In the city that kicked off the country’s founding protest movement, activists are scrambling to block a strengthening juggernaut that could land the 2024 Summer Olympics without a public vote.
The brains behind Boston 2024, a supergroup of political and business leaders boosting the bid, have been at it for two years. They’ve raised $11 million, wooed a who’s who of regional power players, and hired what The Boston Globe calls “a virtual alumni club of [outgoing Democratic Governor] Deval Patrick’s administration”—all while keeping bid plans under wraps.
Boston 2024’s well-connected outreach team has neutralized political opposition, but the group can’t defuse some political land mines.
On Wednesday, news broke that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh had signed an agreement with the United States Olympic Committee banning city workers from criticizing Boston’s bid for the games. The backlash came strong and swift.
Walsh first downplayed the legally binding agreement as “boilerplate,” but the wording sounds downright despotic—and definitively unconstitutional.
“The City, including its employees, officers and representatives shall not make, publish or communicate to any Person, or communicate in any public forum, any comments or statements (written or oral) that reflect unfavorably upon, denigrate or disparage, or are detrimental to the reputation or statute of, the IOC, the IPC, the USOC, the IOC Bid, the Bid Committee or the Olympic or Paralympic movement,” the agreement states.
Luckily, the First Amendment ensures government employees’ the right to “speak out as citizens as long as it doesn’t disrupt their work,” so courts will not enforce the gag order, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Sarah Wunsch said in an interview.
Walsh later promised he “will not—and will never—limit your right to free speech.”
Wunsch believes the effects of Walsh’s brush with restricting speech will linger.
“The chilling effect on free expression doesn’t just go away,” she said. “People know exactly what the mayor wants. They’re not going to want to do anything that will put them in bad spot with their managers, who have many ways of disfavoring certain employees.”
While Massachusetts law provides private-sector workers the right to associate with political causes, they enjoy fewer protections than their public-sector peers, Wunsch said. So employees of Massachusetts firms that could benefit from an Olympics construction boom should be careful.
Designated “National Special Security Events” like the Olympics expand the footprint of security personnel and surveillance infrastructure and would raise additional free speech concerns, Wunsch said. For example, Boston’s hosting of the 2004 Democratic National Convention featured walled-off “free speech zones” for protesters.
The gag order episode captures the anxiety of Olympics opponents: they believe the wants and needs of the Olympics cartel are not those of an average Bostonian. For all we know, Boston 2024 will give away the store.
The opposition is not frugal Republicans, who support the bid more than Democrats, according to a recent WBUR poll. It’s not Bostonians, who support the bid as much as folks in nearby suburbs. And it’s not racial/ethnic minorities, who support the games more strongly than whites.
The opposition, it seems, is a loose lot of grassroots activists, good-government types, and generally skeptical locals scrambling to keep pace with Boston 2024’s marketing blitz.
The leading opposition group, No Boston Olympics, is an all-volunteer effort with no paid staff, humble funding, and few prominent supporters.
“It is troubling to see questions about the details waved away as the bid moves forward,” said Chris Dempsey, a No Boston Olympics co-chair. “The [United States Olympic Committee] and International Olympic Committee] have different values and different incentives than the city. They want to have a good Games with strong marketing and revenue outcomes. The Boston area should keep focus on improving our communities.”
No Boston Olympics, Dempsey said, wants to project a feeling of civic pride—and pull from Boston’s bottomless well of swagger. In its presentations, the group has played up its fandom of the Pats, Sox, and Bruins and stressed the importance of not coming off as naysayers.
“We want to be perceived as reasonable and rational,” said Dempsey, who is no radical. A consultant for Bain & Company by day, Dempsey formerly served as a Congressional policy director and as a state assistant secretary of transportation.
No Boston Olympics has three co-chairs. One is an attorney and two have MBAs.
Another opposition group, No Boston 2024, is an even smaller David to Boston 2024’s Goliath. The all-volunteer group speaks the left-leaning language of its neighborhood of origin (Jamaica Plain) and is not fundraising. So far, they’ve hosted a community meeting and a protest, according to group co-founder Jonathan Cohn.
“The city and the state’s time, attention, and resources will be diverted away from the issues we should be addressing,” Cohn wrote by email. “The dearth of affordable housing, the acceleration of climate change, the rise of health care costs, the plague of mass incarceration, insufficient funding and inequitable funding for education and infrastructure, and the unconscionable number of people in our city that go to bed each night without enough food to eat.
“You can’t eat a stadium, and you can’t live in a velodrome."
If this were a boxing match, the groups wouldn’t stand a chance. So they’re hoping it’s more like a beauty contest where the IOC chooses the city most willing to meet its extensive demands.
“We can make it very clear to the IOC that Boston will not be friendly to the Olympics,” Cohn said. “The IOC likes to have docile cities that offer overwhelming, unconditional support. We can show them that they aren’t going to get that.”
In true Massachusetts fashion, it could all come down to election day.
On Thursday, businessman Evan Falchuk, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, launched an effort to put the 2024 games to a statewide vote. The referendum would limit the government’s ability to put tax dollars toward a Games that are being set up behind closed doors, Falchuk said.
“[Leading Boston 2024 booster and construction magnate John Fish] is saying these Games can be a planning exercise to set up the next 30 years in Massachusetts,” Falchuk said in an interview. “We just had elections for that! And we didn’t elect these people.”
It’s pretty tough to get a referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts (you need to submit about 65,000 verified signatures). But a few causes are able to clear the hurdles each election cycle, and Falchuck can tap political bonds forged during his run for office.
If Falchuk’s team can manage, the WBUR poll of eastern Massachusetts residents foreshadows success. About 40 percent of the region says any Games plan that uses tax dollars would make them less likely to support it. Add that to some of the 33 percent of residents who oppose the bid—and to the growing chorus of local media calling for a public vote—and you have a strong base.
There is direct precedent: A 1972 vote in Colorado blocked plans for a winter Olympics there, and several referenda have blocked Olympic bids abroad. If activists need a historical rallying cry, about 250 years ago, the colonists dumped a cargo load of tea into the harbor to protest “taxation without representation.” You probably remember that one.
As the organizing committee fills in the blanks, activists will sharpen talking points, and NIMBY backlash should grow.
Here’s an example: the city council in Cambridge, where Boston 2024 is slated to build several competition venues, voted to block the city from using resources for Olympic planning.
And one more: despite claiming that spending for big-ticket Olympics-related transit improvements is “already in the pipeline,” two projects in the Dorchester neighborhood alone have not been designated a dollar.
When questions like this put Boston 2024 on the spot, they tend to remind us that it’s “early,” which is an effective yadda-yadda dodge.
There’s a lack of transparency and opportunity for public comment? It’s early in the process.
Boston 2024’s insurance for cost overruns is pitifully meager? It’s so early.
Dorchester landowners don’t want to cede their land to the Olympic village as Boston 2024’s proposal calls for? It’s early!
With a gag order that’s more of a threat than a promise and without a vote, Boston 2024 could flip the switch from “Early” to “Done Deal” and pop the champagne.