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Shirley Leung

Businesses watching mayoral race from sidelines

If you are a serious candidate for mayor, you have driven past the scrubby warehouses of Newmarket Square, to the headquarters of Suffolk Construction, for an audience with CEO John Fish.

And when you arrive, expect a surprise. Fish, an unofficial kingmaker in Boston, told me he’s in no rush to support anyone — not with his time, not with his money. Will he ever? “Time will tell,” Fish explained.

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He’s not the only one disappointing candidates this season.

Many of Boston’s business elites are sitting on the sidelines in the first truly open mayoral election in 30 years. It would be unfair to call them apathetic. Their doors are open to candidates and they’re following the issues, but their wallets are closed and their BMWs are free of bumper stickers.

Even in a field of a dozen candidates, few boldface members of the business community have found anyone to enthusiastically support, this after failing to put up one of their own. Some may wait until front-runners emerge, perhaps after Labor Day, to pull out their checkbooks, but many prominent executives will hold off until after the Sept. 24 preliminary when the race will be down to two.

It’s amazing the names you won’t find on candidates’ contribution lists. Think of the guests at a BC Chief Executives’ Club luncheon: Gary Gottlieb, CEO of Partners HealthCare; Jack Connors, cofounder of Hill Holliday; Robert Reynolds, CEO of Putnam Investments; Ralph de la Torre, CEO of Steward Health Care System; Andrew Dreyfus, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts; Abigail Johnson, president of Fidelity Investments; Bill Bacic, New England managing partner of Deloitte; Liberty Mutual chairman and CEO David Long and his predecessor Ted Kelly; and developer Donald Chiofaro.

Their reasons for a wait-and-see strategy vary. Many don’t want to back a losing candidate and find themselves on the wrong side of a new mayor. Tom Menino trained them well. Some know so many candidates they don’t want to pick sides.

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And then there are folks like Joe O’Donnell with projects so controversial he is intentionally staying neutral.

“I have suspended all political giving because I am involved in a casino,” said O’Donnell, who made his money in the food service business and is now trying to lure a casino to Suffolk Downs. “I don’t want to be a in position like I’m looking for a favor.”

Not everyone is abstaining, even if they are not exactly revealing their support. Boston developer Ronald Druker is doing his best impression of a high roller at a Vegas roulette table, betting the maximum $500 each on Felix Arroyo, Dan Conley, John Connolly, Rob Consalvo, and Mike Ross, according to state campaign filings.

“I may ultimately give to some more,” said Druker.

Developer Joseph Fallon, who is building out the Fan Pier office and condo complex in the Seaport District, gave $500 in May to Conley, the Suffolk district attorney, and raised another $30,000 for him. Fallon also contributed $500 to Consalvo’s campaign this month and has given to Marty Walsh’s run.

Developer Robert Beal — always nattily dressed down to his Gucci loafers — declared that Ross, his city councilman, is his candidate. He urges his fellow business leaders to jump into the race. “If they can participate and they are willing, it would be wonderful,” said Beal, president of Related Beal. “It helps bring issues and ideas of how we continue to make Boston a better city.”

The business community used to play an influential role in mayoral races. In 1959, a cabal of executives known as the Vault campaigned to propel John Collins into office. Similarly, members backed Kevin White to help defeat Louise Day Hicks in 1967.

No one wants a return to the days of the Vault, when backroom politics ruled the day. But the city’s business titans are big for a reason: They’re smart, they take risks, and they’ve bet on our city many times with good results. Now is a bad time for them to disappear.

If business leaders want to sit back and wait, they do so at their own risk — and at the risk of the city they’ve helped build.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeBizEditor.

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