Efforts by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to broker a deal between organizers of the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade and gay-rights activists have led to weeks of incremental progress, media-conducted back-and-forths, and, as of now, loggerheads.
The South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, which sponsors the parade, and MassEquality, the prominent gay-rights group, have been at odds over whether activists could march openly, a battle the veterans group has been fighting with various gay-rights activists for two decades.
The case went to the Supreme Court, where organizers won. Over the past month, they approached and then backed away from what would be a historic accord.
Whether Walsh succeeds in persuading the two sides to reach a compromise, a prospect he called “very close” on Thursday, his approach to the long-running controversy has offered an early glimpse into the new mayor’s governing style.
In seeking middle ground — including a since-abandoned plan to allow members of a gay-rights group to march as long as they did not wear T-shirts or wave signs proclaiming their viewpoint — Walsh has operated more in a legislative style than an executive one. Instead of pursuing wholesale change and offering gay-rights groups an unalloyed victory, Walsh, who spent 16 years as a state representative, has instead angled for limited measures.
On Beacon Hill, such concessions are commonplace; cobbling together legislation often involves weighing dozens of interest groups’ concerns, which means it’s impractical if not impossible to stake out an unyielding stand on an issue. Indeed, Walsh cultivated a reputation in the House as something of a coalition-builder, frequently offering to negotiate between labor unions and reform-seeking legislative leaders (even if other lawmakers sometimes suspected Walsh of setting fires with unions in order to claim credit for extinguishing them).
Melrose’s mayor, Robert J. Dolan, said Walsh probably drew from his background as a union leader, a role in which collective bargaining emphasizes “keeping people in a room talking.”
But City Hall is used to a firmer, not finer, hand.
The Dorchester Democrat’s tactics in the parade controversy present a stark contrast to his predecessor’s. Former mayor Thomas M. Menino long ago forsook the parade or any serious effort to resolve the impasse, simply shrugging and refusing to march. It was classic Menino, a CEO-style, my-way-or-Broadway stance that won him favor with the city’s liberal core and drew even more deeply the line between him and the largely Irish, more conservative enclaves of South Boston.
For Walsh, the political peril posed by the negotiations was heightened by both camps’ footholds in the coalition that elected him last November. His electoral power base resides in the largely white, working-class wards of South Boston and Dorchester, but liberals and voters of color pushed him over the top in November.
To deeply offend either would bring Walsh political headaches at the outset of his mayoralty. If South Boston is changing — Walsh last week suggested nine of the neighborhood’s residents would vote in favor of gay-activist marchers for every one who would vote against — much of its political identity remains rooted in its socially conservative tendencies. At the same time, Walsh has long been a supporter of gay rights, and any erosion of that image could prove troublesome.
Already, Walsh’s actions have contributed to a partial cleavage among gay-rights activists, by holding out the sign- and T-shirt bargain as a potential solution. That did not sit well with some activists, who called it equivalent to suppressing their freedom of expression.
“It’s hard to make everybody happy,” said state Representative Frank I. Smizik, a Brookline Democrat who has served in town government. “That’s one of the challenges of working together, when you don’t get the full solution, and sometimes we have to take the middle way to eventually get to the full solution. It’s hard.”
How Walsh emerges from the parade controversy remains uncertain. But his approach to finding a third way in South Boston could augur how he intends to handle other deliberations — say, the upcoming Boston firefighters’ contract talks.
“If you have a neighborhood fight, if you work as an intermediary and bring people face to face in a neutral setting, which is the greatest home-field advantage in the world, things tend to work out OK,” Dolan said. “If not this year, next year.”