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In Olympics bid, risks and rewards for state’s top politicians

DUSAN ZIDAR

Nowhere else but in Boston would the mere mention of hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics set off back-stabbing brawls, the settling of old scores, and the reopening of long-festering political fault lines.

But then again, it is Boston — a basically parochial city that strives to display a semblance of cosmopolitanism but also wallows in petty politics and is quick to destroy its own.

The push to bring the Olympics here has exposed those peculiarly local foibles like nothing else could. And it has created the treacherous stage on which some of its most prominent figures and insiders are now operating.

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So far, the pro-Olympic forces have been their own worst enemy. They have bumbled the rollout with a series of missteps and miscalculations. Former governor Deval Patrick’s $7,500-a-day fee offended enough people that the arrangement was canceled. Opponents forced them to accept a ballot initiative on the issue. Public support, once strong, has slipped badly. And its chief promoter and public face, John Fish, is facing moves to push him aside.

With so much on the line, there is much to win — and so much to lose — for some of the state’s major players and operatives. Here’s a review of how they’re doing and what is at stake:

Mayor Martin J. Walsh

Brian Snyder/REUTERS

The swirling debate over the Olympic bid is creating potentially big — perhaps even career-threatening — problems for Walsh. Already, the consensus among political insiders is that Walsh stumbled when he appeared to go too far and too early in embracing the idea of hosting the Games.

Some would argue that he had no choice but to jump on board. But now, with the turmoil that has hit the organizing committee, Walsh, who by all accounts is still very popular, seems to be putting distance between him and it.

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More than any other issue since he took over City Hall, this has laid bare some of Walsh’s political problems. Any longtime Boston state legislator like Walsh, with his years on Beacon Hill and deep roots in the city’s political scene, doesn’t get to the top without creating enemies, some of whom would delight in his political comeuppance.

Part of that comes from his strained relationship with his predecessor, the late Tom Menino, and his crew. In private meetings with the city’s state legislators, Menino frequently treated Walsh with “utter disrespect,” said one delegation member. The problem with Menino even goes back to neighborhood political battles such as when the former mayor’s son-in-law and Walsh, both Savin Hill residents, were at each other throats.

Add to that some lingering bitterness over the 2013 race for mayor. A strong strain in the campaign was the age-old Boston Irish battle between blue-collar residents (the Dorchester-born and -bred Walsh) and the middle class (cum laude Harvard graduate and West Roxbury native John Connolly).

Two local legislators — Michael J. Moran of Brighton and Aaron Michlewitz of the North End — blindsided Walsh when they pushed legislation imposing financial disclosure requirements on all public and private expenditures associated with the Games. Walsh and Moran were in opposing camps in the Democratic House caucus and often in bitterly competitive battles over such mundane issues as City Hall’s library funding for their districts. Michlewitz endorsed Connolly in the mayoral race.

For Walsh, how he handles the debate over the 2024 Games will not only determine his immediate political future but could very likely define his legacy.

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Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

He didn’t get his money by being a nice guy. And payback can be . . . difficult. His old enemies are lying in the weeds, waiting for this kind of moment. With his move into the public spotlight, Fish is in their crosshairs. His lack of finesse — never a critical component for running Suffolk Construction, but essential in his new role — and his inexperience in the tribal politics and media pressures of Massachusetts has created many of the problems he faces.

Those who know him insist his heart is in the right place. His allies say he cares about what is best for the state and that what he is doing for the Olympics bid is for all the right reasons.

Still, the execution has been clumsy. His style is brusque and his presentations disjointed. He has struggled to articulate the case for the Games. And in a curious development this week, he cancelled an opportunity to talk up the Olympic bid before the Massachusetts Building Congress — a sign that he may be pulled back as the public face of the organizing committee.

Fish has a lot at stake, not least the question of whether he can take on the overall role of one of Boston’s key civic leaders. This venture is a major departure from his usual mode of operation, in which he used his company and wealth to operate effectively behind the political scenes. His close relationship with Menino is a prime example. With donations to campaign coffers and hiring of Menino pals, he has been a significant figure — but all in the shadows.

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Bottom line: This first venture into a highly public role is not going well.

Governor Charlie Baker

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

The new governor is proving that he has more than well-honed managerial, budget-making, policy-wonk skills. Whether it is his own instinct or he is listening to good advice, Baker has adeptly played the kerfuffle over the Olympic bid. He is neither for it nor against it. He wants to see the numbers, study the plans. He is skeptical but open.

Obviously, Baker’s political interest is that the state’s fiscal position not be compromised. Still, he also has to weigh the potential for cooperating with organizers. If their pitch is correct — that this will be good for the city and the region because it will create some robust economic activity and leave Massachusetts with useful infrastructure, without the use of public funds — he could buy in. That would be a big boost for the struggling pro-Olympic forces as they face a critical ballot showdown next year.

But his support won’t come easily. Baker will, for instance, take a dim view of any plan that relies on public money. And without the governor’s support, the Olympics will not come here.

Even if Boston is chosen, Baker will almost surely be out office by 2024. But in the four or eight years he serves, if the Olympic debates rages on, the impact on his legacy could be substantial.

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Steve Pagliuca

Boston Celtics co-owners Steve Pagliuca, left, and Wyc Grousbeck.
Boston Celtics co-owners Steve Pagliuca, left, and Wyc Grousbeck.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A strong believer that Boston would benefit from the Olympics, Pagliuca is an important, although less public, leader of the team.

He brings a lot of expertise and experience as a hugely successful venture capitalist and a managing director at Bain Capital. His successful part-ownership of the Celtics is a tribute to his versatility. His failed Senate race in 2009 has given him good experience in the public arena. He is smooth in his presentations and can handle the media. He has shown he is good at articulating the details facing the Olympic organizers. If the Olympics efforts collapsed tomorrow, he would emerge unscathed. If it succeeds, a lot of the credit goes to him.

His problem: If Fish crashes, as some predict, Pagliuca would need to decide whether to assume a bigger role. That could be tough, particularly if the mayor and governor are keeping their distance.

Deval Patrick

Elise Amendola/Associated Press/file

The former governor did not distinguish himself by accepting a $7,500-a-day gig with the organizing committee. The tone-deaf move does not fit with a political figure who always had good instincts as a candidate and popular governor. He violated an important tenet for former governors: get out of the news when you have just left office, particularly this type of news.

Northwind Strategies

Doug Rubin

As a political consultant, Rubin has been at the center of some of the Democrats’ greatest victories over the past decade — and has had a string of recent defeats. But when you are that high profile and you have been in the middle of so many high-stakes battles (not to mention having been the enforcer as chief of staff to Patrick), the knives come out. His latest venture — getting an erratic Fish to be articulate and on message — may be even beyond his skills, probably anyone’s skills. He faces a Hobson’s choice: hang in and hope that the organizing committee takes more charge of the effort, or walk away. By all accounts, he is determined not to give up, despite the risks.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.