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Developers are hedging their bets in a six-way mayoral race

Construction projects around the city have geared up since the loosening of pandemic restrictions.
Construction projects around the city have geared up since the loosening of pandemic restrictions.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The top executives at National Development have been writing a lot of checks lately.

In late February, five partners at the Newton company each donated $250 or $500 to City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who had recently launched a run for mayor of Boston. A few weeks later, the same executives each wrote checks to John Barros, the city’s economic development chief, now also a mayoral candidate.

The next day, City Councilor Michelle Wu, who also is vying for mayor, benefitted from a similar round of National Development’s largesse.

Over a month, the executives gave $6,000 to four of the six major candidates, according to campaign finance reports filed last week. Everyone who asked for a donation received one, said National Development managing partner Ted Tye.

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“There is an unprecedented field of talented candidates running for mayor,” said Tye, who also donated $1,000 to state Representative Jon Santiago’s mayoral campaign. “We have worked with many of the candidates, and we’d like to see everyone have a chance to get their message out to voters in a primary.”

It’s a tack being taken by many of Boston’s biggest developers in the early days of the race.

Campaign finance reports filed over the last week show a number of prominent Boston builders donating to four, five, and ― in one case ― all six of the major candidates. While some are keeping their wallets shut for now — and a few have clearly chosen a horse ― major builders ranging from Suffolk Downs developer Tom O’Brien to Kirk Sykes, who’s helming the massive Dorchester Bay City project, have given widely as the field takes shape.

This sprinkling of donations across the field is good for business.

In a city where the mayor and the Boston Planning & Development Agency have near-total power over building projects, it’s in the developers’ interest to cultivate good relations with the mayor — whoever it might be. The real estate industry has long been a major source of cash for city elections. And an annual $1,000 check to help replenish the sitting mayor’s war chest — the maximum individual donation allowed under state law — is de rigueur among the upper ranks of Boston’s development industry.

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The broad range of giving this year reflects the wide-open nature of the race to replace Martin J. Walsh, as well as the experience of the field. All six major declared candidates are veterans of Boston politics with deep ties in civic and business circles. Developers know them all well.

“When they call and ask, you want to be helpful,” said one developer, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating candidates he hasn’t yet given money to.

Few would discuss their donations, at least publicly. But private conversations with several prominent builders, and the consultants who help them navigate City Hall, point to a variety of factors for the widespread generosity. They include an impulse to hedge their bets early in the race, and longtime relationships with several candidates. For some, there’s also an awareness that an industry dominated by wealthy white men could be seen as heavy-handed at a time when many Bostonians hope to elect a nonwhite mayor for the first time.

“Some people are saying, ‘This is not our time to put a thumb on the scale,’ ” said Diana Pisciotta, who consults with many prominent developers on community relations. “There are so many other issues that the development community understands are important to the city right now.”

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Still, development money keeps flowing to politicians seeking the city’s top job.

In the first three months of the year, executives at 50 major development, construction, and architecture companies gave a combined $74,375 to six candidates, according to campaign finance reports. At 17 of those firms, executives gave to multiple candidates, while 13 major players — including heavyweight builders Boston Properties and Related Beal and architecture firm Elkus Manfredi — didn’t donate anything.

Several prominent real estate figures made $1,000 contributions only to Kim Janey, as it became clear she would become acting mayor, filling out the rest of Walsh’s term. A few bundled individual donations for a single candidate, such as office landlord Oxford Properties, where five people gave a combined $2,850 to Barros, or Seaport developer Cronin Group, where on Feb 26, three executives and the wife of principal Jon Cronin each wrote a $1,000 check to Santiago.

Santiago has so far been the biggest recipient of developer cash, collecting $22,800 since Jan. 1 from the 50 builders, according to a Globe analysis. Janey, Barros, and Essaibi George each pulled in between $11,000 and $14,000. City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Wu took in $7,500 and $5,500, respectively.

Many of the developers who have given most heavily to Santiago are active in the district he represents in the State House, which includes parts of the South End, Back Bay and Fenway, and had previously donated to his campaigns for the Legislature. In another indication of development industry backing, Santiago this week received the endorsement of one of the city’s largest construction unions: Laborers Local 223. In a statement, Santiago’s campaign said it was grateful for the support.

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“In just a few short weeks, Jon’s story of service and crisis leadership has earned the trust of working people, city servants, and several business leaders who believe in his call to action,” said adviser Sean Downey. “We’re excited to continue building and growing in the months ahead.”

Over that time, the field will inevitably narrow, and more builders are likely to choose a candidate, said Greg Vasil, president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which lobbies City Hall on development issues. His group is planning forums to drill down on where the candidates stand on issues such as building density, affordable housing, and how best to guide the city’s growth. Vasil figures that an eventual return to in-person campaigning and fund-raising will force builders to more explicitly state their allegiance.

“It’s easier for people to sort of stay out of it right now,” he said.

But picking a side brings the risk of picking wrong, and being on the outs with the newly elected mayor. Donations, which are public record, could come back to haunt a builder who needs help from City Hall.

That fear is overblown, said Sean Curran, a veteran government relations consultant in Boston. Curran said it’s a relic of a bygone era when retributions were standard fare. In recent years, the BPDA has taken a more evenhanded approach to doling out development approvals, he said. And given the slate of candidates, he expects the next administration will do the same.

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“There was a time when your name showing up on the wrong campaign finance report was doom,” he said. “That’s really not the case anymore.”


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.