BOSTON — State Rep. Martin Walsh, one of a dozen candidates for mayor, sat at a large, white table at the Asian American Civic Association on the edge of Chinatown and watched.
On screen at the end of the table: an affecting film about the immigrants the organization plies with English language instruction and job training; here was the young woman who escaped the kidnappings in Haiti, the young man who escaped the tumult of Iraq.
Walsh, a clean-shaven Irish-American, didn’t look much like the people in the video — or many of those seated around the table. But he spoke a bit of their language.
He talked of his parents’ immigration from Ireland, his father’s work as a laborer and a job training program he created as head of the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella group for bricklayers, electrical workers and others that he left a few months ago to run for mayor.
“I’d love to be more active with the group,” he said, in his thick Boston accent. “You have a mission that’s right up my alley — what I care about, what I believe in: helping people.”
It was a statement of principle. But it also spoke, in a small way, to the essential task of the Walsh campaign.
In a crowded mayoral field, the candidates have had trouble distinguishing themselves. And those who have built identities have managed only narrow ones: longtime community activist Bill Walczak is the casino opponent; City Councilor John Connolly is the education candidate; Walsh is the labor guy.
Walsh is ambivalent about the label. He says he’s proud of his union roots and his advocacy for working people. And labor support — financial and on the ground – has played a significant role in pushing the candidate toward the top of the polls in a still-unsettled field.
But it has also raised questions about how a Mayor Walsh would handle negotiations with the city’s unionized workforce — questions that seem likely to intensify in the run-up to the Sept. 24 preliminary election, when voters will narrow the field to two, and in the final election should he make it there.
Political observers say his fate could turn on how he handles those concerns. And Walsh, 46, has already fashioned one response — arguing that his labor ties will allow him to speak hard truths to union workers when required.
But his comments at the Asian American Civic Association speak to a larger imperative: telling a story that, if rooted in his labor past, suggests something more expansive and humane than the caricature of the union boss.
‘A Switch Went Off’
Walsh grew up on Taft Street in Dorchester — a blue-collar block in a blue-collar part of town; years later, his family’s triple-decker would show up in the gritty film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s crime novel “Gone, Baby, Gone.”
The eldest of two boys, Walsh was diagnosed at age 7 with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a brutal cancer that spread across his body. There was radiation, chemotherapy and, ultimately, survival. The nuns at the Sisters of Charity who prayed for Walsh still call him “Miracle Boy.”
Walsh’s ordeal was, among other things, a very personal reminder of the virtues of the labor movement. His father’s union health care benefits were enormously important in that period. And there was crucial social support for his family, too.
“People rally around you,” he said. “Your brothers and sisters in the movement rally around you. I’m glad I grew up in the house I grew up in. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Walsh says he took to politics at a young age. He remembers holding a “Joe Timilty for Mayor” placard in 1975 and making signs for Gov. Ed King’s re-election bid seven years later.
He continued to work on campaigns as he grew older. He worked as a laborer for a time before taking a job in the union office. And he coached Little League baseball and youth hockey.
But as a young man his life was defined, in no small part, by his struggles with alcohol.
Walsh binged and blacked out. He said things he shouldn’t have said. And when he finally shipped off to a detox facility on Cape Cod, he said, he was less interested in quitting than “getting the heat off me.”
But then, “somebody came in the first night I was there and spoke about…how he turned his life around and a switch went off in my head,” Walsh said.
Walsh had his last drink on April 23, 1995. And two years later, he won a special election to fill a vacant seat in the state House of Representatives.
He says his experience with recovery opened him up, gave him a broader perspective. In his early days as a legislator, he pushed for state funding for AIDS treatment. He made substance abuse and mental health services a central concern.
And in 2007, he played an important behind-the-scenes role rallying opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
His main asset in that fight, activists say: As a straight, Irish Catholic guy, he was well-positioned to win over lawmakers on the fence about gay marriage.
‘You Can’t Make A Mistake’
Walsh’s supporters hope he can reprise that role in the mayoral election: serving as a bridge between an older, more traditional Boston and a newer, more progressive one.
But in the preliminary election, at least, there are plenty of candidates who can appeal to the new Boston as readily — or more readily — than Walsh.
And if the state representative is using his legislative record to suggest a forward-looking politics, he’s also employing it in service of a more conventional argument.
Walsh says his experience in politics and his relationships on Beacon Hill set him apart from the rest of the field — offering a conduit to state leaders who will make decisions about MBTA funding and other issues affecting the city.
“If you’re running for state rep, people might want somebody new,” he said. “If you’re running for mayor of Boston, you need someone with experience. Basically, Boston is a corporation. Those decisions you make as mayor, you can’t make a mistake.”
Walsh has offered a glimpse at what those decisions might look like, particularly in the realm of education. He’s called on the state to lift the cap on charter schools, pushed for robust vocational training in all of the city’s high schools and called for a big expansion of early education.
Elsewhere, though, his vision isn’t so defined.
He has called for an overhaul of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a powerful and often-controversial agency that has overseen development in the city since 1957. But he is still working out the details.
And while he suggested that tackling poverty would be a major priority in an interview with WBUR, he didn’t articulate any sweeping strategies.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said a still-evolving platform isn’t much of a liability at the moment. In such a crowded field, he argued, none of the candidates have been able to break through with a fully formed vision anyhow.
And while Walsh may face pressure to articulate a fuller program if he makes it to the final election, Ubertaccio said, ”what you’re more likely to find [in the preliminary] is that it’s a ground game — and the candidate who is best organized will be able to emerge.”
‘Nixon To China’
If organization is paramount in the early going, Walsh is in a strong position.
His campaign says he’s got about 1,500 volunteers — a small army of friends, constituents, labor supporters, recovering alcoholics and gay and lesbian activists.
The group flexed its muscle early — collecting 4,000 nomination signatures in less than six hours on the first day candidates could qualify for the ballot. And the campaign is counting on a robust canvassing and phone calling effort to deliver on election day.
Walsh has also raised some $1.1 million since the start of the campaign, more than any other candidate.
Three-quarters of that money has come from individual donors. But media attention has focused on the more than $250,000 labor has given directly to Walsh’s campaign and the roughly $200,000 union groups have spent independently on television ads and door knocking in support of the candidate.
The questions about labor support seem likely to linger, even if Walsh succeeds in telling a broader story.
And that’s where Walsh’s first argument — that he is uniquely positioned to deliver bad news to unions — will have to serve.
Walsh supporter Alex Bok, who has worked as a lawyer for high-tech firms and is attempting to bring a minor league baseball team to Malden, calls it the campaign’s “Nixon to China” argument.
The city, he argued, has seen it work before — electing Ray Flynn, a white guy from South Boston who’d once opposed a busing program aimed at school desegregation, to help soothe racial tensions.
Bok said Walsh may be better positioned than any of the candidates to negotiate solid deals with the unions and steer the city through any fiscal trouble.
Now, he said, the candidate “has to persuade people that what I’m saying, he will implement.”