Walsh’s Boston Olympics hot potato
What a difference a day makes. In 24 little hours, the prospects for a Boston Olympics have gone from full steam ahead to dubious if put to a vote.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told The Wall Street Journal that he would not “stand in the way” of a referendum on bringing the 2024 Olympic Summer Games to Boston.
He quickly backpedaled, most likely after taking multiple calls from Boston 2024 officials who were not amused.
The episode led The New York Times to conclude, “Putting the issue before voters would have the potential to throw a wrench into Boston’s plan to represent the United States in the international competition, particularly if it showed that support in Boston was only lukewarm.”
But 43 percent of those surveyed were not “excited” by the prospect. Still worse, from the perspective of US and international Olympics organizers who believe that local support is vital, a nightmarish 75 percent of those surveyed wanted to hold a referendum on the Olympics.
That statistic may have No Boston Olympics, the lead opposition group, doing back flips. However, the prospects for a referendum that produces a no vote are not assured.
A citywide referendum on the Olympics might energize voter turnout: That would be truly historic. Americans don’t have a great track record on voter participation. Only 38 percent of registered Boston voters turned out for the 2013 mayoral election.
A large turnout won’t necessarily produce a no vote, however. For starters, the Olympics construction equals jobs, after all. And who doesn’t love a party?
But there’s a reason that Walsh and others don’t want a citywide vote. It’s much the same one that led late Mayor Thomas Menino to oppose a citywide vote on casinos. Bostonians can be ornery about traffic, security restrictions, cost overruns, and other things that they don’t think are in their everyday interests. Even Boston’s celebrated urban mechanic, however, misread the allure of casinos; restricting the vote to the East Boston did not produce his desired outcome.
The prospects for a statewide vote on the Olympics are a little murkier. Signature gathering alone would be a major challenge for opponents of the Olympics. And large financial backers would likely step forward to assist in mounting that type of effort or the inevitable Pittsfield-to-Provincetown marketing campaign that would follow. In 1972, Colorado voters turned down the honor (and potential costs) of hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics.
The No Boston Olympics contingent has more in common with the transportation advocates who tried and failed to preserve gas tax indexing last year. Those groups could not convince voters that potholes don’t magically fix themselves.
Would the issue of spending state taxpayer dollars on a big metro Boston party be enough to derail the entire venture in a statewide referendum? With a multi-million budget deficit mess on its hands, the Baker administration has been silent on this latest wrinkle. Groups who experience funding cuts in the next round of fiscal trimming could also raise questions about the state getting put on the hook for any the Olympics costs.
Walsh doesn’t want his legacy or his first reelection campaign to rest entirely on whether or not the Olympics ends up in Boston. But at this point he seems to be all-in the effort to land the Games. The latest wrinkle: A report this morning from the Globe that the mayor “signed a formal agreement with the United States Olympic Committee that bans city employees from criticizing Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games.”
The mayor’s rough news cycle that started over his views on a referendum may only be getting started.
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