Of course, some find the notion of Menino retiring laughable. “People said the same thing about Charlotte [Golar Richie] — that he was grooming her,” says a former City Hall staffer. That was back in 1999, when Golar Richie left her House seat to work for Menino — and was replaced by St. Fleur.

But there does seem to be a newfound willingness to stand up to Menino, spurred at least in part by a belief that he is in his final years of power.

Most notably, a majority of the city’s state legislators are defying Menino on his plans to close four library branches. They have pushed through a budget amendment to withhold funding if he follows through with the plan.

“To have state reps standing up like that,” says Tobin, “it’s really unprecedented.”

Still others have become more outspoken with their criticism, as well — like frustrated developer Don Chiofaro (International Place), who is publicly grumbling about pushback for his proposed Greenway tower. Even the usually quiescent City Council seems willing to oppose Menino — a tension that councilors and staff say could lead to fireworks at hearings over the firefighters’ new union contract.

Blessing or curse
If Menino is thinking of making this his last term, he may not be able to dictate his choice of successor any more than Kevin White or Raymond Flynn did before him. In fact, any favoritism he shows St. Fleur could bring out the long knives of rival mayoral contenders. One City Hall insider warns that, “if [Menino] gives her a platform to raise her profile for a 2013 run, he gives all the others a reason to target her.”

Menino has, in fact, hurt St. Fleur before by trying to help her. He was instrumental in Tom Reilly’s ultimately disastrous attempt to select her as his gubernatorial running mate in 2006, according to several people close to the process. That plan collapsed when St. Fleur admitted having delinquent tax debts and student loans.

Those well-publicized failings figure to make another run at high office difficult — but a few years of executive experience in City Hall could help erase that memory, says Sheila Capone-Wulsin, former executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus. “It will enhance her already fantastic reputation from the legislature.”

More important, St. Fleur will be able to use the job to “plug into a pretty powerful network” of city employees and those who depend upon City Hall, says one local officeholder. “The appointment will certainly give her the option were [Menino] to leave, and makes her an instant top-tier contender.”

If St. Fleur is indeed thinking of running for mayor, getting that top-tier image early could help her chances, by dissuading others from running. Says one veteran political observer: “In the next mayoral election, it comes down to who is competing with whom for votes.”

That means St. Fleur has a better chance if there are no other women running, or no other minority candidates. And those potential rivals might stay on the sidelines if they believe St. Fleur has Menino’s machine behind her. Or, just as important, if campaign contributors believe she does.

Other way around
It’s possible that all this speculation has it backward. St. Fleur may be intended to help Menino win in 2013, rather than the other way around, by protecting his popularity with black and Hispanic voters.

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