By Adrian Walker
Marty Walsh will come to your aquarium and shake hands with a seal, but only if the right friends ask him. That's a problem — but not nearly as big a problem as the fact that he doesn't consider it one.
Two of the mayor's associates were the subject of an excellent report Sunday by the Globe's Mark Arsenault and Andrew Ryan. The story detailed how two political consultants, Matt O'Neil and Michael Goldman, have built a consulting business on the strength of their relationships with the mayor. Both were extremely active in Walsh's 2013 mayoral campaign.
O'Neil and Goldman are familiar, if not universally admired, names in political circles. Before joining the Walsh campaign, Goldman hadn't been active in city politics for decades, although he'd been a fixture around the State House. O'Neil was once chief of staff at the Boston Redevelopment Authority; he resigned after he was caught buying a condo through a program intended for low-income homebuyers. After he was forced out, he reinvented himself as a lobbyist.
Now these guys market themselves to customers who are fully aware of their access to Walsh. (Goldman's clients include New England Aquarium, where Walsh took a picture with the aforementioned marine mammal.) When the Globe raised questions about their influence, the mayor responded like a victim. "It's a gotcha story," Walsh said. "Should people be penalized for their relationship with the mayor of Boston? I don't think that's fair."
It's really painful to watch a mayor whine.
Goldman and O'Neil have a right to go into business together, of course. But when their clients pay for access to city government that most people could only dream of, that's troubling. By their own ready admission, Goldman and O'Neil continue to advise Walsh on a near-daily basis. That raises a lot of fair questions, even if Walsh is annoyed by them.
Walsh seems to think his administration is being singled out for scrutiny. Having covered his two immediate predecessors, I know for a fact that isn't true. I was one of a group of reporters who wrote a similar story early in Mayor Tom Menino's tenure about his cozy relationships with an adviser/lobbyist, Ed Jesser, and a developer with business pending before the city, Bob Walsh.
At the time, Jesser, mastermind of Menino's first mayoral win, was paid $1,000 a week to lobby Menino on behalf of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. As for Bob Walsh, he and Menino took a golf vacation to Ireland while he had a project pending before the BRA.
If the stories were similar, the reaction of the two mayors could not have been more different. Unlike Walsh, Menino responded like someone who got it. He acknowledged the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, and said he often turned to the city's corporation counsel for advice on such issues.
"Many people in politics are hurt by their friends," Menino said then. "I am not going to make my friends rich or be hurt by them." In the end, Menino remained close to both men, but kept their business interests at arm's length.
I don't mean to suggest Mayor Walsh has done anything wrong himself; there is no evidence of that. But he is alarmingly tone-deaf when it comes to charges of ethical impropriety by people around him. It doesn't serve the city well, and it doesn't serve him. He seems to think everyone is supposed to accept, as a given, that nothing wrong could be happening on his watch. Things don't work that way.
Inevitably, friendship and business get mixed up in politics, but it doesn't have to be this messy. Real friends don't enrich themselves at the expense of the politicians they support. Successful mayors come to understand that friendships require boundaries. Walsh's lobbyist friends can't be partners in running City Hall.
The mayor has a duty to make that clear. But first he has to understand it himself.