Marty Walsh On Overcoming Challenges And Taking On Violence In Boston

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Marty Walsh (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Marty Walsh (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ahead of Boston's preliminary mayoral election on Sept. 24, which will narrow the field from 12 to two, WBUR is speaking with all of the candidates about the city and issues. State Rep. Marty Walsh has represented Dorchester since 1997 and joined Radio Boston to discuss his experience and his vision for the future of Boston.

Anthony Brooks: So I read that you have wanted to run for mayor since you were 10 years old.

Marty Walsh: That was my mother.

Why the early attraction to local politics, and why to becoming mayor of Boston in particular?

I mean, I grew up in a house where politics was always discussed, and you know my father wasn’t in politics but he always talked about politics. I grew up in a very political neighborhood in Dorchester and I just loved it. I just, I was drawn to it at an early age, and I love holding the signs and loved the bumper stickers. I often told, you know, told some kids in the past ... I wanted to see my name on a bumper sticker. And I got it on a bumper sticker. But no, I ran [because] I generally love helping people and being in office is just one of those ways. I view it as a very good, honorable profession.

You’ve survived a number of big challenges on the personal front. You were diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer when you were just 7 years old. People thought you weren’t going to survive. You survived a gunshot wound when you were 22, and you’re a recovering alcoholic. I understand you’ve been sober since 1995. What made you realize that you needed to become sober?

It’s the feelings ultimately. You know, when I went to detox I had no intention of stopping drinking. I went to detox to kind of get the heat off me, if you will. And the first night I was in the detox a commitment came in, a group of people came in to talk about their experience, strength and hope, and I got hooked. And I listened ... and I learned a lot about what I have as a disease and that completely transformed my life. That really put me on a whole different outlook on life.

And recovery’s incredible. I mean, my life is completely transformed. I was able to run for state representative and have had 16 wonderful years on Beacon Hill and recovery is a big, big part of my story. And I kind of equate recovery to the cancer. I mean, I have been fortunate. I have had two major points in my life that there’s been an intervention to some degree. And it’s helped build me for the person I am.

Let me ask you a little bit about your career as a state representative. What was your toughest vote?

Oh, good question. Probably the first death penalty vote.

Now remind us, what was the vote?

1997. I was three months into the House of Representatives and there was a death penalty debate. Paul Cellucci was the governor and there was a little boy that got killed in Cambridge and that murder was fresh in everyone’s minds — little Jeffrey Curley. And for about three weeks I literally changed my mind every single day — for it, against it. And I would talk to different people and ultimately I came up with the position to vote against it. Leaving the House of Representatives that night was a very eerie feeling because you had a lot of family members of victims of murder in the building and it was a tough vote.

Well, what did you say to them? Because the victims of murder of course have pretty compelling argument.

There’s two things, I think, that are important to remember here. Number one is that, you know, the system makes mistakes. And if the death penalty were reinstated here and we convicted somebody for first degree murder and they were put to death, we can’t bring them back if we find out they actually didn’t do it. And secondly, I honestly, and this is part of my reasoning for it back then, was that penalty, life in jail without parole — and that’s what first degree murder is in this state, you do not get parole, first degree murder — you know, spending the rest of your life in a four-by-four foot cell with maybe a half hour a day out in the yard I find is a far worse penalty than putting someone to death.

You grew up in Dorchester, you’re the son of Irish immigrants who came to Boston in the 1950s. You’ve been referred to as the labor candidate in this race. You followed in your dad’s footsteps, becoming a union laborer and leader. It’s come up as an issue in this campaign because of the money you’ve raised from organized labor — about $250,000. What do you say to the critics who say that ties you too closely to labor interests and might compromise your ability to negotiate with city workers who are unionized should you be elected mayor?

Well, first of all, as far as the donations go, I mean, I don’t see any difference in that as compared to defense attorneys giving to some of my opponents here, or corporate attorneys giving to my opponents. You know, I’m not getting a lot of that money into this campaign, so I don’t view it that way and I don’t begrudge them either for it. As far as making, holding me that I can’t run this city right, it’s just not accurate. I mean I have certainly stood on my own many times in the House of Representatives and voted against the interests of what would be organized labor.

What did you do? When did you do that? I mean, what would you point to as the most significant vote?

Education reform, by far. In the Level 4 schools in Boston, underperforming schools, changing some of the rights in the contracts. We did it legislatively. And you know it wasn’t an easy vote for a lot of people that were upset with me about it. I’m not gonna say I took on the union, but I didn’t do what the union wanted in that case, and I advocated for that piece of legislation because I felt it was extremely important to do that. And I’m the only candidate in the race that actually had an ability to do something about education reform. A lot of people are talking about it, but I actually had a vote to implement it here in the city of Boston.

I will make sure that the discussions that we have with any union for that matter will be open and transparent. I will lay all the cards on the table. I will be open and I will do everything in my power to avoid and eliminate, not going to arbitration. We have to solve these at the negotiating table.

In recent years there’s been a lot of, sort of feel-good stories about the overall crime rate coming down. But as you know, there are pockets in this city that are still plagued by violence. So for many families and parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, statistics about low crime rates are meaningless if people are still being shot in the street. So how do we make Boston a safer city for everyone, for all communities?

Well, we’re not gonna police our way out of this problem. We’re looking at this as a public health problem. What my campaign’s proposing is to go into the neighborhoods almost like a political campaign, go into different people’s houses, knock on doors and find out what the challenges are as well as doing it back in the school.

When we passed education reform, we were supposed to have wrap-around services for some of these families and we don’t have them. So a combination of the wrap-around services for the young kids that are in our school system currently and also going out and identifying the challenges and the needs of some of these young people have that are creating the violence — a lot of these kids are addicted to drugs. A lot of these kids have no future. They have no education. A lot of these kids, it’s intergenerational poverty. So really have to go out and do a full, comprehensive look at it. You know we can’t let another generation of kids be lost to the street. You just can’t.

Let me ask you about how this city is changing around issues of diversity, race, so on. There’s talk about a sort of new Boston versus the old Boston. And I’ll be blunt here, but how does a white, Irish-Catholic guy from Dorchester make the case that he represents the new Boston?

I do it every day as a state representative. My district is 56 percent people of color. I’ve spent my whole career on Beacon Hill and as head of the Building Trades making sure that there’s opportunities for everybody. We still have major divides in this city. I’ve seen that in this campaign. And we need to do better than that.

I think the things I can do as mayor of the city of Boston is to make sure that that the upper echelon of the police department reflects the city of Boston. Making sure that the school department reflects the city of Boston. Making sure that all of my cabinet-level positions that we’re gonna be appointing ... making sure it represents the city of Boston. And we also have to let people know that there are problems out there, and we have to address those problems. We can’t ignore them and turn our back on them. We need to address the problems head-on.

I wanna ask you to sum up Mayor Menino’s legacy. What did Mayor Menino do to this city, and what happened to the city during his many terms in office?

Tom Menino’s gonna go down as a great mayor of the city of Boston. You know, the fiscal stability of this city is remarkable. I mean, what Tom Menino has done in very bad fiscal times and kept our city very, very strong. But he really has done an unbelievable job as far as the economic engine of this city, keeping the city together, and that’s important for the next mayor. You have to be careful. You have to keep your eye on the pocketbook, and make sure that, you know, you don’t spend the money you don’t have, number one. And number two, make sure you keep our bond rating high so in the rainy days we have the money.

This segment aired on September 10, 2013.


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