Twenty Years After: The 1993 Boston Mayoral Ads

Several weeks ago the hardtalking staff did a segment on WBUR’s Radio Boston about the TV spots in the 1993 Boston mayoral race.

That segment came about because we’ve still got a dozen VHS tapes of the ’93 ads, having forgotten to throw them out for the past 20 years. (The hardsaving staff is working on digitizing them and will keep you posted.)

But there was a bunch of stuff we never got around to talking about on Radio Boston, so consider this an addendum.

First, to review:

In the spring of 1993, Pres. Bill Clinton nominated Boston mayor Ray Flynn to be Ambassador to the Vatican, which Flynn subsequently became. That made Boston City Council president Tom Menino acting mayor (or “action mayor,” as he styled himself) and triggered a Boston mayoral election.

The candidates: Menino, of course; Suffolk County Sheriff Bob Rufo; Dorchester State Rep. Jim Brett; City Councilor Rosaria Salerno; media gadfly Chris Lydon; City Councilor Bruce Bolling; Boston Police Commissioner and Flynn’s Sancho Panza, Francis “Mickey” Roache; and lone Republican Diane Moriarty, a Boston lawyer. Most people saw the preliminary as a bakeoff for second place involving Rufo, Brett, and Salerno.

The Boston of 1993 was very different from Boston today, as these Boston Redevelopment Authority charts reveal.

Population change:

Picture 2

Ethnicity change:

Picture 4


It was the Olde Boston that hosted the 1993 race – less populated, less educated, less diverse. That was very much reflected in the TV spots the mayoral candidates ran that year, which were largely the standard big-city boilerplate (crime, schools, yack yack yack), except for Lydon’s ads, which were both eccentric and entertaining, albeit largely ineffective.

Start with the TV commercials for Bob Rufo, mocked as “Blue Light Bobby Rufo” throughout the campaign by Lydon. A spot called “Track Down” began with what looked like security-camera footage of a woman walking into a convenience store at night while an announcer said “in a situation like this you could get carried out [because] the city does a bad job of tracking down fugitives from warrants, so they’re free to rob and rape again and again.”

Then Rufo came on camera: “Violate a person and you can go free – but violate [a parking meter] and the city tracks you down to the ends of the earth. That’s crazy. When I’m mayor, we’re gonna go after the real criminals.”

Dan Payne, who created the Rufo ads (slogan: “Safety First”), told the hardquizzing staff that the ’93 campaign came down to “ads, press, and base turnout.” And even though Rufo by far spent the most on TV spots in the preliminary and was endorsed by the Boston Herald and co-endorsed (with Menino) by the Boston Globe, he got out-organized by Brett, who finished second, seemingly with a boost from former mayor Kevin White, in Payne’s telling.

Mike Shea did the ads for Brett, “a white guy from Dorchester – the question was, could he represent the whole city?” Shea set out to dispel those concerns with a testimonial ad featuring Pat Copney, whose son Charles was killed in a drive-by shooting by a 15-year-old who got five years in jail. But “Jim Brett changed the law,” Ms. Copney said in the spot, so that others wouldn’t get off so easy.

Other notable ads came from the Salerno and Lydon camps. Salerno’s ads showed her pressing the flesh all through the North End like it was the Feast of St. Rosaria. (One Boston voter told the Globe the ad looked like she was opening a new restaurant there.)

The voiceover called her by just her first name – like Cher – warning that “when it comes to fighting crime in Boston – roses have thorns” and telling voters they can “trust Rosaria to do what’s right.”

Ken Swope was Salerno’s admaker. He said the Salerno camp thought her major opponent would be Rufo and that “Menino wouldn’t be strong outside his own district.” (Around this time in our conversation the hardworking staff distinctly heard the term “dim bulb.”)

Swope said “Salerno being female was a double-edged sword.” She stood out in the field, but Swope thought it was a  mistake for her to keep saying “I’m not just one of the boys.”  That was obvious. The bigger problem was that “women were making gains in legislatures, but not in corner offices.” (That Salerno was a former nun also proved to be a two-edged sword, for reasons you no doubt can imagine.)

Overall, Swope said, “ads were not a major factor – Menino had the bully pulpit and Hyde Park.” Plus, he said, Menino was seen as a continuation of the Flynn administration, which was highly regarded for putting the neighborhoods first, as opposed to Kevin White’s downtown focus.

Finally in the preliminary ad-o-rama, there were the Lydon commercials, which were a total hoot.  The spots didn’t run very often (if at all), but they were cherce. Each ad had Lydon standing outside a different area of Boston and addressing the camera directly.

One spot showed him in front of an ambulance talking about “another sickening story of an innocent victim, often a child, shot to death in the streets. In an emergency,” Lydon said,  “you stop the bleeding first.”

He then proceeded to make this ear-popping pronouncement:

We felt good about breaking gang rule in Somalia, and we can use the same humane, tough-minded skills, the same technology to take guns out of the hands of our children.

Gang rule in Somalia? In a Boston mayoral race?


As ineffective as Lydon’s ad might have been, the other candidates didn’t do much better.

In the run-up to the prelim, Jordana Hart wrote this in the Globe:

Few city voters find TV ads memorable

Despite nearly $1 million in televised campaign advertising, the Boston mayor’s race has contained few memorable moments in the war of the airwaves, according to a group of still-undecided voters gathered by the Globe to assess the campaign. Most said they could recall only two out of the dozen ads that have aired since early August.

Overall, the voters said they felt many of the ads brought them closer to the candidates as flesh-and-blood individuals. But they lamented not learning more about each candidate in the 30-second spots, particularly substantive details about their important issues and past successes — in effect, information that might have set one apart from the other.

Others said they were reluctant to admit television ads could affect such an important decision.

Right. And they all watch a lot of PBS too.

In the general election, Brett ran up against the same wall Menino’s opponents would for the next 20 years: He couldn’t raise enough money to be competitive.

Meanwhile, Menino ran ads that had him saying, according to Shea’s recollection, “I’m not a fancy talker but when I speak, I speak for the people of Boston.”

(The hardsaving staff doesn’t have any Menino ads because, as best we can recall, his campaign wouldn’t give them to us. Our relations with Mistah Mayah went steadily downhill from there over the next two decades.)

Fun fact to know and tell: Rufo, Brett, and Salerno used Boston’s Big Three of political admakers – Payne, Shea, and Swope – to produce their spots. Menino hired a Hollywood guy – Bill Carrick – to produce his.

Menino also had a secret weapon: phone banks.

“Menino used phone banks early,” Shea said, “and he depicted Brett as Catholic, as anti-choice, and as someone who would stop abortions at city hospitals.”

Menino also tied Brett to toxic Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger.

“Brett’s wife worked for Bulger,” Shea recalled. “That hurt.”

In the end, Menino put the Big Hurt on Brett two-to-one (just like every other Boston mayoral election for the next 20 years).

“Menino was a known commodity,” Shea said.

Payne said much the same thing: “Boston wants an experienced hand versus fresh ideas.”

The final results (via, God forgive us, Wikipedia):

Picture 3

Twenty years after, we finally have another scrum for mayor. And Boston is no longer Mayberry, USA.

Praise the Lord and pass the ballots.


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8 Responses to Twenty Years After: The 1993 Boston Mayoral Ads

  1. Huzzah for cherce media gadflys, I say.

    I do remember “I’m not a fancy talker.”

  2. Bob Gardner says:

    Do you have any tape of the ads run for the Proposition 9 referendum? Prop 9 outlawed rent control and I think it was about that time. In particular there was an ad about a landlord who had died, purportedly because of rent control. I’m pretty sure you reported on that ad.
    Material from that ad turned up shortly after in a couple of Jeff Jacoby columns in an interesting way.

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