MAYOR Raymond Flynn's (D) decision to take on the post of United States ambassador to the Vatican has taken Boston by surprise.
Although the former president of the US Conference of Mayors has flirted with the idea of taking a position in the Clinton administration after campaigning for him last fall, Mr. Flynn's announcement Tuesday was not at all expected.
"I always think of him as being a Boston guy," says Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston city councilor who is considering a run for mayor. "This is going to be a radical change for him, a very different kind of life."
Serving in the first year of his third consecutive term, Flynn has built a strong reputation as a national urban leader and advocate for the homeless. But the nine-year mayor says he is ready to take on his new post.
"It's time to move on. It's time to give somebody else a chance," he said outside a Boston South End church after attending a St. Patrick's Day Mass on Wednesday. "I put in my 16, 17 hours in a day and it's time to move on - to close one chapter and open up a new chapter of Boston history."
President Clinton gave the post to Flynn, a Roman Catholic and strong opponent of abortion, for two reasons, according to William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"It is a conciliatory gesture toward the Catholic community, as well as a repayment of a campaign debt," Mr. Schneider says.
But it was obvious that Flynn's decision was an agonizing one. In an emotional speech on the steps of his boyhood church in South Boston Tuesday, Flynn fought back tears when he announced his plans to leave Boston.
Nevertheless, he had been mulling other job opportunities for months. Last fall, he campaigned for Mr. Clinton in more than two dozen states. The Boston mayor helped Clinton gain support from the so-called Reagan Democrats, many of whom are Catholic.
After the election, rumors swirled that Flynn was in the running for the posts of labor secretary and secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, although, ultimately, he was never tapped for either position.
Political observers say Flynn is leaving at an opportune time, as the city faces an increasingly difficult financial situation and troubled school system. Community leaders have criticized his appointed school committee, as well as his tense relationship wth Boston School Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones.
Flynn launched his first campaign in 1983, when economic times were bright during the boom years of the 1980s. But in recent years, the impact of the region's deep recession has hurt Boston.
The city has been forced to make cutbacks in services due to dwindling local-aid money from the state. Last December, two major companies - Digital and Stride Rite corporations - announced shutdowns of their local operations.
"There is a general economic malaise out there that I think Boston has felt," says Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "[Boston] has been through its boom and the mayor profited by it. He had resounding success in his reelection efforts. But now it is the question of whether or not it is fun anymore [to be mayor]."
Boston City Council President Thomas Menino, who will become acting mayor after Flynn leaves, says the mayor has projected a $40 million budget deficit by 1994.
"I think my first thing is to make sure that I keep the city on an even keel and have a transition that goes very smoothly," Mr. Menino says. "My biggest problem is going to be balancing the city budget."
Menino is considering a run for mayor in the fall special election. Other candidates in the running for mayor include former US Rep. Brian Donnelly (D), City Councilor at Large Bruce Bolling, and Suffolk County Sheriff Robert Rufo.
Before deciding to take the ambassador post, Flynn ruminated over the possibility of running for governor of Massachusetts in 1994. But he later abandoned the idea. Mayors of a state's largest city generally have a tough time getting elected to higher office, Schneider notes.
"Mayors don't have a good record of being elected governor in Massachusetts or elsewhere," he says. "[Former New York Mayor] Ed Koch couldn't be governor of New York in 1982. [Former Boston Mayor] Kevin White couldn't do it in 1970."
However, there have been exceptions, including Maryland's Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D), who served as Baltimore mayor from 1971 to 1987.