Popular mayor not immune to criticism

Marty Walsh NECThe Boston Globe took Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to the woodshed this week. In a 3/4 page editorial (a sign of energy unusual for the paper’s diminished  editorial page), the paper screamed “Enough.”  It proceeded to lambaste the mayor for continuing his $1 million (to date) lawsuit to stop Steve Wynn’s proposed casino in neighboring Everett.

The Globe blasted Walsh’s assertion that the Gaming Commission was motivated by “corrupt bias against Boston” and said the city’s legal fees would be better directed to other civic purposes.  The editorial noted that, as a state legislator, Walsh had approved a casino bill that failed to give surrounding communities the same right to vote on a casino as enjoyed by host communities. (Most legislators, at that point in the recession, simplistically equated casinos to job opportunities.)  The problem is with the underlying law, not the Gaming Commission.  More recently, Walsh, the editorial implied, was again at fault for focusing on what he deemed was an unfair process, instead of  vigorously negotiating up front for more money to mitigate traffic impact on Sullivan Square.

The Globe’s attack oversimplifies the dilemma Walsh faces.  As he explained at a Politico forum at Bank of America, Boston’s transportation plan was designed in 1997 and didn’t take into account current gridlock or the effects of development in Assembly Square or Union Square in Somerville, North Point in Cambridge or, prospectively, a huge casino in Everett.  Wynn’s getting a permit in Everett is just step one. Notwithstanding the acrimony (and Wynn’s libel suit against the Mayor), I hope that mitigation discussions quietly go forward outside the court.

Meanwhile, Walsh’s constituents seem to like him a lot and are quite satisfied with his position on the Everett casino.  In a recent internal poll, conducted for the mayor by Global Strategy Group, 57 percent of Bostonians feel his performance on the casino has been excellent or good. Twenty two percent says it hasn’t been good, and 21 percent are undecided. About the same number (56 percent) approve his handling of the Boston 2024 Olympic bid.  It’s  unclear if respondents based their opinions on Walsh’s early support of the proposal or his getting out ahead of the independent Brattle Group’s negative analysis of likely costs, or some combination.  

Remarkably, the Mayor’s favorability and estimates of job performance run in the high 70’s.  And, according to  independent WBUR/MassINC polling, Walsh’s favorability is running even with, or a little ahead of, popular Governor Charlie Baker’s.  Walsh plans to run for reelection in 2017 and at this point has no serious opposition.

The mayor has had his share of negative headlines, most recently one concerning whether  a City Hall employee called the Parker House and the Menton restaurant to “warn” them about Teamsters picketing their places of business.  Four Teamsters are under indictment for trying to extort the producers of the “Top Chef” television program in 2014, in a display of the kind of thuggery that scared film makers away from Massachusetts for decades.  Was the phone call a threat in league with the union, or just a friendly heads up? Appropriately, Walsh has hired outside counsel to get to the bottom of things. He should surely make the findings public when they are available.

Walsh also drew fire for accepting for City Hall use kitchen cabinets and counters salvaged from a commercial renovation by developer Joe Fallon, who has ongoing business before the city.  Was the mayor inappropriately accepting something of value, or was he saving the city a few bucks by upgrading decrepit City Hall facilities with materials that otherwise would be thrown out?  A two-day story, to be sure, but the kind of event that could have been handled better.

It’s easier to write headline stories like these than the less sexy stories about Walsh ‘s positive accomplishments: his steps toward creating more affordable housing, his data-driven approach to measuring performance, his substantially increasing the diversity of his administration,  and, in this era of serious opiate addiction, establishing an office of recovery services.

The jury is still out on how effectively and transparently the Boston Redevelopment Authority is performing and also on the wisdom of the Mayor’s compromise proposal to increase City Councilor pay. He still has to deal with sticky issues like Uber regulation and school consolidation.

Being mayor means being criticized, whether at the low end -like Donald Trump’s calling him a “clown” for participating in the Ice Bucket challenge- to the higher level, like substantive editorials.  It goes with the turf. He has shown less of his admittedly “thin skin” than did his predecessor, the beloved but often prickly Tom Menino.

Nearly two years into his first term,  Marty Walsh is still benefiting from the extended honeymoon glow of his personal story: hometown boy who overcame struggles (cancer, addiction) to reach the city’s top spot, earnest, still humble and wanting to do well by the people of his city.  In the second half, he’ll have to show how he has produced on his housing plan, development, transportation and other concrete indices.  Plus, another winter is coming. He should also be judged by whether, absent the Olympics, he’ll move seriously on his Boston 2030 initiative to articulate and implement a vision for the city’s future.  The jury is still out on how he brings this all together.

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