In the early 1990’s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, there was a shortage of courage among many political leaders. That was why I was surprised when I heard that a little-known city councilor from Hyde Park was taking a public stance that needle exchange should be considered as a way to slow the spread of HIV. Needle exchange was (and still is in many circles) too controversial for most elected officials to support, in spite of the substantial body of evidence that it was effective. When I heard he was from Hyde Park, not a neighborhood that had felt the full impact of the epidemic, I wondered, “Who is this guy?”
That guy, it turned out, was Tom Menino. And in classic Menino style, he wasn’t taking the position he took because it was politically popular to do so. It wasn’t. He was taking the position because he thought it was the right thing to do.
It was several more years before I actually met him. I heard he was looking for someone to head up the newly created Boston Public Health Commission. I wasn’t interested in the job. I thought that the task was too overwhelming – pulling together 50 or more relatively small programs into a single department at a time when resources were limited and most of the attention was focused on supporting the success of the nascent Boston Medical Center. But I remembered the story of his courage in the AIDS epidemic, and I wanted to thank him.