First in a series of profiles of Boston’s 12 mayoral candidates.
The cancer ravaged Martin J. Walsh when he was a husky 7-year-old with bold red hair that would all fall out. They held a special First Communion for him on Christmas Day because doctors didn’t think he’d live until spring.
Years later an errant bullet hit Walsh one night on Dorchester Avenue, grazing his left leg when he was 22 and had developed a taste for alcohol. Before long he would hit bottom as an alcoholic and embrace sobriety, a turning point that gave his life focus.
Today, Walsh is a candidate for mayor of Boston as the contest enters the frenzied, post-Labor Day sprint to the preliminary election Sept. 24. He remains calm amid the tumult of the race. He is smiling, always smiling, because Walsh says he has yet to have a bad day on the campaign trail. Alcoholism, bullets, and cancer can give a man perspective.
“Subconsciously, it builds up strong character,” Walsh, now 46, says of the cancer, as he squirts ketchup on a sausage-and-egg sandwich at McKenna’s Café, a Savin Hill diner that is essentially his kitchen. “When you look back on it, it’s part of my story. Not my political story, it’s part of my story of who I am.”
Walsh courts voters with the relentless enthusiasm of a golden retriever fetching a tennis ball. He goes back and back and back again, smiling as he approaches strangers with his palm open, almost forcing them to shake his hand.
“Marty Walsh, running for mayor,” he says quickly, swallowing the contraction “I’m” as he reaches for another hand. “How’re ya buddy? Marty Walsh, running for mayor.”
The story of Walsh’s campaign — and really the man himself — begins with labor. His father was a laborer. Walsh remembers his uncle running in a union election to be business manager of Laborers Local 223. It was the bumper stickers that got him.
“I thought to myself, ‘I want to run,’ ” recalls Walsh, just a boy then. “I want my name on a bumper sticker.”
He joined the union at age 21, working briefly in construction before taking a job with Local 223 as a benefits officer. He ran in 1997 for state representative and won.
While serving in the Legislature, Walsh became president of the union local. He rose to lead the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella group that represents unions of ironworkers, electricians, and others. The job paid $175,000 a year and gave him a 2012 Jeep to drive, but Walsh resigned and gave up the perks to run for mayor.
When did he decide he would run for mayor?
“I don’t know,” Walsh says, “when I was 10?”
Unions have used membership dues to donate more than $250,000 to his campaign. The amount eclipses total fund-raising of almost half the 12 mayoral candidates, but accounts for only a quarter of Walsh’s war chest. His campaign says he has raised $862,000 from individuals.
Some candidates have sworn off outside money, but Walsh has refused. Unions and groups supporting his bid have also spent more than $200,000 independently on fliers, paid canvassers, and television ads.
The support could help Walsh advance to the final election Nov. 5, but labor could also become a liability. Critics have questioned whether, as mayor, he could fairly negotiate union contracts.
Walsh says he would have the upper hand in negotiations because unions listen to their own. “If somebody wants to attack me on labor, bring it on,” he says, describing himself as an unabashed champion of working people, but whose base is much broader than that.
“If I didn’t have the labor support I have, I’d still be in the position I am today,” Walsh says.
Walsh is more than labor, supporters say.
“He’s an exceptional guy,” says Dennis Forde, 43, who served with Walsh as an altar boy at St. Margaret’s in Dorchester and has contributed to his campaign. “I always thought he would do something major in his life.”
Walsh has been a Little League coach and a founding board member of a charter school. He has a 16-year record as a legislator.
Last month, a woman wearing hospital scrubs as she passed through the turnstile at the Fields Corner T stop thanked him for securing state funding for AIDS treatment. He has support in the gay community because he aggressively opposed an attempt to overturn same-sex marriage, a surprising stand for the devout Catholic, whose efforts drew criticism from a priest on the altar.
Walsh is a jumble of paradoxes. He is a guy’s guy who can talk about a back-breaking job as a laborer, keeps a framed photograph of a workman’s gnarled hands, has Patriots’ season tickets, and is suspicious of food beyond the Irish standard of meat and boiled potatoes.
But he keeps an antiseptically neat home, loves hydrangeas, and has an affinity for paper products because he worked in an office-supply store during high school.
“I love stationery,” Walsh says. “Some guys love going to Home Depot, which I do. But I love stationery stores.”
His most defining issue may be his struggle with alcohol. Walsh says he hasn’t had a drink since April 23, 1995, but recovery requires helping others overcome their own addictions. His phone rings after dark and on Christmas. It’s people looking for support, second chances, and beds in treatment programs.
Walsh says he does it because people did it for him. And now, the recovery community includes some of his strongest campaign supporters.
He stayed largely out of trouble when he was drinking, Walsh says. He offers that he was arrested at age 22 when he mouthed off to a police officer and was charged with disorderly conduct, which was dismissed without a finding. (He was also charged with disorderly conduct as a new state legislator at a UPS picket line.)
The shooting on Dorchester Avenue occurred at 2:50 a.m. on March 17, 1990, according to court records. Walsh says he and several friends had spent the night downtown at Bennigan’s, a chain Irish-themed bar and restaurant a block from Boston Common. They got a ride back to Dorchester and were walking home when an acquaintance pulled up in a car. The guy had just been in a bar fight, Walsh and others would later learn.
Moments later a second car arrived. A man named John Barsamian, 22, pulled a gun and fired six shots, according to court records. Two of Walsh’s friends were hit in the legs. A bullet grazed Walsh in the left leg. Barsamian had been the other man in the bar fight. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and went to prison. Years later, he showed up in Walsh’s State House office looking for a job.
“I shut the door,” Walsh recalls, “and I said, ‘How about starting with an apology?’ ”
Barsamian died in 2005 after years of drug abuse, according to his death certificate.
“It’s part of my story as an alcoholic,” Walsh says, “If I wasn’t drinking that night, I wouldn’t have been walking down the street at 2 a.m. My sobriety has rounded me out. I was always somebody who cared about people, but it gave me focus.”
The cancer was Burkitt’s lymphoma. It started in November 1974 with fatigue, stomach pains, and weight loss. Doctors performed exploratory surgery and found the disease everywhere.
“They gave him six months,” says his mother, Mary J. O’Malley Walsh, 71, who still speaks with a soft lilt from her native Ireland. “They really didn’t have any hope for him.”
Walsh endured years of radiation, chemotherapy, spinal taps, and needle pricks. He missed most of second and third grade and had to repeat fifth grade. A 1979 benefit at the Victory Road armory raised money for the family. His mother prayed, asking God to spare her boy and vowing to take him to holy shrines at Knock in Ireland and Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
Walsh recovered and visited the shrines. He’s a miracle, his mom says.
“He’s a good son. And I think he’ll make a fantastic mayor. He cares for people.”