IN HIS LAW office on the 22nd floor of Two Liberty Place, Michael Meehan radiates a surprising warmth — the Meehans have never liked the press. We make small talk for a few minutes, then Meehan brings up the Loyal Opposition without my even asking. “There’s a group out there, the Loyal Opposition, that thinks we should be calling people to the carpet on things,” he says. Meehan has a vague, tentative way of speaking: “people” (i.e., Democrats); “things” (i.e., corruption). In his opinion, calling Democrats to the carpet is easier said than done; “The natural people to speak up are the elected officials.” But as we’ve seen, Republican elected officials barely exist, and the ones who do exist probably don’t “speak often enough.”
Meehan has narrow eyes and a kind, broad face. He’s a big guy in a paisley tie, his shirt stretched tautly across his stomach. He has age spots on his wrist. He looks utterly harmless. I ask him about Al Schmidt. “The guy is brilliant. Okay? We tried to talk him out of running.” Meehan throws up his hands. “But he, and a group of 10 or 12 people, said he wanted to run, because he wanted to stand up and say that what these people are doing is wrong.”
Isn’t that, ah, a good thing? Why would you try to talk a “brilliant” candidate out of running?
Meehan sticks his tongue out, pulls it back in. “First, I thought it was an uphill battle. Although he’s qualified.” He shakes his head. “But I didn’t want him to get frustrated over the campaign, and become disinterested in being involved. … You’d probably need $5 million to run it, but I don’t think either candidate’s going to raise $600,000, because who is really interested in the City Controller’s position? It’s not like there’s contracts, okay? It’s not like there’s — ”
He stops himself. This is a candid answer. Meehan is saying that because the City Controller doesn’t have very many contracts to hand out to cronies, it’s hard to raise money from contract-seekers to fund a campaign. There’s no pay-to-play, so there’s no pay. Who is really interested in the City Controller’s position? Not businessmen looking for contracts. And Meehan would understand the mentality of people who do business with the city, because he’s related to some; his cousin now owns his father’s old paving company, which has received city contracts, including one to maintain the cooling unit in City Hall and one at the airport. (General Asphalt once hired Milton Street, the ex-mayor’s wacky brother, as a “consultant.”)
Meehan is a pragmatist. He’s saying: You won’t get the money to win this City Controller’s race, so why even try? And that’s a legitimate opinion. But this attitude makes Meehan a poor watchdog at a time when we really need one. As a city, we’re hemorrhaging watchdogs. The two daily newspapers are in bankruptcy, less and less able to perform their oversight role. The current City Controller, the city’s own paid watchdog, is a ward leader. We are depending to a terrifying degree on the ambition and cutthroat instincts of the opposition party leaders — of Michael Meehan himself — to keep us safe and solvent. But Meehan seems to exist out of time, in a private happy place untouched by all the politicking and arguing swirling around him. And he isn’t going anywhere.