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The Boston Globe

Opinion

lawrence harmon

Business needs to join mayoral race

More than half of the 12 candidates running for mayor of Boston could ascend to the office with the blessings of the city’s business community. That’s a good indication of the political maturity of the field. No sensible candidate, after all, is going to poke commercial property owners in the eye — especially when businesses pay 61 percent of the city’s tax burden on properties that comprise just 35 percent of the city’s taxable property value. For decades, that has been the proven formula for keeping residential taxes low in Boston and voters happy.

Business leaders should like what they see. Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley is a law-and-order guy with progressive ideas about improving the city’s schools. He embodies stability. Candidate Charlotte Golar Richie crossed paths — amicably— with many of the city’s business leaders when she served as the head of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development. City Councilor John Connolly couldn’t be more serious about whipping the city’s schools into shape so that graduates come out ready for careers or college. And City Councilor Rob Consalvo’s methodical approach to government is a good match for business leaders who crave predictability.

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It would be a shame if the city’s mainstream business leaders decide to stick to the sidelines through the September preliminary election when the field whittles down to the top two vote-getters. Mayor Menino’s pending departure after a 20-year stranglehold on the office has invigorated political debate in Boston. Hundreds of people attended the last two candidate forums on education. It’s time for more business leaders to get their heads in the game, especially if they expect a high-level debate on issues of development, zoning, and regulation.

Several candidates decry the city’s convoluted permitting process for large and small developments. So far, City Councilor Michael Ross has used the theme most effectively to draw donations from real estate developers, brokers, and general contractors. Ross, who practices real-estate law, also benefits from the exclusive backing of Robert Beal, a top developer who isn’t afraid to make his allegiance known.

John Barros, a former member of the city’s mayorally appointed school board, could turn out to be the business community’s sleeper candidate. Former Bank of America Chairman Chad Gifford and former Abt Associates President Wendell Knox are actively supporting Barros, a Roxbury native who speaks the languages of the neighborhoods and the downtown business world. Barros has served as head of the nonprofit Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and as a data analyst for Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.

Gifford believes that Barros will have “the guts to say we can’t afford this’’ if confronted with pressure from municipal unions seeking to plump up the city’s payroll. Some voters, however, may wonder if a tax arrearage on Barros’s family-owned restaurant in Dorchester is a fiscal warning sign.

Candidate Bill Walczak counters with a big-name banker — albeit another emeritus — of his own. Former Citizens Bank CEO Lawrence Fish describes Walczak as “exactly what we need as our next mayor.’’ Walczak emphasizes his own CEO experience at both the Codman Square Health Center and Carney Hospital. Though his tenure at Carney was short-lived, voters aren’t likely to punish him for bumping heads with the hospital’s for-profit parent company. Walczak was passionate about creating an obstetrics unit at the hospital. Steward Health Care wasn’t. Walczak left with his principles intact and a hefty severance package.

Business leaders who look at City Councilor Felix Arroyo and state Representative Martin Walsh should also see huge potential for growth — growth, that is, in the size of the city’s workforce, personnel budget, municipal health care costs, and pension liability.

Arroyo, who served as political director of SEIU Local 615, and Walsh, who headed an umbrella group of unions in the building trades, have a long way to go to prove that they are capable of managing Boston’s $2.5 billion operating budget and standing up to excessive demands by municipal labor unions. Walsh, at least, is making the effort. He made a recent courtesy call at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, where he emphasized his ability to serve as a bridge between business and labor. Alex Bok, the former general counsel at the electronics firm Boston-Power, sees Walsh as the “Nixon goes to China’’ candidate who could use his clout and credibility with labor unions to ensure that future municipal contracts serve the long-term economic goals of the city.

Maybe. But Arroyo and Walsh are still the only two viable candidates in this race whose campaigns should give indigestion to the business lunch crowd in downtown eateries.

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

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