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Lawmakers, Walsh face off over liquor licenses

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants more liquor licenses for the city, but the state Legislature wants to maintain power over the number of licenses in Boston.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s effort to wrest authority to grant additional liquor licenses in Boston away from the Legislature has divided the city’s State House delegation and reignited old tensions between Walsh and his former Beacon Hill colleagues.

Walsh and state Representative Michael J. Moran of Brighton dueled over the weekend for the support of Boston lawmakers and asked them to pick sides on Senate legislation that would include the capital in a broader proposal to unshackle cities and towns from having to petition lawmakers for additional liquor licenses.

After Moran circulated a letter asking colleagues to oppose the measure, Walsh lobbied legislators not to sign, through aides and in person on a train to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention.


The fight is playing out as the clock ticks toward the July 31 end of the two-year legislative session.

Walsh argues that the century-old practice of Beacon Hill setting local caps on liquor licenses — a vestige of Brahmin control of the Legislature as the Irish were making inroads at City Hall — is counterproductive to economic development. In Boston, advocates for low-income and minority neighborhoods say they have been traditionally underserved by liquor licenses, hobbling growth efforts.

But Moran counters that Boston’s lawmakers should maintain control because they have a particular understanding of the city’s neighborhoods and “their own special charms and traditions.”

In a letter Saturday, signed by 14 of the 23-member Boston delegation, he said requiring legislative approval “allows the citizens in those neighborhoods through their elected officials a voice in determining if additional licenses are desirable.”

The Senate adopted the change backed by Walsh earlier this month as an amendment to Governor Charlie Baker’s “municipal modernization” package. Baker’s bill would have allowed all communities, except Boston, to grant more liquor licenses. Baker aides said Boston had been excluded because the city had been granted additional licenses the year before.


The Senate-backed language includes Boston with all the other municipalities that would be able to grant the licenses.

The disagreement is the latest escalation in a feud between Walsh and Moran. For Boston’s all-Democrat delegation, the disagreement has created a tug between loyalty to the popular mayor and the institutional imperatives of playing well with others at the State House.

“[Walsh] was obviously upset about it, because I think he thought it was a continuation of a feud that had subsided,” said one delegation member, speaking anonymously. “He took it a little more personal than just policy.”

Also at issue is an age-old fight over local control. For decades, the governor — not the mayor — picked Boston’s police commissioner.

Now, the fight is over who can hand out liquor licenses. “It’s a broader issue than in one community,” said Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which supports the measure. “This has been a goal for cities and towns across the state regarding the ability to issue liquor licenses without, in most cases, having to go and pass special bills to allow that to happen locally.”

Beckwith added, “Why should a legislator in Western Mass. be deciding whether it’s appropriate to have additional restaurants with liquor licenses on the Cape? Why should a legislator in Eastern Mass. be voting on liquor licenses in Berkshire County?”

Lawmakers typically field piecemeal liquor-license requests from their own districts, then carry those efforts through the legislative process.


Walsh, in a statement, said Monday, “I strongly believe that liquor licenses should be determined at the local level, given their economic development impact on a municipality. The decision to grant cities and towns this authority should be uniform across municipalities. If liquor license reform is taken up by the Legislature, Boston should be included.”

State Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who did not sign the Moran letter, said that some of those who did may have felt pressured by the leadership posts held by its author and another senior House member, assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing of the South End.

“Why would we ever be left out on having local control over our own liquor licenses?” Holmes said, adding, “I’m actually saddened that that many folks opted for less control within the city.”

On the other hand, Moran and others press the case that Boston is unique within the state, that its political ecosystem stipulates that state lawmakers, not just city officials, should be included in the decision-making.

“I think that liquor-license decisions should be made at the local level, and when you talk about the city of Boston, that means with the involvement of the state rep and the state senator,” said state Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who also represents pockets of Boston and signed Moran’s letter. Brownsberger said he probably would have opposed the measure in the Senate had it not been voice-voted.


The last time Walsh and Moran sparred publicly over liquor licenses was two years ago. The rookie mayor wanted to extend closing times until 4 a.m. for some establishments, increased autonomy over the city panel that vets liquor licenses, and to lift the cap on licenses citywide.

He won a half loaf, getting an increase in licenses issued and full control of the Boston Licensing Board, but losing out on the later hours.

The Walsh-Moran rivalry dates back at least to their days as colleagues in the House, when they were on different sides over the speakership.

In 2013, Moran backed another candidate for mayor. Since Walsh took office, they have sparred over the 2024 Olympics debate, previous liquor-license proposals, and the regulation of ride-for-hire firms like Uber and Lyft. In this year’s Democratic presidential primary, Walsh supported Hillary Clinton, while Moran sided with upstart Bernie Sanders.

A private March 2015 dinner meeting between the two in the North End, followed by cigars, appears to have failed to patch up their differences, which date back to at least their days as colleagues in the House and a few rounds of backing different candidates for speaker.

Over the weekend, the antagonism dragged in lawmakers who are close to both men. Of the 17 House members who represent parts of Boston, Moran’s letter drew support from 12, presenting a compelling case to the lead House conferee on the bill, majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who is also close to Moran.


Two Boston senators, of the six who represent parts of the city, signed the letter.

Several Boston lawmakers declined to comment on the matter, citing eagerness to avoid the Walsh-Moran spat.

Moran, speaking hours before Walsh addressed the Democratic National Convention, insisted the disagreement was “not personal,” but added, “He was here for 16 years and he never filed this once. Apparently, it wasn’t that burning an issue when he was a rep.”

Walsh spokeswoman Laura Oggeri said that Walsh, as a state representative, had “always supported an increase in the liquor license cap” for Boston.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.