The Marty Walsh Factor

Walsh is the next mayor of Boston because he's extraordinarily good at getting people to like him.

Photo via AP

Photo via AP

Over the summer, I got the crazy idea to go spend a day campaigning with nine different Boston mayoral candidates. One of the first guys up was John Connolly: he was an easy read. Smart and knowledgable, he could go deep on any issue. Most of the other candidates were talking in bullet points—I want to do this on affordability, that on crime—but Connolly had a full narrative, based around education, that knitted it all together.

The next day, I went out campaigning with Marty Walsh. He didn’t quite have the same policy mastery and, like many of the other candidates, had a whole laundry list of things about the city he wanted to improve, but no unifying vision to stitch it all together. I remember thinking that the Harvard-educated Connolly could probably debate circles around Walsh.

What Marty Walsh did have, though, was an uncommonly good touch with people. After marching in the Haitian–American Unity Parade through Mattapan, we got in a car to drive up to an East Boston Open Studios event. It wasn’t exactly the type of place you’d expect to see someone like Walsh: on the way, we listened to a Bruins-Rangers playoff game on the radio while he told me about his Patriots season tickets.

Nevertheless, at the Open Studios, Walsh checked out galleries, listened gamely to (an interminable) reading from J.G. Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, and talked at length about art policy. Next, we drove over to the nearby HarborArts outdoor exhibition space. Walsh started chatting with one of the organizers, a guy in his early 20’s. As they walked through the art, Walsh was clearly impressed with what the young curator had accomplished. Strolling out ahead of the rest of the group, Walsh quietly asked him if he’d been to college (sensing, I’m pretty sure, that the answer was no). The answer was no, but rather than hector the guy, Walsh told his own story about going back as an adult to get a bachelor degree from Boston College. The curator replied that it’d be something he’d think about. For a political encounter, the connection felt surprisingly real.

Fast forward to last night: Connolly held his election party at the Westin Copley. It was a decent sized room, but not huge. He’d had his preliminary election party at cavernous Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, and that event had felt sort of dead, despite the good news that Connolly would be advancing to the final election. This room at the Westin was smaller, making it feel more crowded and giving it more buzz. It felt like there were a few hundred people there. But even as supporters chattered hopefully, the Connolly staffers looked nervous: one, looking about as fried as possible after months of non-stop campaigning, just seemed numb. Another told me he didn’t even like being around all these people—that he just wanted to be alone. As returns started to come in, faces turned glum. Some staffers teared up and hugged. Finally, Connolly took the podium and conceded.

Meanwhile, the Walsh election night party going on at the Park Plaza hotel was loud, raucous, and massive—and that was even before it was clear he’d won. Walsh’s ballroom must have been at least three times the size of Connolly’s. Here, it felt like there were thousands of people (I’m guessing it was probably a couple thousand, though it seemed like more), including the Dropkick Murphys, who were set up near the stage. If the Connolly event had the vibe of a cocktail party, this felt like a rock concert—it was so packed that I saw a girl climb on top of a trash can to get a view of the stage. Joyce Linehan, a top Walsh advisor, told me that they booked the giant room because, win or lose, they knew Walsh tended to draw a big crowd.

Before Walsh took the stage for his big victory speech, he was preceded by a string of minority politicians who had endorsed him: Charlotte Golar Richie, John Barros, and Felix Arroyo. Later that night, Linehan said of the endorsements, “I think that was a huge part of the win.” Standing nearby, Doug Rubin, Massachusetts’ alpha-political consultant, agreed. “They opened the door to talk about other issues,” so Walsh could prove his progressive bona fides, he said. More importantly, it looks like they helped push crucial votes from the city’s communities of color into the Walsh column. That Walsh’s fellow politicians liked him enough to endorse was important, but another Walsh strategist, Michael Goldman, boiled the victory down even further: the difference, he said, came down to the personal touch: “One guy was John Connolly and the other was just Marty.”

Now, let’s not be naive: union money and connections gave Walsh a huge—maybe decisive—push. If anything won the race, it was his top-notch turnout machine, and many of those canvassers were paid union members. But there were still plenty of volunteers and hardcore supporters—the election night party was proof enough of that. And those endorsements didn’t win themselves. From the beginning, Walsh showed that, even if he couldn’t quite go toe-to-toe with Connolly on the issues, he was extraordinarily good at getting people to like him. Not enough of the downtown urbanites and school parents inclined to support Connolly made it to the polls. Walsh’s people did.

In Boston, politics has always been about the personal touch. Now as much as ever, you can be as smart as you want, but the guy who’s most liked is still the one who gets the party.