Five Keys to Tonight’s #OlympicsDebate on Boston 2024

How will the two sides fare in their first televised showdown?

Photos via AP

Photos via AP

While there’s no election in the near future, there is a lot riding on tonight’s debate between opponents and supporters of the effort to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston. For parched local political junkies bored by the slow-motion car accident unfolding just north of the border (read: 2016 presidential primary), this debate is a refreshing cold drink in the middle of the scorching Summer of Trump.

A live debate on this issue that is so accessible to so many has not transpired throughout the now almost two-year-old effort to bring the Games to the Hub. There have been other moments where both sides have gathered to discuss their differences but this one feels different, particularly with the additions of two national figures to the debate stage.

Chris Dempsey of No Boston Olympics and Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College will represent the opposition. Boston 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca and Daniel Doctoroff, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s board of directors, are slated to represent the pro-Olympic side. The debate will be moderated by Sacha Pfeiffer of the Boston Globe and Maria Stephanos of WFXT. You can watch it live on Fox 25 from 8-9 p.m.

Here are the five keys to tonight’s debate:

1. The Transparency Issue

Both sides have struggled with their own transparency issues, but the burden is overwhelmingly on Goliath—not David.

Boston 2024 can claim to be a transparent organization, but they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to release a slew of documents and information on their effort. Bid organizers have caused themselves an economy-sized Tylenol bottle’s worth of headaches by steadfastly refusing to release information, only capitulating once Mayor Marty Walsh publicly demanded it. This has been reflected in poll numbers showing Walsh enjoying strong favorability, while Olympic boosters struggle to maintain favorable standing with more than 40 percent of the public.

It’s hard to understand the calculus behind many of the bid’s political decisions, but insiders say the demands on Boston 2024 are coming from all sides, making it difficult for them to act. The group has been reluctant to release any information, but Walsh and others, including Governor Charlie Baker and the Boston City Council, have turned up the heat to make the group more transparent.

No Boston Olympics has faced some heat for not releasing all their financial data initially, but it has left the group largely unscathed. The public does not appear to care that much about a budget that is smaller than the retail price of a fully loaded Ford Focus. This line of attack on No Boston Olympics, to which even Walsh has contributed, has not stuck. Polls show the opponents of the games are actually more popular than the organizers.

2. How does Pagliuca handle his return to the debate stage? 

This is not Pagliuca’s first rodeo.

During his failed run in the 2009 Democratic primary to fill former Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat, he came across unpolished in debates, unversed in politics and policy. On the campaign trail, he polled respectably as a first-time candidate with little name recognition, but finished in last place in the Only Poll That Matters after spending a small fortune. Pagliuca is not exactly an intense or captivating public speaker, but he has shown he is knowledgable on this subject matter in particular. Plus he has more experience under the klieg lights than his opponents.

But don’t count Dempsey out. The No Boston Olympic co-chair has hustled for media attention despite a shoestring budget. He’s no stranger to the rough-and-tumble world of Massachusetts politics, either. Zimbalist and Doctoroff, meanwhile, are relative newcomers to the debate stage.

3. Bid 1.0 vs Bid 2.0 

Since the release of Bid 2.0, the line from Olympic boosters has been more or less: “Bid 1.0 no longer matters. It’s all about Bid 2.0.” Look for Dempsey and Zimbalist to bring up the issue that Bid 1.0 is the plan that actually won over the USOC, and the new proposal is a major shift from the walkable, compact games that were part of the initial pitch. Pagliuca has an opportunity here to deflect any kind of blame on Bid 1.0 and talk about how they have listened to the public much more since the initial release, reflected in Bid 2.0.

4. The moderators 

Instead of a Globe beat reporter tasked with covering the Olympic bid process or WFXT’s regular political reporter, we’re getting two very experienced local broadcasters for moderators in Pfeiffer and Stephanos. We don’t really know what to expect from these two in a political/policy debate, so they are quite the wild cards as moderators

5. Ballot questions about money

Evan Falchuk, owner of possibly the wildest hair in all of Massachusetts politics, is moving forward with a ballot question designed to shield state taxpayers from being on the hook for anything Olympics-related unless tied to infrastructure improvements. Dempsey’s group has said they support his effort, and Boston 2024 CEO Rich Davey told WBZ-FM’s Dan Rea he would support such a ballot question.

Boston 2024, along with Walsh, was initially against any kind of ballot question on the Olympics in the same way they were against releasing information. That changed when public support for the Games cratered in spectacular fashion. At one time, the bid suggested that even if one was held, they would not necessarily abide by it. Since their reversal, however, they have not made any moves to create the necessary political committee to lead any kind of effort though.