The Firebrand

Ed Kelly looks like hell, and everyone in Dorchester’s Florian Hall tells him as much. He doesn’t argue with the assessment. Heavy bags sit below his eyes, and his face, always ruddy, is even redder than usual. Instead of a crisp suit, which he normally dons while on union business for the fire department, he wears khakis and a polo shirt. On this sunny May morning, Kelly, the firefighters union president; his brother Sean, the union’s treasurer; and Rich Paris, its vice president, have squeezed around a small table in one of the hall’s cramped 8-by-8-foot conference rooms to explain why Local 718 isn’t the crooked, booze-soaked, obstructionist monster the public believes it to be. As Kelly talks—and he does most of the talking—his face flushes a deeper shade of crimson still.

The past few months have not been pleasant ones for Kelly. For the first time in Boston’s history, there’s political capital to be had in taking on the firefighters union. Fueled by a run of bad press that’s included the Tai Ho restaurant blaze in West Roxbury last August that killed two firefighters—one drunk, the second with cocaine in his system—and a federal investigation alleging jakes have retired on false disability claims, public sentiment demands Mayor Tom Menino and Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser exact contrition from the union. But contrition is a tough sell at the bargaining table, where for the past two years the city and the union have waged war over Local 718’s latest contract.

Despite the union members’ problems, Kelly has ceded nothing, sticking to his reputed demands for higher salaries and perks. He’s built like a boxer—stout frame, thick neck, big hands—and battles back with a pugilist’s mentality. His negotiating style is all attack, no tact. A sampling: “The mayor’s projected that he’s taking on the union to better the department, when the facts are he hasn’t done shit to better this department in the 15 years he’s been in.” It’s the way Local 718 has always gotten what it wants, by fighting, marching, chanting. The difference this time is that, post–Tai Ho, post–alleged disability fraud, the hard line is galling. Kelly, meanwhile, seems to be doing little more than making things worse.

“They’ve embarked on probably the worst campaign to sway the public ever seen in the history of time,” says a City Hall source with knowledge of the negotiations. “They couldn’t possibly have taken more wrong turns than they have.”

Unless they were the right ones. Maybe the problem isn’t that Kelly continues to yell, but that no one listens to his concerns. Maybe Menino is as Machiavellian as Kelly makes him out to be (not such a stretch, by the way). Maybe, just maybe, it’s everybody else who’s crazy.