Boston is now Martin Walsh’s neighborhood

Walsh is finding that being mayor is a blur of decisions, distractions, and demands, but also a chance to put his mark on this old town.

By Andrew Ryan

 |  Globe Staff  

  February 02, 2014

Martin J. Walsh says his condo could fit into the second-floor parlor of the city-owned Parkman House on Beacon Hill.


Martin J. Walsh says his condo could fit into the second-floor parlor of the city-owned Parkman House on Beacon Hill.

As the pink light of dawn recedes over Savin Hill, a man opens his front door and steps into the cold. He peers down from his porch, surveying what may now be the safest block in Boston.

A police cruiser has been parked there all night. These days, a police cruiser is always there.

The man — Mayor Martin J. Walsh — holds a set of keys, a relic from his past life. His car will sit in the driveway, as it has for weeks. The other day, he started it up and drove a few feet down the driveway. Just to move it.

His ride idles in the street, a black Chevy Tahoe hybrid driven by a plainclothes police officer. It’s the same vehicle — and, on this morning, the same driver — that ferried former mayor Thomas M. Menino. A city protects its mayor, whether he’s been in office 20 years or 20 days.



A day in the life of Walsh

Walsh nods at the squad car, the police, the protection.

“This is bizarre,” he says.

Life has changed completely for Boston’s first new mayor in two decades. At stoplights, people in other cars do double takes. Shoppers in the grocery store snap cellphone pictures. An autograph seeker tries to follow the mayor into the bathroom of a steakhouse (his security detail intervenes). Heads turn at a Patriots game, where Walsh has held season tickets for decades.

“A guy looked at me and said, ‘That’s the mayor of Boston,’ ” Walsh recalls. “I’ve sat next to him for 20 years.”

A day shadowing Walsh makes this much plain: The job is all-consuming; there’s no time for the inconsequential, or for idle thoughts.

It’s 8 a.m. and the Tahoe lumbers up Dorchester Avenue, past the corner where a bullet grazed Walsh almost 25 years ago, past a dry cleaner with a red Walsh-for-mayor sign in the window.

He sits in the front passenger seat and keeps his head down, eyes buried in his two iPhones, one his personal phone, the other city-issued. A news broadcaster says his name on the radio. His face is on the cover of the Boston Herald with the headline: “Walsh’s first crisis: Spike in fatal violence; 9 slayings, 19 days.”

He arrives at City Hall at 8:23 a.m. His police driver unlocks a private entrance. He has his own elevator that whisks him up to his fifth-floor office. He throws his overcoat on a chair — he still hasn’t found a place to hang it up — and unwraps a piece of gum, which he throws in his mouth. His jaw flexes as he begins to chew.

Walsh sits behind the desk — something Menino almost never did — and fiddles with a pack of Post-it notes. The middle desk drawer is antiseptically neat, with everything in its place: paper clips, pens, a toothbrush with a protective cover over the bristles. One of his top aides, Joseph Rull, appears in the doorway.

“What’s up?” Walsh asks.

“It’s busy,” Rull says.

* * *

Walsh walks to the office next door for an 8:30 a.m. staff meeting. He hasn’t fully adjusted to the idea that when he wants to meet, people will come to him. Does he want to be that kind of mayor? Still sorting it out.

Seven people crowd an oval table, which holds cups of coffee and three laptops. The roster includes Rull; the mayor’s press people; his attorney and adviser Elissa Flynn-Poppey; and his chief of staff, Daniel Arrigg Koh. Policy chief Joyce Linehan is there, too, pecking at a laptop festooned with two blue bumper stickers that declare: “Don’t blame me — I’m from Massachusetts.”

Martin Walsh is still sorting out his approach to his mayoralty as he settles in. “A lot of it now is reacting because I’m new.”

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Martin Walsh is still sorting out his approach to his mayoralty as he settles in. “A lot of it now is reacting because I’m new.”

They are reading headlines, talking about the spate of deadly shootings, parsing out the day ahead. The conversation zips through a host of topics: an announcement of a grant to combat asthma; an update on reports from his transition team; a discussion about an upcoming monthly radio feature called “ask the mayor.” He is attending the governor’s State of the Commonwealth speech.

But mostly, they talk about the violence.

Walsh leans forward, elbows on knees, jaw pulsing as he chews his gum. He is frustrated because the media are demanding a press conference. He has begun taking steps to tamp down the violence, he says. He wants to treat neighborhood trauma and get at root causes. But he says no to the press conference. They just want a sound bite. The insatiable hunger of the press is an adjustment.

On this night, he is speaking at a graduation for Year Up, a job training program that places urban youth in corporate apprenticeships. TV reporters will be there, looking for a comment on the violence. Walsh wants the media to cover the graduation. Highlight what’s being done to break the cycle, he says. Not just the violence.

“This isn’t like a snowstorm where we can go out and shovel,” Walsh says. “This is a long-term problem that’s been going on for generations in American cities.”

* * *

Walsh throws his gum in the garbage and unwraps a fresh piece. The 46-year-old former labor leader is sturdy but trim with a wide, sometimes goofy smile. He plasters his reddish hair neatly in place with gel and has a skin-colored mole high on his left cheek. On this day, he wears a gray suit with subtle blue pinstripes, powder-blue tie, and a white shirt.

The anteroom immediately outside the mayor’s office is a hectic crossroads. There are three doors. Two receptionists regulate the flow, knocking on the mayor’s door to keep meetings moving. A coffee table has an Irish America magazine. Walsh’s face is on the cover with the headline: “A hero for the working man.”

A young aide enters the anteroom with a puzzled look. “Do you know where Joyce is?” he asks, pointing at two of the doors. “I think she’s in one of these rooms.”

Walsh is on his sixth meeting, running 15 minutes late. He listens to a labor negotiations update. He’s sitting at the head of a 10-foot mahogany table, occupying the perch where Menino always sat.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a postcard-perfect view of Boston: the red bricks and grasshopper weather vane of Faneuil Hall, curving narrow streets, and the bright blue sparkling water of Boston Harbor. A police siren wails in the distance. Walsh is learning to distinguish between police and fire sirens. He thinks about where they are going, whether he’ll get a call. He has different worries now.

Walsh looks back at the table. For the moment, he must focus on the contract update.

“It would be nice to get this done,” he says.

* * *

It’s afternoon and Walsh is sticking his hand up a fireplace in Parkman House, the city-owned Greek Revival mansion on Beacon Hill. He is feeling for ashes, checking to see whether the fireplace is still used. He possesses a child-like enthusiasm. Ask the right question, and Walsh will take you into the basement of his Dorchester condo to see his sports memorabilia. Or he’ll stick his hand up a fireplace at Parkman House.

The mansion is extraordinary: original portraits and Chinese porcelain, 14-foot ceilings, an elevator, and a dining room capable of hosting 60 for supper. Walsh says his roughly 800-square-foot condo in Savin Hill could fit in the mansion’s second-floor parlor.

He is here hosting an informal meeting of local mayors. He wants to work together and not fight over resources and companies and people. Walsh is sitting in a leather chair, drinking coffee with milk and sugar, talking with Mayor Alex B. Morse of Holyoke. Other mayors chitchat.

Walsh is in the center of the room, but he isn’t the focal point. Not yet. He wants to start the meeting, but he can’t quiet the chatter. He looks to Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria for help.

“Can you whistle?” Walsh asks.

But DeMaria can’t hear him. Walsh raises his voice a little louder. The chatter subsides. He leads a discussion. He still sounds like a state representative, referring to people’s “districts” or “areas.” These are mayors. They control cities and towns. No matter the words, his tone stresses cooperation.

“I believe in strength in numbers,” Walsh says.

* * *

The phone rings in the car. This is one of those calls: a parent looking for help with a son struggling with addiction. Walsh is a recovering alcoholic, sober now for almost 20 years. He’s long been a leader in the recovery community, taking phone calls at all hours, helping people get help. As mayor, he won’t give up his old cellphone. Too many people need the number.

“Where’s the kid, Mass. General?” Walsh asks. “Was he doing heroin? Or was it more than that?”

* * *

A crowded union hall heaves with excited hotel workers. Walsh’s campaign anthem blares, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” driven by accordion, banjo, and guitar. He enters like a hero. The crowd roars, clapping and raising their arms. Cellphone cameras flash.

“Mayor Marty Walsh. It feels good to say that, doesn’t it?” shouts Local 26 president Brian Lang. “Immigrant parents. Worked with his hands. Built his union. Lives in our neighborhoods. Shares our dreams. Marty is us.”

Walsh is here to say thank you for the election. The endorsement of Local 26 was a turning point. The union is a liberal force composed largely of people of color. The endorsement helped him grow beyond his base in Dorchester and South Boston. And it validated his progressive bona fides.

Walsh delivers a stump speech, ticking off his biography. But he has a different ending. On election night, he slept at the Boston Park Plaza hotel. He ordered room service. A member of Local 26 delivered the food, he says. He points to her in the union hall crowd. She left the trays in the hall, he says, and ran in the hotel room to give him a hug.

“She said basically, ‘I just got elected mayor of the city of Boston,’ ” Walsh says. “I want to thank you for that. That’s when it really started to sink in that we won.”

* * *

The media find Walsh backstage at John Hancock Hall in Back Bay, before the Year Up graduation. He is patient when a cameraman’s microphone malfunctions. They ask about the spike in killings. He says there is work to be done, that nine dead is nine too many.

Police have seized 20 guns this year. But policing alone will not solve violence, he says. The city needs to increase opportunities and programs for young people. Programs such as the corporate apprenticeships at Year Up.

Moment later, he’s on stage, addressing an audience of about 1,000, speaking to graduates. He reads from notes and stumbles over statistics. His numbers are wrong, he says. The audience laughs.

“I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote this speech. I’m getting rid of the notes,” Walsh says, looking up. “I know what Year Up does. Let me just say this: When the news media talks about what’s going on in the city of Boston and they talk about violence, they don’t talk about Year Up graduates.”

He goes into stump-speech mode again. This time, he highlights his adversity. He talks about childhood cancer and struggling in school. A nun liked him so much in fifth grade, she kept him there an extra year. The audience laughs. He goes into detail about his drinking, blacking out, recovery, second chances. When he ran for mayor, he says, he never had a doubt he was going to win.

“The reason I tell you this story isn’t because I’m bragging,” Walsh says. “It’s because when I look out at the graduates, I’m looking in a mirror.”

* * *

Backstage, Walsh is walking fast, almost running. He has less than 20 minutes to make it to the State House for the governor’s speech. He tosses a piece of gum in his mouth. A man wants a photograph. He stops and then is off again and in the car.

The Tahoe makes good time. Lights and sirens are not necessary. This is Walsh’s first time back to the State House since resigning his seat. But mementoes of his time there are never far away. Even his cellphone reminds him: The screen saver on one of the phones shows his name in lights on the House board that captures roll call.

Inside the State House, Walsh tosses his gum in the garbage. He steps onto a red carpet and shakes the governor’s hand. Then he’s in his seat, in the front row.

After the speech, Walsh is circled by seven reporters. He thrusts his hands in his pockets and takes questions: property taxes, revenue estimates, the retirement system, and more about the recent run of violence.

“Anything else?” he asks.

* * *

The mayor’s office is dark. Walsh gropes a wall, quickly finding the light switch. He is looking for the text of a speech he is giving at 8 the next morning, less than 12 hours away.

The mayor is hungry and talking to his aides about ordering a pineapple, ham, and onion pizza from a joint on Savin Hill Avenue. The best Hawaiian pizza in town, he says. There are no takers. He orders a salad and chicken fingers. He is down the elevator, back in the car, and bound for Dorchester.

“There’s still a lot of work to do before I get settled in the job. A lot of it now is reacting because I’m new,” Walsh says. “We haven’t had the time to implement the policies we talked about during the campaign. We’re still in the setup phase.”

At Venice Pizza, the woman behind the counter smiles. She hands him his food but doesn’t recognize him as mayor. Walsh is home at 9 p.m. A patrol car is parked at the curb. Inside the house, he turns on the light. The Tahoe drives away.

Walsh sets down his keys and flips through his mail. He clicks on the television and flips to the State of the Union speech. He says he is going to slip into his New England Patriots sweat pants, sink into the couch, eat the chicken fingers and salad, and watch the president.

“Today was a busy day. I’m a little tired,” Walsh says. “Another day in the life.”