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Political Intelligence

Is Mayor Walsh’s political fate tied to the Olympics?

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Marty Walsh is still a pretty popular guy.

Last week’s Suffolk University poll pegged our ginger mayor’s statewide favorability rating at 59 percent. It’s not the altitudinous reaches attained by Mr. 74 Percent, Charlie Baker, but it’s not bad at all for a mayor who spent much of the winter admonishing residents to stay indoors and make sure their dryer vents were clear.

But Walsh’s mayoralty has always faced an existential political threat embedded in the city’s demography. To win a second term in 2017 as he intends, Walsh must reassemble a reasonable version of the coalition that pushed him past John Connolly by fewer than 5,000 votes in the 2013 election.

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Walsh won that one by persuading voters of color, many of whom had supported one of the other 10 candidates in the preliminary election, that he was the better choice. What the primary revealed more tellingly than the general election was that, for all of Boston’s chest-thumping about mosaics and newfound color-blindness, its voters still practice identity politics.

Which is not unique or surprising. But it means that in a majority-minority city whose communities of color are long tired of waiting for a body politic to reflect their composition, a white-guy candidate has obvious vulnerabilities.

Walsh could be susceptible to a challenge by a formidable candidate of color, or so goes the accepted wisdom in local political circles.

Now comes the Boston 2024 effort, complicating the city’s traditional political algorithms. The Olympics could make or break Walsh, in the same fashion that he could make or break the Olympics, at least locally.

The International Olympic Committee’s selection of a host city in 2017 will likely occur a few months before the Boston mayoral election. If the run-up to that announcement is plagued by the same missteps and negativity that have dogged the city’s bid so far, Walsh would have a problem on his hands.

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If the Boston 2024 effort continues to be viewed as a downtown-centric, lopsidedly white game of plutocratic privilege, then the mayor will be looking over both shoulders.

The potential fusion — of Walsh’s structural demographic challenge with the Category 5 political typhoon into which an Olympics debacle could develop — poses, currently, the greatest threat to a second term for the mayor.

Cognizant of this, Walsh has been moving to gain greater control of the process. At the same time, he’s maintaining what semblance of distance he can create between himself and the Boston 2024 crowd, thereby allowing himself space to criticize them.

Walsh has his own man now at the committee’s Seaport offices, Joe Rull, and his outside consultants at CK Strategies are now outside consultants for Boston 2024. And he has been supportive of the idea of hiring Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino to take a senior role with the bid committee.

(Disclosure: Lucchino and the author both work for the same guy, John W. Henry, principal owner of both the Globe and the Red Sox, along with some other things. The author is also a Red Sox fan.)

All of this amps up the pressure on the Olympic organizers, who have taken on not just the responsibility of trying to corral a multibillion-dollar enterprise, but the added burden of Walsh’s political fortunes.

Of course, the remainder of the Olympic effort in Boston could go swimmingly. If the process is going well in 2017, and the major constituencies have been sufficiently mollified, Walsh will be in terrific shape for reelection. As it stands, there is no clear challenger on the horizon and he sits on an ever-fuller war chest of $1.25 million, having transferred half a million to savings last month.

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And the internal polling upon which the organizers sit so snugly jibes with some of the public polls indicating the Games are markedly more popular in communities of color than they are in predominantly white neighborhoods of the city.

But Walsh and those around him are also aware that leaders in those communities have, thus far, largely held their tongues about what many of them perceive as a lack of diversity in the upper echelons of the Olympic movement. And that, if that perception is still lingering once the five-ringed cash spigot truly starts flowing, even the most desirable starting point in the polls won’t be enough to shield Walsh from exposure to the ultimate electoral insult.

One term.


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.