President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh as his nominee for labor secretary, tapping a longtime friend and former union president for the Cabinet position in what would mark a seismic shift in the city’s politics, his presidential transition team announced Thursday.
The move would add yet another Massachusetts name to the Biden administration and upend this year’s mayoral election, setting up an open race to succeed him at City Hall.
“This is a sea change, a historic sea change,” said Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Boston City Council President Kim Janey would temporarily serve as acting mayor once Walsh is confirmed until a new mayor is elected and sworn into office. Janey would be the first Black person and first woman to serve as the city’s mayor.
Walsh, a 53-year-old Dorchester Democrat who has served as mayor for seven years, would take over a department that oversees a raft of federal labor laws, including those covering overtime, workers compensation, and workplace health and safety for more than 150 million workers. And union officials cheered the prospect of a lifelong union member taking over the post, especially after bruising battles with the Trump administration over the past four years.
“It’s going to be a breath of fresh air,” said Sean O’Brien, president of Teamsters Local 25, adding that Walsh has been “good for both business and workers” during his two terms as mayor.
But some conservatives immediately criticized the pick.
“Marty Walsh’s background in organized labor signals that he will work to deliver on left-wing campaign promises,” Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, Republican leader of the Committee on Education and Labor, charged in a statement.
Organized labor has played a pivotal role in Walsh’s life and political rise. He was 21 years old when he became a member of the Laborers’ Union Local 223 in Boston, which his father had joined in the 1950s after emigrating from Ireland and his uncle later led. Walsh, who was a state representative for 16 years, went on to also serve as president of the union, then was the head of the Building and Construction Trades Council. When he first ran for mayor in 2013, unions fueled his campaign with financial contributions and volunteers.
“Working people, labor unions, and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country,’' Walsh said on Twitter Thursday night. “As Secretary of Labor, I’ll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word.’'
Biden chose Walsh despite pressure to pick a woman or person of color. Other contenders reportedly included Michigan representative and former union organizer Andy Levin; California Labor and Workforce Development Agency Secretary Julie Su; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; Seth D. Harris, who served as deputy labor secretary in the Obama administration; and Patrick Gaspard, a former Barack Obama adviser who began his career as a union organizer.
But Walsh likely benefited both from strong support from labor leaders and his longtime friendship with Biden. The president-elect swore in Walsh for his second term as mayor in 2018, calling him “a mayor who will never forget where he came from.” Walsh also campaigned for Biden in New Hampshire last summer.
Walsh’s nomination must still be confirmed by the Senate, but that is expected. It would trigger the first election for Boston mayor without an incumbent since 2013, when Thomas M. Menino declined to seek a sixth term. Walsh ultimately won that race, defeating 11 candidates.
If Walsh steps down before March 5, the city charter calls for a special election to be held 120 to 140 days following a City Council order. Otherwise, the acting mayor would serve until a successor is chosen in this fall’s election. Additionally, the City Council could come up with a proposal that would set different ground rules for an election to choose a new mayor, although such a measure would need State House approval according to Secretary of State William Galvin.
Two city councilors have already declared their intention to seek the job: Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell. But that field could balloon now that Walsh appears likely to step aside, since mayoral incumbents are notoriously difficult to defeat in Boston. A sitting mayor hasn’t lost a reelection bid since 1949 and polls show Walsh is broadly popular.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steve W. Tompkins is considering jumping into the race, saying he could bring a different perspective as a Black man and executive. State Representative Jon Santiago, a South End Democrat and Boston Medical Center emergency room doctor, said he is weighing whether to run. In addition, Annissa Essaibi George, an at-large city councilor, and state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman, are considering running, people close to each of them said. A person close to state Senator Nick Collins said the South Boston Democrat also hasn’t ruled out a campaign. And Janey, who would become acting mayor if Walsh steps aside, is also considering running, according to people who know her.
Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at UMass Boston, said she thought Walsh’s departure would throw the mayoral contest wide open. But she noted that Wu or Campbell are already formidable candidates, which could deter some people from running.
“I don’t think this will be 10 or 11 people,” she said. “Maybe one or two more. Anyone stepping in now knows there will be two quality challengers.”
Walsh did not return messages Thursday. His expected departure immediately sparked praise from people looking back at his legacy.
Known for his union roots, Walsh vowed as mayor to work to help a broader base of Boston residents. He made new housing a top priority, aiming to build 69,000 units by 2030 in a bid to lower what are some of the nation’s priciest rents, and greenlit a thicket of office buildings in the Seaport, downtown, and other corners of the city. Walsh has also wrestled with improving the city’s schools throughout his two terms, pledging last year to pump $100 million more in new revenue into classrooms over a three-year period.
Walsh also tried to address persistent complaints about systemic discrimination, declaring racism to be a public health emergency in the city last year and assigning a task force to look at police reforms. He recently signed one of those reforms, which creates an independent police watchdog, into law. Walsh was praised for acting aggressively in the early stages of the pandemic, but has received criticism from some sectors recently for continuing restrictions on certain businesses.
He has also received scrutiny, at times, for his close ties to labor. Four years ago, a pair of City Hall officials were indicted on charges they threatened to withhold permits from organizers of a music festival unless they hired union members, though the convictions were later quashed. And Walsh was never personally charged.
Watanabe credited Walsh for recruiting a talented pool of leaders for his administration — including some of his competitors from the 2013 race.
“I think it was an incredibly effective administration by Marty Walsh,” he said.
Unlike his predecessor, who was known for harboring grudges and ruling with an iron fist, Walsh retains a “nice guy” image and projects empathy, he said.
John Nucci, who ran for mayor in 1993 and is now senior vice president for external affairs at Suffolk University, thought Walsh brought a “sense of decency and regular guy compassion to City Hall.”
“He’s been the most accessible mayor that I’ve worked with and I’ve worked with four of them,” Nucci said.
Walsh also publicly shared many personal challenges, including his battle with cancer and his recovery from alcoholism, that helped him connect with many residents.
Walsh would not be the first Boston mayor to hold the labor post. Maurice J. Tobin, whose name graces the Tobin Bridge connecting Boston to Chelsea, served as secretary of labor under President Harry Truman.
Biden has also tapped several other high-profile officials from Massachusetts for posts in his administration, including former senator and secretary of state John Kerry, who is set to join the administration as a climate czar on the National Security Council; Massachusetts General Hospital’s infectious diseases chief, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who will lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Canton native Gina McCarthy, who will join the administration as a White House climate coordinator. Several top Biden aides also have Massachusetts ties, including his incoming deputy chief of staff, Jen O’Malley Dillon.
Jim Puzzanghera, Matt Stout, Milton J. Valencia, Tim Logan, and Katie Johnston of the Globe staff contributed to this report.