In the beginning, there was the mayor.
Not the current mayor, Martin J. Walsh, who has seized the Olympics as a defining cause, one that will shape his mayoralty, win or lose.
No, there was Thomas M. Menino, who was at times seemingly omnipotent when it came to all that occurred, or did not, in the capital. And the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, had he had his druthers initially, would not.
Menino, in a March 2013 interview with WBUR, called the notion “far-fetched.”
“I just don’t know where we could create that massive land in our city or in the surrounding cities,” he said.
Precious little got done during Menino’s 20-year reign without his consent, and the mayor’s skeptical stance would have essentially put the idea on ice before it ever warmed. Chris Young, managing partner at Boston Harbor Capital, was in the first wave of Olympic advocates, and called Menino’s leeriness essentially a game-ender.
“We went around town talking to the VIPs, but during that time, Menino was not in favor of it,” Young said. “We had a lot of good meetings, but it seemed like a lot of the power players were hanging out waiting to see what Menino would say before they went behind his back.”
Then, weeks after publicly voicing his skepticism, Menino announced he would not seek a sixth term. And the idea got new life.
Over time, as his close friend John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction, took increasing control of the Olympic effort, Menino grew more sanguine. In an interview with the State House News Service less than a month before his death last October, Menino said that, even if Boston were not selected, “something good will come of this.”
Had he stayed in office, and maintained his resistance, Menino surely would have accrued allies. But, in his absence, the Olympics effort’s momentum has built with barely a burble of institutionalized political opposition.
It’s an unusual dynamic in a civic ecosystem that cherishes its seemingly divine right to turn even the most picayune policy question into pitched battle.
The Olympics, said one person directly involved with the bid, are not like “fixing the Boston public schools or fixing the MBTA. . . . People have died on those mountains. This is bright and shiny and new.”
Over the last decade, Massachusetts has introduced a number of new sectors and industries: stem cell research, off-shore wind farms, medical marijuana, casino gambling. At each turn, counter forces have arisen, institutionalized opposition that has posed existential challenges to the new proposals. The Olympics, which would constitute an industry unto themselves, has provoked no such organizational foil. The chief opposition force that has emerged is a low-budget, ad hoc group of young professionals who initially numbered four, and now are three. How the organizers muffled dissent before it could even gather momentum provides a study in how power is exercised in a place straining to envision itself as a world-class city, but that remains very much a small town.
More is likely to emerge as the Olympics crowd out other budgetary priorities, and as local residents protest the new developments charted for their neighborhoods. But, for now, it is a fairly quiet front.
“I think we’re in the love affair that we ought to have around the concept of having the Olympics,” said Larry Moulter, executive-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who led the redevelopment of the Boston Garden. “Falling in love is very different from getting married and having a family and buying a house.”
The Boston 2024 campaign has succeeded, thus far, in part by marrying what is purportedly a private-sector enterprise with prominent figures who have ties to the public sector.
Fish hired a virtual alumni club of Deval Patrick’s administration to staff the committee and serve as outside consultants, including the Northwind Strategies firm led by former Patrick chief of staff Doug Rubin.
Former US senator William “Mo” Cowan, who also served as a Patrick chief of staff, cochairs the government and community outreach committee. Dan O’Connell, who was Patrick’s first economic development secretary, is president of Boston 2024. Nikko Mendoza, another former top Patrick aide, is vice president of engagement and external affairs.
The group’s general counsel, Emiley Lockhart, has worked for outgoing Attorney General Martha Coakley, was a senior policy analyst for US Representative Joe Kennedy’s first congressional campaign, and served as general counsel and policy director for Lowell Democratic state Senator Eileen Donoghue, who sponsored legislation establishing a commission to study the feasibility of the Olympics. Its vice president of strategic initiatives, Amy Sennett, is dating Dan Koh, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s chief of staff.
Each of those politically wired players brings his or her own local constituency. And the homegrown nature of the bid has forestalled Boston’s famed parochialism and mistrust of outsiders.
“I think what John and the rest of the committee have done in a very responsible way is put together men and women who are respected,” Moulter said. “Here, you have a committee that has their feet firmly planted in the city, has their careers firmly planted in the region, and so we know them.”
Moulter pointed to bygone civic battles royal — like his effort to replace the old Garden with what was initially known as the Fleet Center, owned by the Jacobs family, or the Boston megaplex proposed by Patriots owner Robert Kraft — as examples of forces perceived as outsiders encountering opposition. “You didn’t know Jacobs, and you didn’t trust Kraft,” he said.
In fashioning a campaign dominated by locals, the committee also hammered in another cornerstone: opposition to the Olympics is seen as a display of insufficient civic pride. Even elected officials who harbor deep misgivings about the Games — due to its expected cost, security risks, or potential for embarrassing mismanagement — say privately that they keep their fears quiet so as not to trigger any backlash.
One state lawmaker likened criticism of the Olympic plan to speaking in favor of an enemy nation during a time of war, saying it seemed “unpatriotic.”
Just as adroitly, the Olympic organizers resisted the outcry from the disclosure and anti-secret-government crowd to release even a morsel of their formal planning before the US Olympic Committee decided on Boston. This provided a tactical edge, because there were no specific projects to oppose or price tags about which to kvetch. Potential critics had nothing at which to shoot. That ends next week when the bid documents become public, and 2024 organizers present their early thinking under a bright media glare in a public meeting.
Fortuitous timing, too, played a role. The notion gathered steam in a singular moment in local politics, as Patrick was diminished by lame-duck status, and Walsh and Baker were still locating their bearings.
Now, of course, the competition moves to a higher plane. Boston, having competed against other domestic cities, will now vie with international ones, and will need to convince an increasingly tight-fisted Washington to back its bid with an as-yet unspecified dollar figure to pay for security to protect spectators at a sports festival that has experienced terror attacks, which could be well over $1 billion. The Beltway, which has watched what can happen when federal largesse flows to the Athens of America in the name of infrastructure, may not prove as easy to convince as a handful of local politicos.
At the same time, details of the plan, as they emerge, will naturally spark their own pockets of opposition.
Organizers say they expect “a lot of back and forth” around the matter as the public meetings commence, but say they are optimistic on how their ideas will fare.
“I think really the power of the idea and the power of the Olympics is what brought a lot of people who may have been on opposite sides in the past to come together around this issue,” said Rubin.