So Marty Walsh is about to pick a new fire commissioner, and the choice comes down to three accomplished men.
But really the choice comes down to this: insider or outsider?
Put me firmly in the camp of the former, mainly because that insider is Deputy Chief Joe Finn, a great firefighter and a better man.
But removing the personalities for a minute, let’s consider the whole insider-outsider argument.
There are some who believe the Boston Fire Department is too insular, too set in its ways. Certainly, that was the feeling of the previous administration. Tom Menino was stubbornly determined to put some manners on the department, especially Local 718.
Menino brought in Rod Fraser, a decorated Navy veteran from Maine, as commissioner and then Steve Abraira from Dallas as chief. The main selling point for Fraser and Abraira was they were outsiders.
I thought both, particularly Abraira, were ineffective, not because they were outsiders, but because they never took the time to earn the respect of the people they led. They were so obsessed with keeping an adversarial, managerial distance between themselves and the firefighters they were ostensibly leading that they failed at the most important part of their job: understanding and respecting the culture of the Boston Fire Department.
Fraser at least had the excuse of not being a firefighter. Abraira did not, and his obsession with the trivial, like new uniforms, at the expense of operational matters led his troops to conclude they shouldn’t take him seriously.
When Abraira refused to show up at retirement dinners at Florian Hall, he insulted firefighters’ service. When he told me he didn’t go to those things because no one invited him, he insulted their intelligence.
While the Boston police brass — Ed Davis, then the commissioner; Dan Linskey, then chief; and Bill Evans, then superintendent, now commissioner — went out of their way to embrace their traumatized cops after the Marathon bombings, Fraser and Abraira consciously avoiding doing so, lest they make firefighters look too good.
What doomed the outsider team of Fraser and Abraira is they didn’t really seem to like or respect the firefighters they commanded. They came to be seen as politically motivated mandarins who did the bidding of those in the Menino administration who wanted to reform the department without being troubled by the collective bargaining process.
Menino’s people leaked stories about bad apple firefighters, consciously building public animosity toward a force they saw as overpaid and overindulged. It was poisonous stuff, and it was counterproductive. The animosity inevitably led to the arbiter’s table, and the union inevitably won.
Having worn a hard hat and carried a union card, Marty Walsh brought a considerably different attitude to the bargaining table, and the results on the first contract were good for the city, the taxpayers, and the firefighters. There are right ways and wrong ways to change the Fire Department. Marty Walsh gets this intuitively.
Which brings us back to Joe Finn. While I have no reason to think the other finalists — Michael Huss, the outgoing public safety director in Pittsburgh, and Michael Lombardo, a former fire commissioner in Buffalo — wouldn’t be fine, competent commissioners, I have no doubt Finn would be better.
He knows the department inside out. He would never ask a firefighter to do something he hasn’t done, and he has done everything.
As for the compatibility of a Walsh-Finn team, it isn’t a hypothetical. We saw it that awful day in February when a ferocious wind transformed a Back Bay brownstone into a cauldron. It was Joe Finn who had to make the call that day, to get everybody out of the building, even as he knew two firefighters, Eddie Walsh and Mike Kennedy, were trapped.
Firefighters had to be physically restrained from going back in. Finn made an agonizing call, the right call, and he saved lives. When he and Walsh stood together to break the worst news possible, they were a battle-tested team.
These insiders have already been inside the belly of the beast.