speech time, it left potential mayoral opponents unprepared to respond -- and I should know, because I was in Flaherty's and Yoon's grilles moments after the applause died down. Neither one wanted to approve of the idea, but neither was willing to really oppose it either. (Flaherty came closer.)
If Menino gets the unions to agree to the freeze, it's hard to see how Flaherty and Yoon could stand against it. And that puts them right behind the eight ball, conceding Menino's leadership on the biggest issue of the year.
As for the rest of the speech: Menino wants to scare the city about the possible future problems the city would face without his bold leadership, but he certainly doesn't want to acknowledge any existing problems. I won't go through my whole litany of unmentioned or glossed-over issues here -- I'll leave that job for those mayoral challengers, if they would ever get in the game. I will say that it was noticeable that a number of cost-saving or revenue-generating proposals he has vowed to fight for in the past -- neighborhood schools, increased PILOT payments, etc. -- were glaringly absent from a speech ostensibly focussed on solving a budget gap.