BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — When Bill Scanlon announced that he was running for mayor in 1993, former state Rep. Fran Alexander turned to her son and said, “Who is this guy?”
“No one knew him,” said Tom Alexander, recalling the story yesterday. “He probably had a recognition rating of 4 percent when he started out.”
Over the next two decades, Scanlon rose from a relative unknown to become the city’s dominant political force, leading the city with a combination of Harvard/MIT smarts and his native Dorchester toughness.
“He changed the political landscape of Beverly in a number of significant ways,” said Alexander, a longtime Scanlon supporter. “He certainly has cast a big shadow.”
When Scanlon decided to run for mayor, he was a 53-year-old executive at the United Shoe Machinery Corp. who was best-known as the man charged with laying off employees as the company was being phased out. He had been inside Beverly City Hall exactly twice.
But with the city facing an $8 million deficit and political upheaval, voters were drawn to his outsider status, as well as his executive experience and educational background, which includes a master’s degree from Harvard Business School and an engineering degree from MIT.
“The crisis kind of created the opportunity, but Bill had to fulfill the opportunity,” said Bruce Nardella, who was the City Council president for Scanlon’s first two terms. “He had a résumé that fit the bill, so people were willing to take a shot with him.”
Nardella said the City Council spent the first two years saying no to Scanlon’s proposals because the city didn’t have the money. But once the city regained its financial footing, Scanlon’s methodology of paying for projects through “appropriate” commercial and industrial growth began taking hold.
Nardella said Scanlon’s managerial skills first became apparent when the city renovated all of its elementary schools on time and on budget. Meanwhile, Scanlon led the way in negotiating a controversial tax break for Cummings Properties to renovate the closed United Shoe complex on Elliott Street.
A dilapidated property that was generating $160,000 per year in taxes is now a modern, 2.3 million-square-foot office park and the city’s top taxpayer, at $2.3 million per year. Even many of Scanlon’s detractors eventually conceded that the tax break paid off in the long run.
“If it wasn’t for Bill Scanlon, that place wouldn’t look like it looks today,” Nardella said.
The city then began improving parks and playgrounds, undertaking drainage projects to relieve long-standing flooding problems in several neighborhoods, and updating city vehicles and equipment. Three years ago, the city opened a new, $80 million high school that state officials have cited as a model for other communities.
For all of those feats, Scanlon is particularly proud of an accomplishment that received much less notice.
In his early years as mayor, he worked to eliminate inequities in the number of low-income students in each elementary school. In one school, the former Washington-Beadle, 78 percent of the students were eligible for free and reduced lunches, he said.
“The kids and the teachers didn’t have a chance in that environment,” he said yesterday.
Scanlon’s long tenure has run concurrently with that of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who recently announced that he is not running for re-election. But unlike Menino, who served four-year terms, Scanlon had to run for office every two years.
In 2001, fresh off a controversy over his handling of the contract to run the city-owned golf course, Scanlon was shocked in the November election by former City Councilor Tom Crean.
Scanlon spent his two years out of office teaching at Endicott College, then came back in 2003 to defeat Crean easily and regain the third-floor mayor’s office.
Scanlon said yesterday that loss may have helped him in the long run.
“I felt when I came back that I was far more appreciated than when I left,” he said.
Scanlon has been criticized for what some have described as an autocratic style of governing. But Alexander said Scanlon’s ability to work with others is his most overlooked quality.
“All of this stuff that has been accomplished has required the involvement of the City Council,” Alexander said. “He’s worked extremely well over a 20-year period with numerous different individuals and has had pretty close to unanimous support for everything that he’s undertaken.”
Scanlon has two other major projects in the works — a new middle school and the Brimbal Avenue interchange project — which led some people to believe he would run again in order to see them through.
But he has never loved campaigning. He said yesterday that there’s a “plastic” quality to campaigning that does not appeal to him.
“There are some folks who like the challenge of the campaign. I don’t think Bill was one of them,” said Neil Douglas, another longtime supporter. “He much more enjoyed the work that was involved in dealing with the issues he was confronted with.”
Nardella said it’s difficult to imagine a political horizon in Beverly without Bill Scanlon.
“But it’s as important to know when to get out of politics as it is when to get in,” Nardella said. “Bill has served the city incredibly well, and his legacy will live on for a long time.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.