EVERY POLITICAL candidate dreams of having a cadre of volunteers whose devotion to the campaign borders on messianism. State Representative Martin Walsh, who is running for mayor of Boston, enjoys such a following from a group not often associated with elective politics: recovering addicts and their families. This under-the-radar recovery movement could make the difference in Walsh’s effort to break out of the crowded mayoral field.
Bostonians account for about 18,000 admissions each year to substance abuse programs. Nearly all of these addicts have upended the lives of loved ones, many of whom also live and vote in Boston. Then consider the roughly 200 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous that take place each week in Boston. They brim with people eager to help themselves and society. You begin to get the picture. There is a hidden voting bloc in Boston made up of survivors of booze and drugs.
Walsh, a 46-year-old recovering alcoholic, estimates that as many as one in six Bostonians has been touched directly or indirectly by addiction. He knows a lot of them. And many more know the Dorchester lawmaker’s reputation as the go-to politician for addicts in desperate need of a treatment program or detox bed. Walsh estimates that he receives about 20 addiction-related calls each week from frantic families who can’t cope another day with a drunk spouse or dope-sick child. People in that kind of pain don’t forget politicians who help them. Policy issues pale in comparison.
Candidates compile lists of people they’ve helped over the years. These lists are fertile sources of lawn signs, donations, door knockers, and sundry tasks performed by volunteers. For Walsh, however, keeping track of recovered addicts and their family members poses a dilemma. For starters, anonymity is the basic tenet of 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The movement also rests on a pillar of humility. You don’t crow about helping addicts. And why would you, when your own ability to stay sober, according to 12-step philosophy, depends on your willingness to help others achieve the same goal?
“You can’t keep it if you don’t give it away,’’ explained John McGahan, president of the Gavin Foundation in South Boston, which runs several well-respected addiction treatment programs.
People in that kind of pain and their families don’t forget politicians who help them.
Walsh wasn’t overjoyed to explore this topic with a reporter.
“I don’t contact the people I’ve reached out to and helped,’’ he said.
But plenty of people in the recovery movement contacted Walsh after he announced his mayoral candidacy in May. He knew some of them from his union work with the building trades. Others came straight from the neighborhoods. Walsh, who has been sober for 18 years, couldn’t estimate how many of his 2,000 volunteers come from the recovery movement. But he acknowledged it’s a lot.
Campaign volunteer James Taylor of Roxbury said that 14 of 18 sign holders at a recent standout for the candidate were in recovery, including himself. Taylor, 51, recalled getting tossed out of a detox center on a freezing day eight years ago. It was a long way down for a man who had worked as a probation officer before succumbing to drink and drugs. While taking refuge in a warm hallway at Boston Medical Center, he chanced upon Walsh, who was visiting a sick friend.
Taylor remembers that Walsh told him, “Get your bags, let’s go.’’ A short ride later, he was admitted to one of the best rehab units in Boston, and on a Sunday, no less. Today, Taylor says he is sober and has a good job, thanks to Walsh.
Walsh’s outreach work dovetails perfectly with his lawmaking duties in the Legislature, where he is currently trying to crack down on unregulated “sober houses’’ and increase funding for human services. It’s less clear how it fits in City Hall. Might Walsh’s devotion to helping addicts distract him from the wide-ranging work of a mayor? And what of his own battle with alcoholism?
Walsh insists that he is ready for any challenge that arises in the city. “Being in recovery is going to make me a better mayor,’’ said Walsh. “It gives me that edge every day when I get up and go out the door.’’
Some of Walsh’s campaign staffers are urging him to change his cellphone number to one that isn’t so widely circulated through the recovery movement. He refuses. Wherever Walsh is headed, a regiment of people in recovery will be marching by his side.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org