When John R. Soares formally becomes the president of Local 718 Thursday night, the union that represents Boston firefighters will make history: For the first time, the 78-year-old labor organization will be led by a person of color.
Soares is a lieutenant assigned to Ladder 7 in Dorchester and a 22-year veteran of the city department that has drawn criticism for the paucity of women and people of color among its firefighter and officer ranks, both of which are represented by Local 718.
Soares said his candidacy and engagement with union issues for more than two decades grows out of a personal belief.
“The job has given me a lot,” said the proud father of two adult daughters, one attending Suffolk Law School and the other a captain of Ohio University’s women’s ice hockey team. “I’m one that believes that to whom much is given, much is required.”
Soares, 52, who grew up in Fields Corner and experienced the turmoil over the desegregation of schools in Boston as a child, said in a telephone interview this week that he fully recognizes the historic nature of his election victory, especially during this turbulent political and social year.
“This country is in the worst situation we’ve seen in a long time. The racial tension is back to where it was in busing in the city. And I think no one in this country agrees that what happened to George Floyd was good and was right,” said Soares. “I think we need to treat each other better. It’s something to talk about.”
Floyd was killed in Minneapolis May 25 when two police officers held down his back and legs while a third pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. A fourth officer stood a few feet away, addressing bystanders. The four officers are facing criminal charges and Floyd’s death has led to a nationwide attempt to address systemic racism in the country.
But Soares interprets his overwhelming victory - he received 878 out of 1,447 votes cast, and bested two others, including the incumbent - to his career-long participation in a variety of posts in Local 718. And, he said, he believes the pitch he made during meetings with fellow firefighters in firehouses across the city is the primary reason he won by such a large margin.
“In any business you have 3 to 5 percent who are just going to cause you grief. And we’ve always had to focus on them,’' Soares said. “My idea is to change it, and focus on the 95 percent. ... My issue is: Take care of those that show up and do the job every day. ... I think we lost a little bit of our integrity and I want to bring that back. And our respect for each other, and I want to bring that back.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who will face Soares across the bargaining table next year,agreed that Soares’s election by the majority of Local 718 voters is a watershed moment for the department and the city where the Number 2 person in the department is also Black, but the commissioner and the majority of the rank and file are white.
Soares’s candidacy likely drew firefighters of color to make sure they voted, Walsh said. But as someone who has run for public office himself, Walsh said Soares’s vote tally signals universal acceptance for Soares as the veteran firefighter and union member, not solely a response to Soares’s Cape Verdean ancestry.
“Having a person of color leading the union - that is a positive thing across the board. It absolutely shows progress. There is no question about it,’' said Walsh who is backing a House-passed measure to create a cadet program in the fire department. “But that was an overwhelming mandate by the membership...From what I understand, he is respected in the firehouse, has always been a hard-working firefighter. He has a great personality and a really nice guy, easy to talk to. People want a leader that can negotiate on their behalf.‘'
Both Soares and Walsh said they saw the need to increase diversity in the department whose members live with each other during their multi-day shifts in the city’s firehouses.
“We do have some room for improvement, I feel like,” Soares said. “We have a good group. We consider this a family. And when you are in the fire building and in a situation – it doesn’t matter, skin color doesn’t matter. That’s doesn’t come into play.‘'
Soares said his plan to redirect the focus of the union will take shape over the next several weeks as he reviews the current contract with the city, listens to union members about their concerns, and then starts talks with Walsh in the middle of next year.
But in what he said was emblematic of his goal to give priority to the firefighters who work every day, Soares spent Thursday morning attending the funeral of Fire Lieutenant Brian D. Doherty, a friend and colleague who died after a shockingly brief battle with cancer. Soares was in full dress uniform and was there on behalf his friend and Local 718.
“He was one of the nicest on the job, one of the best. It was crazy,’' said Soares of the sudden decline of Doherty, who was still on active duty when he fell ill. Doherty, a lifelong resident of Savin Hill and a 33-year member of the department, was married and had three daughters, Soares said.
“That’s my priority. My priority is to help the family,’' he said. “We are there to honor them. We honor the family - and who he was.”
His swearing-in ceremony - and that of all other newly elected officers, will be held at Florian Hall Thursday night, the union’s headquarters in Dorchester. Soares will then deliver remarks Friday at a pandemic-delayed graduation for 53 firefighters who finished their academy training earlier this year.
“I am looking forward to it,’' he said of his two-year term as president. “I hold this as a high honor. I’m humbled by it.”