Martin J. Walsh becomes the 48th mayor of Boston on Monday, upending a city power structure that proved inviolable for two decades and unleashing the hopes, dreams, and pent-up ambitions of a new generation of Bostonians.
Anyone who observed his campaign knows Walsh as the comeback kid, the Savin Hill everyman who beat cancer as a child and alcoholism as a young man to rise to the state Legislature and now, the pinnacle of political power in Boston. But no one can predict how the former state representative will assert himself as chief executive and what mark he will make on the city he is about to lead.
The wide-open opportunity presents immediate challenges for the new administration. The mayor-elect must choose a new school superintendent, a new police chief, and a new fire chief, and his selections will set the tone for the new term. His every move will be scrutinized as he works to establish a new relationship with the city’s unions, who strongly supported Walsh — a longtime labor leader — during the election.
But in many ways, even before he takes oath, changes once considered impossible are already underway, following the ambitious rhetoric of the hotly contested mayor’s race. The subways will stay open until 3 a.m. on weekends later this year, under a plan put forward by the governor. The City Council took steps to reclaim control of its liquor licenses from the state, in the hopes of stimulating bar and restaurant business. A city long set in its ways just might let loose.
“We think that at this point, everything is just wide open and Boston can start filling it in.” said Malia Lazu, executive director of the Future Boston Alliance, an organization advocating for progressive and cultural growth.
The city has not undergone this kind of self-examination in the digital age — or really, in 30 years, since the last truly open mayor’s race in 1983. (Ten years later, Mayor Raymond Flynn’s departure to become ambassador to the Vatican vaulted Thomas M. Menino, then City Council president, to the position of “acting mayor,” a position he won outright in 1993 and held ever since.)
“I think that it’s really important for us to take stock in who we are as a city,” Lazu said. “So it’s not so much of what we want the mayor to do for us but this is what we want our city to be. What city are we building, for whom?”
Flynn, the former mayor, said in an interview that he was impressed with the way Walsh’s transition team has been seeking public input on the city’s direction. Diverse working groups have been holding town meetings to solicit the public’s ideas.
“I think what is really important here is this inclusiveness on the part of Marty Walsh,” Flynn said. “He really seems to be open to bringing people together and getting their input and their valuable point of view. . . . That’s just what the city needs.”
For 20 years, the city has been defined by the domineering style of Menino, who kept a fierce grip on every lever of city government — from the issuance of everyday building permits to transformative urban redevelopment. Famously averse to criticism, Menino was extremely effective at silencing it. No one wanted to be on the mayor’s “naughty list,” and nothing happened in Boston without his approval.
“The world has revolved around the guy from Readville that sits on the fifth floor,” said Michael K. Vaughan, a Walsh supporter and Boston real estate consultant. “He is the sun and everything revolves around him. From meter maids to someone trying to build a tower, it all depends on what mood the mayor’s in.”
“That’s not going to be Marty’s style,” Vaughan said.
Those who have worked with Walsh describe him as confident and collaborative, with little temper or insecurity to defend against.
“I think the goal — and his hope — is that you can pick good people, empower them, cast them with a position, and let them go do their job,” said Vaughan.
Many Boston residents have never known a mayor other than Menino, who impressed constituents with his omnipresence in the neighborhoods and his devotion to the smallest details of city life. His enduring popularity could pose a challenge for his successor as he takes the helm, political observers say. In the days since his election, Walsh has stepped carefully, paying homage to the outgoing mayor and delaying plans for ambitious reforms. Some expect change to come incrementally.
“These are tough shoes to fill and [Walsh] wants to make sure he doesn’t slip in those shoes early on,” said Paul Watanabe, a cochairman of Walsh’s transition committee, who works as an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I think he’s going to be cautious and he’s going to be careful. He’s going to be deliberative, which does not mean he’s not going to make changes. The pace of those changes may not be what everybody is anticipating.”
Walsh has suggested that as mayor he may assume a more cooperative, power-sharing relationship with the City Council, a group that has often been relegated to a barely supporting role by Menino.
Whether that actually happens when Walsh assumes power remains uncertain. But outgoing City Councilor Mike Ross, who was one of Walsh’s unsuccessful competitors in the mayor’s race, said he was encouraged by the overture. He noted that as a legislator representing a city district, Walsh was often collaborative.
“The first time I met Marty Walsh wasn’t on the campaign trail. It was across the table on an issue,” Ross said. “I am not alone in that at all. He is someone who has a history of working with people.”
Still, as he takes the helm as Boston’s chief executive, Walsh will find himself as the lone leader and decision maker in a city where politics is famously known as a blood sport.
As a state representative for Dorchester, Walsh was only one lawmaker in a body of 160 members, advocating for his constituents but never making decisions singlehandedly. The buck never stopped with him.
“You’re not the center of attention as a legislator. You’re kind of a back-bencher,” said Flynn, who was a legislator, as well as a city councilor, before he was elected mayor. But he said he found his legislative experience to be invaluable in the mayor’s office and suggests that Walsh’s path could be smoothed by the relationships he has already paved on Beacon Hill.
In the weeks between his election and his inauguration, the mayor-elect has seemed hesitant about making some of his first decisions, postponing the announcement of key appointments — including his chief of staff, Daniel Koh, who was only named on Saturday.
John Tobin, a former city councilor who is also on the transition team, predicted that it would take Walsh some time to find his footing. “Governing is a lot different than campaigning,” Tobin said. “When you get elected, gone are the cheering halls of confetti coming down. Now you’re in charge of picking up the confetti.”
After several days of festivities, the inaugural celebration starts Monday at 10 a.m. in Conte Forum at Boston College, where Walsh will be sworn in by Roderick L. Ireland, chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court. He will continue the celebration at a formal gala at the Hynes Convention Center beginning at 7 Monday night.
Then it will be time to clean up the confetti. And begin the work.