Running For Mayor, Walczak Pitches Himself As The Accomplished Visionary

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It was, perhaps, the strangest moment in the city's mayoral race.

Candidate Bill Walczak had just finished a speech on his crime-fighting plan when a mentally ill man tore into the small crowd, punched several people in the face, and grabbed a woman by the hair before stumbling down the street.

It was a jarring experience. But it was, in an odd way, a fitting capstone on the event — a sort of argument for the approach Walczak had just laid out.

Bill Walczak (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Bill Walczak (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The talk, at the heart of Dorchester's Codman Square, was peppered with standard calls for more crime watches and summer jobs for at-risk kids. But at its most edifying, it provided a glimpse into the worldview of the man who would be mayor.

Crime, he argued, is but one piece of a deeply connected web of urban dysfunction: the maps of violence and decayed housing and illness all overlapping.

Only by approaching that web in a holistic way, he suggested — only by tackling the interconnected problems afflicting the city's most troubled and vulnerable — can Boston heal itself.

"What we need to do is bring a public health attitude, a prevention attitude, if we are going to be able to make a difference in the lives of people who live in communities like Codman Square," he said.

Walczak, 59, is not the only candidate who talks about the interlocking pathologies of poverty.

But he's one of just two — along with former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative executive director John Barros — who can claim to have engaged them in a big, on-the-ground way.

His life's work is the Codman Square Health Center: a sprawling, ambitious place just across the street from the site of his speech last Sunday. And its story is at the heart of his campaign.

But with just a month to go before the Sept. 24 preliminary election, when voters will narrow the 12-candidate field to two, it's not clear if that story can vault him into the mayor's office.

'The Kid's Got Some Points'

Walczak grew up in the blue-collar town of Iselin, N.J., the son of two factory workers.

"When I was growing up you could tell which way the wind was blowing because of the particular smell — there were chemical smells from the south, there were petroleum smells from the northeast," he said.

His father dreamed he might escape to a career in polka, buying the 8-year-old Walczak a black-and-white accordion; the candidate played it just this week at a campaign stop in a Brighton senior housing complex.

Most Iselin kids wound up in a factory, though. And Walczak seemed headed in the same direction. But a seventh-grade teacher told his parents that he had potential. And he tested into a Catholic boys school down the road.

Walczak won a scholarship to Boston University, but he dropped out after a semester, more interested in activism than academia.

His first date with his future wife Linda, a Dorchester native he met hitchhiking back to the city from Cape Cod, was a counter-inaugural for President Richard Nixon in Washington. The pair married at St. Gregory's Church at age 18.

Walczak was an opinionated doer from the start.

Joe Burnieika was serving as vice president of the Columbia/Savin Hill Civic Association when he first encountered the activist — an outsider making all kinds of recommendations to the locals.

You just didn't do that in 1970s Dorchester, Burnieika said.

"I looked at this kid...and he comes in with a tie-dye shirt and a bandana around his head and of course, we're all — except for me, I'm Lithuanian — everyone else is Irish-Catholic and they [say], 'Who the hell is this guy?,' " Burnieika said. "But he made an immediate impact."

Walczak questioned the quality of MBTA service in the neighborhood and raised concerns about redlining by the banks. No one in the group even knew what redlining was.

"What it forced us to do as an organization is say, 'Hey, the kid's got some points, we oughta listen to him,' " Burnieika said.

Walczak soon trained his attention on Codman Square. Violence and arson had destroyed the place. The Boston Globe labeled it Boston's Badlands.

And when the city announced plans to abandon the neighborhood library, there was every reason to believe it would go up in flames.

Walczak, at a meeting of the Codman Square Civic Association in the basement of the grand old Second Church in Dorchester in December 1974, agitated for a community health center on the site.

There was considerable skepticism in the room. And Marge Muldoon, then-president of the association, dispatched of the 20-year-old by putting him at the head of the health center committee.

Walczak was persistent, though. When the city balked at his plan, he decided to embarrass then-Mayor Kevin White into action with a press conference on the steps of the library in 1978.

The health care center opened in 1979 with a full-time pediatrician and a half-time internist. Walczak was the executive director, floor washer and billing clerk. "When the nurse was on vacation, I took the beeper and answered calls," he said. "God help us. That was certainly a violation of every health care law."

Walczak quickly came to the conclusion that poverty was the real disease afflicting Codman Square. And he saw no reason why the health center couldn't become a platform for a much wider range of services.

In the late 1980s, he convinced the Kellogg Foundation to convert a grant intended to fight infant mortality into money for a much broader community organizing program. And more programs followed.

Medical students went into public housing pushing an "Eat Green, Save Green" initiative that emphasized nutrition and financial literacy. Walczak partnered with Healthworks to develop a fitness center in the neighborhood.

A push to open a first-of-its-kind charter high school in the health center met stiff resistance on the board. But he pressed ahead.

The Codman Academy Charter Public School opened in 2001. It now resides in a 34,000-square-foot building affixed to the center and bearing Walczak's name.

Every student who has ever attended the school has gone on to college.

"Nothing's really impossible to him," said Meg Campbell, a School Committee member and co-founder of Codman Academy. "The fact that it's the only school in a health center in the world — that just never came up for us."

The center serves about 21,000 people per year now, with an annual budget of $23 million.

The Long Shot

The high point of Walczak's campaign came last month, when The Boston Globe ran a front-page article on his opposition to the proposed casino in East Boston.

It was a rare moment, in the crowded race, when one candidate distinguished himself from the others on a high-profile issue.

The casino does not obviously fit into his Codman Square story.

But there is, in fact, a direct line: Walczak has framed his disdain for gambling in public health terms.

Gambling, he says, is a destructive addiction like any other — citing the experience of his own mother and aunt.

His position comes with some risk. A Globe poll from late March found 44 percent of voters in favor of the proposed casino and 37 percent opposed.

But in a large field, said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, energizing some small but significant segment of the electorate — like casino opponents — is key.

Still, Walczak hasn't broken through yet. A new poll from Boston political consulting firm Sage Systems gives him just 3 percent of the vote.

And Walczak faces some significant institutional disadvantages.

In 2011, he left Codman Square Health Center to become president of Carney Hospital in Dorchester, leaving after just 14 months when owner Steward Health Care rejected his request to create an obstetrics unit designed to draw more young families. Since then, he's taken a job as vice president of external relations at Shawmut Design and Construction.

But the nonprofit world is his touchstone. And that can be a hindrance in a political campaign — particularly when it comes to fundraising.

As of Aug. 31, he had raised roughly $260,000 and had $124,000 left in the bank, according to the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

That puts him well behind the longtime elected officials in the race, with their established fundraising networks.

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley had $1.1 million in cash on hand as of Aug. 15. City Councilor John Connolly had $665,000 and state Rep. Martin Walsh had $535,000.

Walczak doesn't have a strong electoral base, either. Voter turnout in municipal elections is typically weak in Codman Square.

Savin Hill, where Walczak lives, is typically more potent on election day. But he faces stiff competition there from Walsh, who lives just blocks away and has been in office since 1997.

Still, if Walczak's supporters acknowledge he's a long shot, they see a path to victory.

The same poll that gave him 3 percent of the vote gave the frontrunner, Connolly, just 12 percent. And it found 35 percent of voters still undecided. That's room to grow.

Walczak will continue to talk about his opposition to the casino. And he has a television advertisement on the matter queued up.

But his first ad, scheduled to run next week, will set the table with a broader message — a message that invokes his decades of work in a burned-out Dorchester neighborhood made more livable.

Splashed across the screen, a quote from Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham calling Walczak "the rare visionary who also gets it done."

Earlier Profiles:

This program aired on August 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.