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Olympics bid focus shifting from Fish

Other voices to join public push

John Fish.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

It was the sort of mild lament you might expect a politician to deliver before the local VFW: John Fish, chairman of the Boston Olympics bid committee, bemoaning what he sees as a decline in American patriotism.

And it was a measure of the lightning rod Fish had become that hours after the comments last week, a TV report called him out for besmirching the patriotism of Olympics opponents.

That the TV station later issued a clarification — saying that "Fish wasn't referring to the Olympic opponents" with his comments — hardly seemed to matter. Damage done. Fish and the bid committee, Boston 2024, spent another news cycle being ripped on social media.


Since about that time, the once-ubiquitous chairman of Boston 2024 has reined in his public appearances, and the bid committee now confirms that it will be broadening the chorus of key supporters who will be speaking for the group.

Expect to see more of Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics and managing director at Bain Capital, who in 2009 ran in the Democratic primary to fill the US Senate seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy.

Richard Davey, the former state transportation secretary who became Boston 2024's chief executive in late January, is also expected to take a larger public role. The committee will continue to deploy architect David Manfredi at public events. Manfredi, a skillful public speaker, was one of the first Boston professionals Fish called to join the local Olympics movement in 2013.

The voices speaking for Boston 2024 will further grow when the committee establishes a formal governance board, as required of nonprofit groups and also spelled out in the committee's agreement with the US Olympic Committee. The assembly of that board is underway.

Fish, the chairman of Suffolk Construction, is staying in his unpaid post as bid committee chairman. No titles are changing among the committee's top players, according to Boston 2024.


Despite polls that suggest diminishing support for the bid, Fish, who declined to be interviewed, has retained the public backing of key players, beginning with the US Olympic Committee.

"We have the highest possible regard for John Fish," USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said in a statement. "His passion for the Olympic movement was a significant factor in our decision to work with Boston, and his continuing leadership will be critical to our success going forward."

Robert Reynolds, chief executive of Putnam Investments and a longtime supporter of the local Olympics effort, said, "Boston was the choice of the USOC because of the efforts of John Fish."

"I certainly want [the Olympics] to happen, and the best person for this is John Fish," Reynolds said.

A local Olympics opposition group, No Boston Olympics, said in a statement that "Boston 2024 doesn't have a messaging problem, it has a substance problem . . . Changing leadership doesn't change the fact that the boosters are asking taxpayers to be on the hook for what could amount to billions [of dollars] in cost overruns."

The bid committee suggested this week that it had always intended to expand its supporting voices as a "natural evolution" of the organization, coming now about 90 days after the USOC selected Boston to represent the United States in a worldwide competition for the 2024 Summer Games.

It is also the case that the committee badly wants to knock down the notion that the Olympic bid effort has become The Fish Show, inextricably wrapped up in the business history and personality of the hard-driving construction executive.


"The Olympic bid cannot be about one person," a high-ranking member of the organization said.

Fish, who is married with three daughters, had made his personal story a prominent part of his pitch for the bid, often telling the story of how his confidence on the athletic field was what helped him overcome severe dyslexia and perform better in the classroom.

He got his start in business in the early 1980s, when his father, Edward, head of Peabody Construction, set his sons into competition — putting then 23-year-old John in charge of a new company called Suffolk Construction, while John's brother Ted was to run Peabody. After competing head-to-head, the siblings wound up at odds and not speaking to each other, though they eventually reconciled.

In the meantime, John Fish has built Suffolk into a powerhouse, No. 34 on the Engineering News-Record's 2014 national list of the top 400 contractors. Enormous wealth and connections landed Fish on top of Boston Magazine's list of the 50 most powerful people in Boston in 2012.

But money and power have not moved a majority of the public to get behind the Olympic bid. A WBUR poll in March suggested 36 percent of Boston-area voters supported bringing the Summer Games to Boston in 2024, down from 44 percent in a February poll.


Public support will be an important factor when the International Olympic Committee gathers in Peru in 2017 to choose the host of the 2024 Games. Rome and Hamburg have announced they will bid. Paris might soon join the contest.

Boston 2024 has been slow out of the gate in promoting the bid, playing a lot of defense against criticism. Record snowfall this winter overwhelmed the MBTA and appeared to undermine public confidence that the transit system can handle an international sports festival, even one that happens in the summer.

The bid committee suffered a self-inflicted wound in early March, when it revealed an arrangement with Deval Patrick to pay the former governor $7,500 on days when he had to travel to promote the Olympic bid. Though the committee is entirely funded through private donations, Patrick's fee became a target of public criticism, until the former governor said he was close to accepting a new job and would forgo pay from Boston 2024.

"It appeared for a while that this became the classic political situation where everybody could get some money for themselves, if they were a consultant or a former politician," said Fish's friend Jack Connors, the influential retired chairman of advertising giant Hill Holliday. "That was judged, I think rightly, by people as unbecoming."

As criticism of the bid mounted, Fish tried to tamp down concerns by announcing to the Chamber of Commerce last month that Boston 2024 would pursue a referendum on the bid in 2016.


But later that day, Fish might have hurt the cause with a testy meeting with the Globe editorial board, which provoked columns sharply critical of the bid plan and Fish personally. This led to a public debate about whether he would, or should, leave the Olympic effort he has led since 2013.

Connors said the bid could not have gotten this far without Fish and said he is the right person to overcome the recent rough patch. "There are a lot of folks passing judgment in a couple of months," he said. "Some people think John should step down. I'm not one of those. I believe, given a couple months, John will build a very impressive organization of successful people."

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.