By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The longest-serving mayor in Boston history told voters on Thursday that he would not seek a sixth term in office, setting the stage for the city's most competitive mayoral race in decades.
Mayor Tom Menino, 70, declared his intention not to seek reelection to the office he has held since 1993 at Boston's historic Fanueil Hall.
"I never dreamed I would end up here, mayor of Boston, during its best years," said Menino, who was hospitalized for a month last year after falling ill while on vacation in Italy.
"I'm back to a mayor's schedule, but not a Menino schedule. And I miss it," he said, referring to his historic practice of spending most evenings at events around the city.
"I will leave the job that I love," Menino told a crowd of a couple hundred staff and supporters, including the state's interim U.S. Senator William "Mo" Cowan and Representative Stephen Lynch, one of two Democratic representatives running for a permanent shot at the senate seat.
"It was a surprise and obviously disappointing, but I'm happy for him," said Henry Vitale, acting executive director of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, as he waited for the mayor to speak. David Bowie's "Changes" played over a public address system.
Menino took office at a tough time for Boston and much of urban America - crime was high and neighborhoods were struggling economically. Vitale said an important part of Menino's legacy would be the economic resurgence that Boston has undergone in the past two decades.
"Look at all the development he has done, look at the neighborhoods," Vitale said. "Boston is vibrant."
'THIS IS THE TIME'
Before today, only Democrat John Connolly, 39, had jumped into the race. Connolly, a Boston city councilor, has focused his campaign on improving schools.
Menino said he had "no plans to pick the person to fill this seat".
More local leaders are expected to enter the race now that they know they will not be facing a powerful incumbent.
"Boston mayors are rarely defeated for reelection, so if you are going to make a run for it, this is the time to do it," said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, south of Boston. "The city councilors are going to be jockeying for this position."
Menino had a formidable campaign organization that he has used both for himself and fellow Democrats. His supporters played a key role in Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren's successful 2012 campaign to unseat Republican Scott Brown.
He has declined to endorse Lynch or his Democratic rival Representative Markey.
Voters will go to the polls in that special election on June 25, a little more than four months before November's mayoral race, making for one of Boston's most lively political calendars in recent years.
On the national stage, Menino has stood out as an advocate for gun control and gay rights, often working alongside New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Menino became mayor in July 1993 after predecessor Raymond Flynn resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
His fellow politicians were quick to offer praise.
"It's hard to imagine Boston without Tom Menino as mayor," said Governor Deval Patrick. "No one loves this city and her people more or is more excited about her future."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Kevin Gray)