This week, as Tom Menino gave his State of the City address, Boston politicos scrutinized him carefully for signs that might foretell an end to his 20-year reign. Clues were presumed to lie somewhere in the mayor's rehabilitated legs, infected respiratory system, still-healing back, diabetic blood, Crohn's-diseased intestines, or recently clotted lungs.
But the body parts holding the answer to this year's mayoral election might be John Connolly's balls.
Connolly, the increasingly outspoken third-term city councilor from West Roxbury, is on a vanishingly short list of Bostonians who are both capable of mounting a serious campaign against Menino, and potentially willing to take him on.
If Connolly doesn't have the cajones to do it, then Menino will likely face only token opposition. He can then stand for re-election without the strain of campaigning while recuperating.
Unsurprisingly, then, some Menino detractors fervently hope Connolly runs, at least to force the mayor to consider his physical ability to campaign this year.
Plus, many political sharpies believe that this is the one best chance for 39-year-old Connolly to grab the brass ring he's none-too-secretly coveted; better, they say, than waiting four years (or more) for the very slim chance of defeating a large post-Menino field of candidates.
Would Connolly really embark on a quixotic tilt at Menino this year? Some of his supporters are convinced that he's seriously considering it. He has noticeably slimmed down, from a pudgy 235 pounds to 215, toward a campaign-trim goal of 200.
He has stepped up both his fundraising and his criticism of the incumbent, particularly on his pet issue — and, some say, Menino's Achilles heel — Boston's public schools.
And he has improved as a speaker, bordering on inspirational at a recent South End fundraiser as he outlined his hope to make Boston's school department a national leader, pulling the middle class back into the system, and replacing a "culture of cynicism" with a "culture of opportunity."
Asked about the possibility of challenging Menino, Connolly says only that he is "very discouraged by the status quo in Boston, especially when it comes to our schools," and that "I think a lot about what I can do to change that."
Whether or not he runs, Connolly is — at least for the moment — the face of political opposition in Boston. Which is itself a bit surprising, for a pol even one of his admirers concedes is, ultimately, "still a white, well-connected, Irish son of a politician."
Which also happens to describe Michael Flaherty and (gender aside) Maura Hennigan, the last two people to take on Menino one-on-one. They both got their clocks cleaned.
CHANGE OF ATTITUDE
Connolly, at least on paper, seems a more likely bridge than Flaherty from the traditional electoral power base of white, older, lifelong residents steeped in machine politics, to the so-called "New Bostonians" — racial minorities, immigrants, and younger, progressive transplants to the city.
True, his father Michael Connolly rose as high as secretary of the Commonwealth, and until 2011 was on the Boston Licensing Board. "Part of me is the kid who grew up in Roslindale playing ball and walking to Catholic School," Connolly says.
Connolly's connections from attending Harvard University and Boston College Law School have helped fund his political career. He can be as calculating as any old-time city pol. And he is known to have a temper that occasionally erupts in loud tongue-lashings.