February 04, 2015

And the plot thickens!  No, not around budget cuts, the MBTA’s funding, or paradegate – the Boston Olympics, silly.  On Monday (yes, this Monday), City Councilor Josh Zakim filed an order for a nonbinding referendum to be placed on November’s ballot regarding the Boston Olympics.  He offered four questions for Boston voters:  whether or not Boston should host the Games, if public money should be involved, whether or not the city should guarantee coverage of cost overruns, and if Boston should use powers of eminent domain to host the Games. 

Brilliant.  These ballot questions can win in undermining a Boston Games even if they lose a November vote.

Many scholars of influence and the referendum process are certainly crying foul at my prediction.  As we saw here in MA on the bottle bill and casino repeal ballot issues, votes almost always follow the money – especially where there are significant spending gaps between advocates and foes.  Direct democracy is more like direct deposit.

So why would these ballot issues on the Olympics be any different for Boston voters?  After all, as my MassPoliticsProfs colleague Mo Cunningham pointed out last week, to date the Boston Olympics bid process exemplifies our state’s political culture of backroom deal making.  Critics of the Boston Olympics bid have long noted how highly undemocratic the process was – never publicly vetted or shared with citizens until after the Unites States Olympic Committee selected Boston.   Both Charlie Baker and Marty Walsh seem to be following the lead of powerful, private interests organizing the Boston 2024 bid rather than spearheading a citizen-civic coalition.  Scot Lehigh’s Globe column last month cleverly compared the whole debacle to the spirit of 1764 – we noble subjects of the private lords of Boston. 

Given research on influence in the initiative process, and the powerful composition of the Boston 2024 oligarchy, why might the ballot questions Zakim proposes undermine the Boston bid?  Two reasons:

1.  They are policy nuanced.  Early public opinion indicates that a slim majority favor a Boston Olympics (issue 1) but that this support plummets when considerations of public monies (issue 2) are in the mix.  Logic indicates then that taxpayer funded cost overrun guarantees (issue 3) and the use of eminent domain for game locales (issue 4) are also currently unpopular.  Thus, Zakim’s questions tap far more than a love/hate the Olympics or civic pride element that many Bostonians associate with the Games.  Bottom-dollar considerations of who pays and governmental power would be queried as well.  In getting into views on taxation and governmental authority, Zakim has crafted questions that Political Science suggests are far less susceptible to fancy marketing campaigns and compelling commercials by the pro-2024 forces.  Bostonian’s feelings on the Olympics do not run so deep but views on taxation and budget priories do.

2.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC).  Even if all four ballot questions come back in favor of an Olympic Games in Boston – and I am highly susceptible that would be the case – the IOC deplores activism.  It is true that some Olympic Committee representatives have publicly stated that they expected real debate in Boston and it will not hurt our city’s chances, but their past actions speak louder.  Dissensus in a bid city scares the IOC.  So, in effect, the protest, consternation, and public consciousness of the Games and their related costs that Zakim’s ballot issues would bring forth are precisely the sorts of factors that have historically pushed the IOC towards more totalitarian locales.  Hence, even in the unlikely event all four ballot issues came back favoring the Olympics by slim margins, anti-Boston 2024 forces win (IOC selection does not got to Boston) even by losing (at the November ballot box).

Zakim’s proposed referendum is being debated by City Councilors today.  If supported there, it would have to gain the blessing of Mayor Walsh to be on the ballot.  This would put the Mayor in an unenviable position between the power leaders behind the 2024 bid who wield considerable influence come election time and the appearance of not supporting Bostonians right to vote on an Olympics.  And the introductory language in Zakim’s “order for nonbinding public opinion advisory questions” on the 2024 Games pushes hard on the latter point.  He references the participatory norms Bostonians seemingly hold dear, and then repeatedly makes the point that private interests with no public vetting have solely driven the Boston bid. 

The proposed vote is not the Boardroom table that crafted the 2024 bid but it far more influential than a listening tour.

If Boston gets to vote on these ballot issues, the 2024 bid itself is in question.  Power won’t be witnessed so much in the money spent to influence our vote on these ballot issues then – it will be wielded in whether or not we get to vote at all.    

City Council, Councilor Zakim, Boston Olympics, referendum

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