Marty Walsh Is Not Tom Menino
It’s a Saturday in February, three days before the New Hampshire primary. Martin J. Walsh and I are standing in front of a beige, one-story house on a middle-class street in Manchester. Walsh taps on the screen door; no one answers. “When I was running for state rep,” he comments, “all you do is knock on doors all day long, so you can tell a lot by the hallways.” I peer into the hallway. “You can almost gauge what kind of a person’s in the home.” He points at a white object on a shelf. “Look at that mask right there.” It’s disturbingly similar to the one Jason Voorhees wore in Friday the 13th. Point made. We leave.
This is Walsh’s fourth recent trip to New Hampshire, where he’s been stumping for his preferred presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. With him are longtime girlfriend Lorrie Higgins and two of his staff members. He’s wearing a ski jacket, blue jeans, and chunky brown hiking boots. The outfit suits him. An adept retail politician, Walsh is a natural surrogate for the geniality-challenged Clinton. He’ll poke his nose into a woman’s home and compliment the “Irish bread” she may or may not be baking. He’ll drop the name of a voter’s former state rep, and say it like the guy’s his oldest friend in the world.
Watching Walsh in campaign mode, it’s not hard to see parallels to the 2013 mayoral race. Then, as now, he showed himself to be a prodigious political organizer and a grip-and-grin maestro. He can charm your gran, and then convince a few hundred townies to trudge up to New Hampshire wearing Timberland boots and “Insulators for Hillary” T-shirts. “There aren’t many people,” says Walsh’s friend Jack Hart, a former state senator from South Boston, “that run political machines around the country, urban political machines, that can promise a presidential candidate that they’ll have 1,000 people show up to knock on doors for them.”
But what about Walsh’s record in office? Two years in, it looks fairly pedestrian. His past 12 months were dominated by two efforts that didn’t go anywhere—his push for the 2024 Summer Olympics and his feud with casino magnate Steve Wynn. Several of his boldest campaign-trail proposals—think universal pre-K—have not yet come to fruition. His master plan for the city, Imagine Boston 2030, is impressive in scope. But it looks suspiciously like a revival of an unreleased Tom Menino master plan, Boston 400, which never got off the ground.
After only half a term, maybe it’s not surprising that the mayor hasn’t made a big splash. What’s more surprising is that despite the modest résumé, he enjoys a massive campaign war chest, a favorability rating that hovers around 75 percent, and murmurs of Mayor for Life endurance.
I asked some local swamis to explain the phenomenon. Mary Anne Marsh, the Dewey Square Group stalwart, suggested that Bostonians have kind of a low bar. “I think historically in Boston, one of the things people care about the most, is that the mayor makes Boston work,” she says. “The big things are great, but for the most part it’s to be able to live and operate in Boston on a daily basis that matters. That the streets are plowed, the recycling and trash get picked up, the lights work.” Walsh, by that standard, clears the bar.
UMass Boston political scientist Paul Watanabe has a slightly darker take: “The fact is, being elected mayor of Boston has become like becoming appointed to the Supreme Court. The position is yours until you step down or pass away.” He goes on. “The prevailing problems of income inequality are as difficult now as they’ve ever been,” Watanabe says, adding public education and police conduct to his list of municipal ailments. “But the fact is, they have been problems for so long, mayors almost get a pass on dealing with them because they’ve proven to be somewhat intractable.”
All plausible. Here’s another theory. The winsome personal attributes that got Walsh elected—the working-class cred, the bleeding-heart compassion, that accent—help explain why he’ll probably keep getting elected, and elected, and elected. He’s a lifelong labor leader whose parents emigrated from County Galway, Ireland. He’s a 48-year-old guy with a 65-year-old’s haircut who waited until last year to move out of his childhood neighborhood. (His new place is 4 miles down the road.) He’s a college dropout who enrolled at BC as an adult to earn his degree. He’s a Patriots season-ticket holder and a recovering alcoholic. He’s not just someone you like—he’s someone you root for.
For now, that appears to be good enough for the voters. Is it good enough for the city?
Before he was the mayor of Boston, Walsh was the unofficial mayor of Savin Hill. He coached your kid in Little League, got your cousin a job in the trades, and presided over the monthly meeting of the local civic association, fielding your complaints about street parking. Walsh’s roots as a civic leader in Dorchester, along with his deep union ties—he succeeded his Uncle Pat as the leader of Boston’s laborer’s union, Local 223—help explain why he’s never lost an election in his political career. When I asked one of his early opponents, Ed Regal, to explain how Walsh won the 1997 race that propelled him from the building trades to the state legislature, Regal may as well have been talking about the 2013 mayoral election. “He had the neighborhood,” Regal said, “and he had huge labor support.”
Before he was a favorite son of the city’s largest neighborhood, though, Walsh lived out a fairly brutal underdog story. At seven, he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, and given less than two months to live. He recovered, of course, but lost a chunk of his childhood in the process. His hair fell out, he wore a wig, and it took him four years to get well, as he floated in and out of school.
As a teenager Walsh discovered beer (“I liked the taste”) and developed an addiction to alcohol. A friend of his once described their high school clique as “kind of the nerds,” but Walsh’s brand of divertissement wasn’t exactly Dungeons & Dragons. When he was 22, Walsh and a few buddies were out late drinking at Bennigan’s, which at that point had an outpost near Boston Common. When they returned to Ryan Playground, off Dorchester Avenue, a friend who had been in a bar fight pulled up next to them in a car. On his heels was the guy he had been fighting, packing heat. The gunman, a local scofflaw named John Barsamian, fired six shots. Walsh and two of his friends got hit in the leg, though nobody was seriously hurt. But if Walsh needed an unfriendly reminder that nothing good happens after 2 a.m. while standing on a dicey corner after a night of hard drinking—this was it.
Eventually, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, kicked the habit, and, with the help of mentor and Savin Hill political fixer Danny Ryan, made a fairly seamless transition from a.m. drunk to public servant. But the Lifetime movie that was Walsh’s early life left a couple of major marks. He emerged with an almost born-again beatitude about his life trajectory, a sentiment that translates into an unusual humility for a politician of his stature. “The greatest hour-and-forty-five” he’s ever spent, he says, was with Bill Clinton, after the mayoral election. “He’s just brilliant. The four things he talked about, within the week, the New York Times editorialized about. He’s so smart. He’s like, so smart.”