BOSTON — After two decades of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s leadership, the race to replace him is widely considered up for grabs among the 12 candidates. It’s an open primary, meaning it’s not party-specific. And with only six weeks until the vote that will narrow that field to two, the business community is, for the most part, staying out of the fray. But it’s not for lack of caring.
About 60 business chiefs in the tech and clean energy sectors were at a forum on Aug. 6 in a skyscraper on South Boston’s waterfront — or the “Innovation District,” as it was dubbed by Menino. One of his would-be successors, City Councilor John Connolly, posed a question to the group.
“Let me ask, how many of you could name all 12 candidates for mayor right now?” Connolly said. “All right we’ve got one, and that’s a reporter.”
Many in the business community have yet to get engaged in the race, whether by endorsing a candidate or by spending on their campaigns. But they do have their opinions.
“Our mayor needs to be willing to be re-elected by people who are not just teachers, firemen, policemen and other unions and actually want votes from neighborhoods that are across the city,” said David Friedman.
“We’d like to have a conversation with government about what we’re doing,” said Donna Cupelo. “The pace of technology is changing so fast.”
Ben Maitland-Lewis added, “I am looking for somebody that’s a little bit younger who I feel is a little bit of a rock-star on the innovation and creative side.”
They’re all tech and communications types. But it’s easy enough to find opinions in the larger business community as well.
“It would be a huge mistake to vote in another Mayor Menino,” said Suffolk Construction president John Fish, a long-time Menino ally who’s sometimes called a kingmaker in Boston politics.
“There’ll only be one Mayor Menino,” Fish added. “I think we need to look for someone with completely different characteristics, a different way about himself, a different management style about herself. Also, I think this person really needs to look at the city as what is the new Boston, and not what is the old Boston.”
The new Boston, Fish said, is increasingly characterized by a class divide. Job growth, he noted, has been limited to the very highest paying jobs in the tech, health care and financial services industries. Traditional middle class and blue collar work isn’t growing, Fish said, and he wants the next mayor to attack that problem.
Fish has some ideas about that. He said the mayoral field is solid but one candidate has not risen to the top of his list yet.
“What I am not hearing as of yet, I’m not hearing any breakthroughs in terms of particular issues,” he said. “I’m not hearing any breakthroughs in who’s getting ahead of the pack. And I don’t think that is really going to happen until the early part of September.”
Business leaders are putting a number of issues on the table: maintaining and improving public safety, expanding the MBTA, keeping the city budget in check and finding new approaches to solving public school woes. That includes prodding Beacon Hill to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the city.
Jack Connors, the highly connected former advertising mogul who now focuses on business philanthropy, said he’s mourning the Menino era. He’s keeping his powder dry until a candidate with a coherent vision for the city and its schools emerges.
“How are you going to take on what no mayor wanted to touch, the public schools — Menino jumped in and embraced them,” Connors said. “How are you going to evolve better education for the kids so that the companies in the city can have a workforce that comes fully prepared?”
Also on top of the list, and linked to the jobs question, is the direction of Boston real estate development. Property values are escalating in existing business centers like the waterfront in South Boston. Should the next focus be on East Boston, Allston, or maybe Suffolk Downs? Rick Dimino, president of the business-backed advocacy group A Better City, said the next mayor can’t sit back and wait for investment to find its own course.
“Mayors have to try to find that sometimes awkward balance between neighborhoods feeling like their areas are being overrun by growth and economic opportunity,” Dimino said. “And finding that balance and providing leadership is going to be essential for the next mayor.”
A few prominent business leaders, but not many, are jumping in with public endorsements and money. Some are hedging their bets by donating to several campaigns at once. And Dimino says that with such a large field, there is a risk of backing the wrong candidate.
“You’ve got the whole political calculation of, ‘Let’s wait and see to see what happens with these candidates,’ and I don’t want to put our company in a risky place for no reason,” he said.
Several business leaders have said that the emergence of a strong pro-union candidate after the September primary could make the business community sit up and take notice. The other candidate could then be the beneficiary of defensive spending by a galvanized business community.