I recently attended the press opening of the newly relocated Palm restaurant for two reasons—the free gourmet grub, and to corner Don Chiofaro. I was certain he’d appear, as the impeccably coiffed Hub real estate mogul owns One International Place, where the elite Palm steakhouse overlooks the Greenway from the ground floor. Sure enough, Chiofaro showed, but, disappointingly, he declined to answer questions about whether he’d be active in the 2013 mayoral race, and regarding his tense relationship with Mayor Tom Menino. In a dismissive yet gentlemanly way, Chiofaro told me he’s avoiding fundraisers, and that, at least for the time being, he’d abstain from making an endorsement.
A more straightforward answer arrived in my email box last week in the form of another invite to the Palm—this time for the first of three early-morning candidate forums. Listed as sponsors: A Better City (ABC), CommonWealth Magazine, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, and—wait for it—The Chiofaro Company. Needless to say, while it was obvious that a major stakeholder like him would ultimately have his voice heard, this was a bold maneuver—even for Menino’s most powerful arch-nemesis. Despite the well-respected co-hosts sharing the marquee, it was quite apparent that Chiofaro is the mastermind behind the Palm debates.
All things considered, the stage for Tuesday morning’s forum was appropriately set. Behind the participating candidates—City Councilor-At-Large John Connolly, District Councilor Charles Yancey, state Rep. Marty Walsh—was a stark reminder of the mess that partially inspired this symposium. In traditional Palm fashion, the wall features a sprawling skyline mural with cartoon images of exceedingly important patrons. Prominent among the painted visages of regulars is Chiofaro himself, rappelling off the roof of One International Place like King Kong. Well beneath him—perched on top of a structure that appears to be a hybrid of the Boston Harbor Hotel and the nearby concrete garage that Hizzoner blocked Chiofaro from developing—are illustrations of Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick, the former flashing a peculiar and menacing grimace.
I highly doubt that the Palm mural was intentionally drawn to spite the mayor. Still, the message in it remains that in Downtown Crossing, businesspeople are King Kong, while the rest of us—elected pols included—are merely funny-looking mortals. As well over 100 suits and such congregated at the Palm on Tuesday, exchanging pleasantries and showing off their Cape Cod tans, there was a feeling that the program would entirely focus on development, or at least the business of making lots of money. With Chiofaro sitting in the front row like a monarch watching his jesters, it was at least my expectation that we’d get a fight over who should be the next mayor of the skyline.
The candidates must have seen things differently. Looking out at the roomful of moguls, Connolly began by saying that the biggest challenge facing Boston is the access and achievement gap in our schools. This was to be expected of the councilor, whose campaign is based around invigorating public ed and luring middle-class families back to BPS. The prep school set at the Palm, however, could not have seemed to care less, their eyes wandering and fingers texting through Connolly’s pedagogical proposals. Though Walsh fared somewhat better off the bat—at least mentioning economic growth—he, too, introduced issues that bored attendees. By the time that Yancey started talking about helping less fortunate residents share in the riches and employment of downtown, there appeared to be a serious disconnect between crowd expectations and debate substance.
There were a few select moments in which each of the candidates presented ideas that piqued business interests. On the subject of MBTA inadequacy, Connolly was particularly poignant, arguing that transportation limitations are keeping Boston from becoming a 24-hour silicon metropolis that can retain the likes of Dropbox. But while the councilor won points for weaving transit and even education into his vision for municipal growth, he lost the audience with compassionate talk about affordable housing. As did Walsh and Yancey. Had they surveyed the room closely, the mayoral hopefuls would have noticed that most of those present cared less about apartment subsidies than folks in Hyde Park care about an East Boston casino.
The next two invitation-only Chiofaro forums—July 11 and 18, also at the Palm—will be interesting. At the very least, they should help reveal who is the ideal Downtown Candidate, adept at playing ball with builders without giving the whole ranch away. From the spectacle on Tuesday, it seems that Walsh, Connolly and Yancey—while all clearly capable of negotiating where the next skyscrapers should and shouldn’t go—are neighborhood guys through and through. Perhaps the steakhouse coterie will embrace Councilor Mike Ross, whose district spans from Back Bay and Beacon Hill through Kenmore and even parts of Allston. Whether him or somebody else, if any candidates hope to convince Chiofaro and his guests that their face should replace Menino’s mug on the Palm mural, they’ll need push more than just progressive policy proposals.
Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.