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The Boston Globe

Metro

Kevin Cullen

Boston’s new mayor making important links

Marty Walsh had some good lines in his inauguration speech, none better than the one about his mother, Mary, being as surprised as anybody that he is now mayor of Boston.

That’s not usually the line you get from a politician. It’s usually, “My mother never doubted me for a minute. My mother knew I could do this.”

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What they’re really saying is, “I never really doubted myself. I knew I could do this.”

Instead, Marty Walsh’s line was refreshingly honest. “I know my mother’s not the only one surprised,” he said.

It was revealing because it showed, to a public just beginning to get to know him, something his friends have known for years: that in a business built on ego, he is remarkably short of it.

Don’t take that the wrong way. Marty Walsh is ambitious. But he is different from many pols in that he doesn’t actually think he’s the smartest guy in the room, and once he meets the smarter one, he’s trying to make him his friend.

Marty Walsh grew up in a house with immigrant parents whose native language wasn’t English. I think he may be the first mayor of Boston to hold that latter distinction. In the house on Taft Street, John and Mary Walsh tolerated many things, but pride was not one of them. Humility was valued, bragging and arrogance frowned on.

Some years ago, I was at Arthur Donovan’s old place in Savin Hill, talking to Marty’s uncle, Pat, the longtime crusty business manager for Local 223 of the laborers union. Marty had just got some bill passed on Beacon Hill, and I said something remotely laudatory. Apparently, I said the wrong thing.

“Marty’s a good lad,” Pat allowed, then he shot me that withering look and said, “but he doesn’t walk on water.”

It’s that big head thing. You can’t get a big head in a Galway family because someone related to you will knock it off.

Marty Walsh’s inaugural speech went where it should, from Beacon Hill to Savin Hill, to 11 different hills in all. There wasn’t a constituency that he didn’t mention, didn’t promise to represent. He promised to reduce gun violence, narrow the achievement gap, maintain and even build a middle class. But the window into Marty Walsh’s soul flung open when he said this:

“I will bring together mothers of children killed by that violence, with members of the law enforcement community who work hard to stop it. Members of the recovery community, who know too well that hard road back from drug and alcohol abuse, and how such abuse contributes to the violence and crime. And people who know what it takes to move away from a life of violence to become productive, contributing neighbors in a safe community.”

Talk to any cop, probation officer, deputy sheriff, prosecutor, defense attorney, social worker, teacher, firefighter, paramedic, or EMT in this town and you will hear testimony about the inextricable link between family dysfunction, utterly stupid violence, mental health problems, and substance abuse.

To have a mayor make that link, so forcefully, in his inaugural address means something. To have it made by a mayor who is a recovering alcoholic, means even more. It means a change in emphasis, a nod to reality, a reality in which is it easier for a kid from Roxbury or Dorchester or Southie or Charlestown to get a gun than an appointment with a mental health provider.

Marty Walsh understands better than most that we don’t need more jail cells as much as we need more beds for addicts who commit a disproportionate amount of crime. We need to make the mental health parity law more than a paper tiger and fix the reimbursement mess for mental health providers.

The new mayor promised the world on Monday. Probably too much.

But, he noted, quoting Lincoln, “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

And thus the mantra of the Walsh administration: One day at a time.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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