Advantage Walsh: Waiting to Decide on the Pseudo-Issue of Partners in Somerville

Friday, December 13, 2013

On Dec. 5, the old pros at Partners HealthCare System managed the news that they’re moving several thousand workers to new office buildings in Somerville with deft political hands.  No one would have expected otherwise.

Partners knew it would take a beating from Mayor Tom Menino, who had been pushing them for months to relocate the employees to a site in Roxbury.  And so it did:  on Dec. 6, Menino body-slammed the kings of our health care world on the front page of the Boston Globe.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “Partners has an obligation to this city, where they have acres and acres of tax-exempt property.  This could have been their opportunity to help revitalize Roxbury.  Every time they had a problem, they called me and I was there for them.  The social conscience has gone out of Partners.  This is all about their bottom line.”

Menino leaves office in less than a month; his ability to wreak vengeance on anybody is extremely limited. Partners knew it could ride out a storm stirred up by this lame duck. 

(That Partners was able to inflict this pain precisely because he’s in no position to retaliate will torment Menino no end.  Like that of all good politicians, his life has been a never-ending quest for the upper hand.)

Partners recognized other advantages, as well, in taking their best shot at a minimally painful news rollout now: it’s after the Boston mayoral election and before the new mayor takes office. 

Under no circumstances would Partners have allowed the Somerville story to become an issue in the Boston mayor’s race, when two fully loaded candidates could have outdone each other in the outrage department.   

Regarding the winner of that race, Mayor-elect Marty Walsh, Partners probably hoped he’d be so busy planning the transition and assembling his administrative team he would not have the time and energy in December to take a major bite out of their backsides.  A reasonable hope.

Also, Partners knew that, if it made the announcement on Somerville in early December, it would give Walsh a month to settle down and calmly assess the downside of going to war against the largest group of hospitals and related health care enterprises in Massachusetts.  The Partners board, for example, is a who’s who of the smartest, most successful and most influential people in Greater Boston. 

Why, hello there, Anne Finucane and Jim Manzi!

This is not to say that the Mayor of Boston has to avoid taking Partners on or that he’s bound to lose such a fight, only that the start of a new administration, when a mayor is getting his bearings and trying to establish a positive vision for the next four years, may not be an auspicious time for it. 

The Mayor of Boston has screws enough to turn on all those Partners’ thumbs, as Menino demonstrated whenever he got the urge to talk about more “community benefits” and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from this and other Boston non-profits.

Partners put Menino in the rearview mirror and the ball in Walsh’s court on Dec. 5.  Now it is waiting, no doubt nervously, to see how Walsh will swing.

Shirley Leung wrote a good column on this topic today on the Business page of the Globe: “Is Somerville gain really a Boston loss?”  It seemed to indicate that Walsh is taking his sweet time in deciding what to do next.

“You don’t want to lose 4,000 jobs out of the city of Boston. I’m not happy about it,” Leung quoted Walsh.  “When I talk about regionalization, I don’t talk about it from taking one business from one city to the other.  I talk about attracting new businesses to a region.  There is a very big difference here.  I wish Partners made a different decision.”

Maybe those will be Walsh’s final words in public on the issue.  It wouldn’t be a bad way to leave it behind him.  It’s not as if there are people marching every day on city hall demanding that Partners build its new offices in Boston.  This has been kind of a manufactured crisis from the beginning.  No new jobs are involved in the move to Somerville. Partners is merely consolidating a bunch of offices in one location, 10 minutes by subway from downtown Boston.

Maybe Walsh has decided it would be good to keep Partners in suspense until well into his first year in office, or later.

There’s an advantage in his holding his fire until the day he really needs something important, say a five-figure, multi-year commitment to a new program benefiting a large Walsh voting bloc.   Then he can dispatch to the Partners board room an emissary who’ll have a psychological advantage.  (When you’re the mayor of what we like to think of as a "world-class city," the messy stuff is best left to others.)

“You know, the mayor could have killed you guys on that Somerville office thing,” the emissary might say.  “But did he do that, even when Tom Menino – Tom Menino, the most beloved mayor in the history of this city! -- was screaming for your scalps?  No. No. No. He deliberately chose not to make your lives more difficult.  Now he needs you to make life a little easier for the good people of Boston.” 

If Partners improbably declines, Walsh can always reach for the PILOT thumbscrew.

No comments:

Post a Comment