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Political intelligence

Late-night license debate a test for Walsh

Daniel Koh, chief of staff to Mayor Marty Walsh, met with the city’s House of Representatives delegation recently in the House Members Lounge, a room whose general odor puts the lie to its grandiose title.

Koh’s mission was to persuade lawmakers to climb aboard Walsh’s policy agenda, most of which proved uncontentious. Walsh wants the Legislature to lift restrictions on the number of liquor licenses that can be awarded across the city, and he wants control of the Boston Licensing Board taken away from Beacon Hill and given to city officials.

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Within a few days, Representative Nick Collins of South Boston, the delegation head whose relations with Walsh have not been always warm, had drafted a letter to the House-Senate conference committee hashing out the state budget.

But dissension emerged when Collins circulated the letter to his fellow members. The sticking point was Walsh’s push to extend closing times at bars and restaurants from 2 to 4 a.m. The Senate in its budget allowed some cities to extend those hours on their own; the House did not.

Walsh is perhaps more closely affiliated with substance-abuse prevention than any other high-ranking politician in the country, so at first blush it’s odd he’d be backing expanded drinking hours.

But City Hall’s view is that it’s an economic development matter, part of the effort to position — validate? — Boston as a world-class city (as if the view of City Hall itself didn’t accomplish that all on its own) by appealing to foreign tourists accustomed to different hours. Koh had told the members gathered in the lounge that the city was considering pilot programs in the Seaport, Leather District, Boylston area, and downtown.

Several lawmakers bucked, some insisting their names be taken off the letter unless the 4 a.m. provision were removed — which it ultimately was. Such a splintering of the delegation would have proved embarrassing for the mayor, at about the same time he was backing off his proposal to loosen residency restrictions for high-ranking municipal officials.

As it is, Walsh has his first Hill-vs.-Hall spat on his hands. A few years ago, former mayor Tom Menino went to war with his delegation — many of whom had previously worked under him — over the closure of neighborhood libraries.

This, for the time being, is a less emotional issue. Most residents are asleep between 2 and 4 a.m., or watching the Sox drop another one in extra innings, and would be largely unaffected. But quality-of-life concerns — drunken driving, early morning detritus in the neighborhoods — are driving the opposition.

“I don’t believe it makes us a world-class city, and I certainly don’t believe it adds to the quality of life in my district or for the city of Boston,” said Representative Michael Moran of Brighton.

Walsh has a choice. Already he has enlisted the aid of mayors in neighboring cities, which could also have the 4 a.m. option. Now, he can make a hard appeal to Speaker Robert DeLeo to fight for the extension in conference and feud with his delegation the way Menino did with his over the libraries.

Or Walsh can back off, the way he did over the residency policy, and the way he offered only the gentlest of mayoral interjection into last week’s state Democratic convention, where he freed his delegates to do what they wanted but encouraged them to back attorney general candidate Warren Tolman.

Despite having worked in the House for years with many of these folks, Walsh lacks the relationships Menino had. Collins, Moran, Carlo Basile of East Boston, Aaron Michlewitz of the North End, Jay Livingstone of Beacon Hill, and Ed Coppinger of West Roxbury all backed Walsh rivals in last year’s mayoral race — and that’s just House members.

The mayor said none of his former colleagues has mentioned their concerns to him, saying he would welcome such conversations.

But, he also hinted he might be willing to circumvent his former colleagues and go directly to DeLeo.

“This isn’t just the Boston delegation, it’s the whole House of Representatives I would have to talk to,” he said Wednesday.

Walsh will probably get the number of licenses uncapped, a shift that advocates depict as a matter of neighborhood equity. And he may even get increased authority over the Boston Licensing Board transferred from Beacon Hill to City Hall, a hoary turf war holdover from when local politics was a pitched battle between the Irish and the Brahmins.

But the 4 a.m. licenses remain in doubt, a test of the mayor’s skill at bridging his old world with his new.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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