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Lawrence Harmon

Business leaders not bullish on mayoral race

ISTOCKPHOTO/GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION

The slew of Boston city councilors and state legislators who are positioning themselves for a possible mayoral race next year know each other’s every move. What they don’t know — and what they openly fear — is the emergence of what some are calling a “Bloomberg candidate.’’

The reference is to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg whose combination of fiscal conservatism and urban liberalism — along with $74 million in campaign funds from his own deep pockets — launched him into City Hall in 2001.

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How likely is it that a business leader with deep pockets and no prior experience in elective office will emerge in Boston? And who are the credible contenders?

So far, there are no obvious signs that the city’s business community is cultivating a candidate. For all the talk about the guile and guts it takes to make it to the top, business leaders here are afraid of ending up on the wrong side of Mayor Menino, who is being cagey about whether he will seek a sixth term next year.

Menino’s political operatives are known to scour the campaign contribution lists of potential rivals with payback in mind. That explains why mayoral hopefuls from lower elected offices struggle to raise money. The advantage of being a business-backed candidate is the ability to ignore such tactics by falling back on personal fortunes and rich friends. Right now, Boston’s business community is squandering that competitive advantage.

The Menino era is coming to a close. Even before his recent hospitalization, the 69-year-old mayor was dragging and leaning heavily on his cabinet. We’ve all heard hundreds of times about the danger of underestimating Menino. But that’s not the point anymore. The people who actually care about Menino — and don’t just depend on him for a job and access to power— will likely convince him to walk away while he still can.

For inspiration, Boston’s business leaders should look to Louisville, Ky., where “mayor-for-life’’ Jerry Abramson figured five terms was enough. That departure set off a robust race in 2010.

Current Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, founder of an ice dispenser company and an investment firm, won a narrow victory over a district councilor. Fischer said his campaign forged its own base that included downtown business support and strong backing from the city’s minority voters. Despite never having held elected office, Fischer raised more than $2 million, sweetened by $300,000 of his own money.

“It’s more important to have chief executive experience than an elected background,’’ said Fischer. The 54-year-old mayor added that the intimacy of the mayor’s job really requires a candidate with “the head of a chief executive and the heart of a social worker.’’

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, another former CEO, won the seat in Kentucky’s second largest city. Gray and Fischer wasted little time before announcing a partnership to create a manufacturing and technology “super-region.’’ Mayors with intensive business backgrounds are also emerging in Tucson, Indianapolis, and other cities where voters appreciate a business-like approach even when they know full well that cities are too unpredictable to be run like businesses.

A few names from Boston’s business community — mostly with ties to Menino — are being bandied about town as potential candidates. They include Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish and David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services. Some quasi-business types, including Convention Center Authority head James Rooney, are also mentioned casually. And Greg Selkoe, the CEO of web retailer Karmaloop, has made some interesting noise about a challenger arising with support from the city’s hipster business sector.

There are plenty of obstacles. Political scientists note that mayors with business backgrounds are rare in cities with significant black populations, large numbers of college graduates, and a history of machine politics. Some potential candidates can’t face the inevitable calls by the press to release their tax returns. And Boston poses a challenge all its own: Even hard-driving business executives don’t relish the thought of trying to maintain a Menino-like schedule. Imagine trying to recondition Bostonians who are accustomed to seeing their mayor show up at every ribbon-cutting and neighborhood gala, not to mention funerals.

Business people talk persuasively of innovation, leadership, streamlining, partnerships, and the importance of attracting talent — all things that Boston needs. But so far, nobody in that circle looks eager to get down to the business of running Boston.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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