Marty Walsh Is Not Tom Menino

Walsh is friendlier, more collaborative, and, two years into his administration, just as popular as his predecessor. But does that make him a good mayor?

After he finishes recapping the last two minutes of the Cardinals-Packers NFC Divisional Playoff game in exhaustive detail, then discussing the primo location of his Pats season tickets (Section 128, on the end, 18 rows up), Marty Walsh, world-class gabber, addresses—as we are wont to do these days—the matter of Donald Trump. “He’s playing off the emotions of the American people,” Walsh says. “I mean, criticizing every single living person, it’s not fair. It’s not valid.”

It’s a Sunday afternoon in mid-January and we’re at BC’s Conte Forum, to watch a youth hockey tournament at which Walsh will drop the puck and dish out countless low-fives. “You know what I’m surprised by?” Walsh asks, transitioning now to Bernie Sanders. Walsh talks rapidly, and a little more nasally than you’d think. “Young people and Bernie Sanders. Shocked at that.” He widens his eyes and stage-whispers, “They love him.” To a mainstream liberal Democrat like Walsh, the successes of both candidates suggest a possible coming of the political apocalypse. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something’s going to happen,” he predicts. “The two-party system, the way it’s structured right now, I don’t know that we’ll ever get rid of it, but people are going to start holding people accountable.”

Nationally, things certainly look dysfunctional. But in Boston, Walsh seems to be hitting his stride. Recently, he selected a designer to make over the painful Brutalism of City Hall Plaza, and in January he scored perhaps the biggest coup of his first term—a deal to bring General Electric’s corporate headquarters from Connecticut to Boston. And with it, 800 jobs and a solid foundation for the city’s growing techno-entrepreneurial scene. It’s the type of deal that makes taxpayers amnesic about unfulfilled campaign promises—like, say, doubling the number of preschool seats in the city.

The GE deal wasn’t perfect. Walsh told me Boston probably could have lured the company even without a $150 million incentive package, which raises questions about said $150 million incentive package. But when I ask Mike Ross, a former city councilor and 2013 mayoral candidate, to name Walsh’s most impressive accomplishment, he says he can do it in two letters. “G. And E.”

Boston’s GE seduction also showcased a tag-team effort by Walsh and Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who have enjoyed an unusually good working relationship. And the subtext to the Marty-Charlie bromance is this: Walsh, the consummate people person, has proven far more collaborative than his predecessor. To voters, Menino came across as an accessible civic cheerleader, but behind the scenes he could be a micromanaging power-hoarder. (Maybe he attended all those ribbon-cuttings because he wanted to cut the ribbons himself?)

Example: the Boston Redevelopment Authority. While Menino used the BRA to reward favored developers and play architect with the city’s skyline, Walsh cleaned house and commissioned two scathing audits, all without slowing down development: 2015 was a record-setting year both for market-rate sale prices and affordable real estate development.

Walsh’s BRA strategy was emblematic of a broader shift in management style. “When you talk about the former administration, it was clear that there would be repercussions when we were in disagreement,” says Boston state Representative Russell Holmes, who chairs the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. Now, not so much: The Walsh administration, initially skeptical about mandating body cameras for police officers, has agreed to a pilot program. “There’s no person up and down the ranks, there is no commissioner whose cell phone number I don’t have,” Holmes says. “Which is very different.”

Meanwhile, anxieties about union intimidation and plummeting bond ratings have gone unfounded as Walsh has used his labor cred to play dealmaker, not give the store away. The city firefighters contract, which Walsh got signed almost immediately upon entering office after years of Menino-era gridlock, was by all accounts a reasonable one. More significantly, he convinced the Boston Teachers Union to do the unthinkable—extend the public school day, which was one of the shortest in the country. “I don’t think anyone could have gotten that done except him,” Connolly says. “I think he has been able to talk to the unions in ways that most other elected officials cannot. He has their trust, so he can at least engage them in honest dialogue.”

There have been hiccups. When the Teamsters were planning to picket a shoot for the Bravo TV show Top Chef, Walsh’s tourism chief called a couple of local businesses ahead to let them know, leading some to believe the city was pressuring the show to hire union labor. (An internal review found no evidence of attempted extortion, merely a “friendly heads-up.”) Still, the Chamber of Commerce crowd seems content with Walsh. “We’ve been pleased over the last two years that he has pretty much maintained [Menino’s] conservative approach to city finances,” says Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “I don’t think anybody in the business community has seen any evidence at all of him pandering to the unions,” says Suffolk Construction chairman and CEO John Fish.

“A lot of people did not expect him to be as responsive to the business community as he had been,” says Larry DiCara, a Nixon Peabody attorney and former mayoral candidate. But it was in large part thanks to the city’s most powerful business elite that Marty From the Block ran into his first major test—Boston’s controversial bid for the 2024 Olympics.

 

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The consummate people person, Walsh has enjoyed a bromance with Republican Governor Charlie Baker. / Photograph by the Boston Globe/Getty Images

Boston 2024, of course, wasn’t Walsh’s idea. Nor was he in charge of organizing it. But a year into his first term, when he got on board with the idea of a summer Games in Boston—and dispatched several members of his inner circle to work for the bid—Walsh became its public face. From the perspective of the boardroom types running the bid, including Fish and Steve Pagliuca, this was good PR: Maybe people would forget that a bunch of boardroom types were running the show! From Walsh’s perspective, the political benefit wasn’t obvious.

At the very first Boston 2024 press conference, in January 2015, a reporter asked the chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, Larry Probst, what guarantees he could make that taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill for the Games. He replied, “I’m not sure I’m the person who should answer that question” and motioned to Walsh. For the next six months, until the bid finally died, this became a pattern: Some damning Olympic revelation would emerge, and Walsh would find himself in a room full of reporters trying to clean up the mess.

Occasionally, he played the white knight, like when he pressured Boston 2024 to reveal former Governor Deval Patrick’s $7,500-a-day salary. (Patrick eventually went pro bono.) But for the most part, Walsh didn’t do the bid a ton of favors. He was in denial over the deep opposition to the Olympics, criticizing Boston 2024 opponents as “10 people on Twitter.” He flip-flopped on his support for a public referendum. And he signed a First Amendment–stifling document banning city employees from dinging the Games.

Beneath it all was a sense that Walsh was carrying water for a bunch of white-shoe Brahmins at the expense of poorer voters whose neighborhoods were being sized up for Olympic suitability. And that perception inflamed an already-festering wound: Boston was recently ranked the most unequal city in the country. Walsh was elected mayor in part because he garnered a number of crucial minority endorsements. But if anything poses a challenge to Walsh’s Mayor for Life trajectory, it’s demographics. While the 2013 election may have pitted two white Irish gents against each other, Boston is currently 53 percent minority. And many members of the city’s young political ascendancy—City Council President Michelle Wu, Councilor Ayanna Pressley, State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, and Councilor Tito Jackson—are not white.

Among them, Jackson is the one the political chatterbugs deem most likely to challenge Walsh in 2017. The councilor from Roxbury is loath to say anything explicitly critical of the mayor himself, but has strategically positioned himself opposite Walsh on key issues. In 2014 he proposed the creation of a commission on issues facing black and Latino men and boys; the mayor vetoed it, assuring him the administration was already on it. More recently, Jackson told me he thought City Hall was slow to react to long-simmering tensions at Boston Latin, where minority students accused school administrators of failing to address racist taunting. Jackson’s most pointed critique of the administration, however, concerned Boston’s Olympic bid.

“I thought that with the Olympics, we could take a really broad look at planning for the whole city, and using that lens to look at planning, housing, and equity across the board,” Jackson tells me, sitting in Caffè Nero, near Downtown Crossing. Jackson wears a dark overcoat and eyeglasses with his name emblazoned on the stems. “The disappointment that I had is I believe there were many in the community that were not at the decision-making table.” Boston 2024, he’s saying, was run by rich, white Boston, for rich, white Boston. When I ask Jackson if he’s running for mayor, he won’t answer. When I ask him if he stands by his previous endorsement of Walsh, he says, “I’m not going to answer that on the record.”

Yet for all the skepticism surrounding Boston 2024, the mayor somehow emerged unscathed. In late July, Walsh announced he could not support the bid any longer, citing fiscal concerns. At that point, the USOC was planning to yank the Olympics from Boston anyway, but Walsh wound up looking like a savior. “Marty is a very skillful politician,” says Conor Yunits, a political consultant who went from cofounding No Boston Olympics to siding with Walsh, once the mayor got involved. “I thought he handled it very well.”

Polling reflects that. Last July, in the heat of Olympic fever, Walsh notched a 73 percent favorability rating in the city. A more recent poll, commissioned internally, had him at 77 percent. That isn’t just well liked. That’s loved.

During our interview in his office, I ask Walsh to name an accomplishment that explains his gravity-defying popularity. He waves me off.

“So, some people will say, ‘One of your greatest accomplishments is luring GE to Boston,’” he tells me. “Others might think, ‘One of your greatest accomplishments is, in under a year, building a new homeless shelter and replacing every bed on Long Island.’ Other people might say, ‘Calling somebody who’s lost a kid to addiction.’ There’s really not one moment. I’m just literally grateful I have this job. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m the mayor of Boston, even though I’ve been here for two years now. I’m like, wow, this is incredible.”

Marty Walsh isn’t beloved because of anything he’s done. In Boston, Marty Walsh—the cancer-kicking, streetwise underdog from Savin Hill—is beloved because he says stuff like that.


Simon van Zuylen-Wood Simon van Zuylen-Wood, Contributing Editor svzwood@gmail.com