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In Marty Walsh, Boston elected a labor leader and ended up with a business-friendly mayor

The business world’s wariness of him was short-lived as he tried to strike a balance

Initially, Mayor Walsh faced a skeptical business community that was wary of his intentions.
Initially, Mayor Walsh faced a skeptical business community that was wary of his intentions.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Some business leaders were wary when Marty Walsh was elected mayor: It was an open question how his bona fides as a prominent labor leader and state legislator would translate into policies and practices at City Hall.

Flash forward seven-plus years. As Walsh packs his bags for Washington to join Joe Biden’s Cabinet as labor secretary, any skepticism in the corporate community is long gone.

Walsh helped local executives build their headquarters and expand their workforces. He stoked housing construction downtown and in the neighborhoods. He kept an open door, and an open mind. He even championed their ill-fated bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, until he was essentially forced to give that one up.

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And when he did use the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit to promote a cause, such as for immigrants’ rights, it was often one already blessed by the business community.

Did he turn out to be a pro-business mayor? Maybe. He was certainly an ally, at least, willing to help executives tackle their own problems and the broader issues they saw in the city.

“He does understand that a thriving business community creates the jobs he wants for working people,” said Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a longtime friend of Walsh’s. “He clearly has strong roots in the labor movement, and a strong desire to fight for working men and women. But I think he demonstrated that he has much more breadth than that.”

In his first campaign for mayor, Walsh was seen as a working-class advocate. His opponent, John Connolly, was favored by more business leaders at the time, said Colette Phillips, who runs a communications firm in Boston.

“The business community was not initially warm to Marty,” Phillips said. “He had to earn his props.”

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Toward that end, Rooney helped arrange at least three meetings with business leaders at Walsh’s request in the months after his first election. “He knew right out of the gate” that he needed to broaden his image, his network, and what he cared about, said Rooney, who led the state convention center authority at the time.

Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said Walsh surprised many people by rising to the challenge so quickly: “ever there was something going on that I needed to talk to the mayor about, he would pick up the phone and call me before I needed to call him.”

Walsh knew what every big-city mayor understands: Success depends heavily on a thriving business community. Boston’s budget is particularly reliant on a strong haul of commercial property taxes, a steady stream that has continued to earn the city high marks from two bond-rating agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that in mind, Walsh oversaw a building boom that kicked off in the Tom Menino era, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Walsh’s team greenlit a thicket of new buildings in the downtown, the Seaport, and the neighborhoods.

Walsh’s approach also raised concerns about traffic, overbuilding, and overpriced housing — particularly in outlying sections of the city — that critics said did little to help everyday Bostonians.

Kathy Brown, director of the Boston Tenant Coalition, said her organization welcomed Walsh’s assistance on a number of housing and tenants rights issues. But she said the Walsh administration should be demanding more affordable housing when it approves market-rate projects. And her group disagrees with the general attitude in City Hall toward residential development — that just adding to the supply, even at the upper end, will automatically “drip down” and create significantly more affordable homes.

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“In hot-market cities, it just doesn’t work that way,” Brown said. “Even if you built a lot more, it’s still so out of reach for so many working-class and low-income people.”

Like previous mayors, Walsh leaned on the business community, time and again. He pushed for everything from internships to public-school partnerships to money for long-term housing for the homeless to increased diversity among the corporate ranks — with varying degrees of success. Walsh typically sprinkled his annual speeches to the chamber of commerce with announcements that he believed would help the city’s economy. But those speeches often contained an “ask” of the chamber membership, as well.

“He was able to blow the whistle and rally resources and leadership [from business people],” said Kevin Phelan, cochair at the real estate brokerage giant Colliers International’s Boston office.

And Walsh knew he could turn to the corporate world when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Working with Jeff Leiden, now the executive chairman of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, as well as philanthropist Jack Connors and Mass General Brigham CEO Anne Klibanski, Walsh raised more than $30 million for the city’s COVID-19 “resiliency fund.”

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“He was very comfortable asking the business community for things he wanted to get done in the city,” said Leiden, who also chairs the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group of high-profile CEOs. “When we raised the $30 million for the Resiliency Fund, not a single person asked what they were getting back.”

That’s not to say various business interests always saw eye-to-eye with Walsh. He disagreed at times with them on everything from tenant protections to liquor-license expansions to a proposed property transfer fee. Meanwhile, he frequently faced off with an emboldened, left-leaning City Council over progressive causes.

Walsh’s consensus-building style broke with that of his famously iron-willed predecessor, Menino. But it also sometimes got him into trouble.

“He tried to accommodate all the groups as much as he could,” said Greg Vasil, head of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “That probably built up some frustration. You could never make them all happy.”

Walsh will inevitably leave some unfinished business on his desk — such as reaching an agreement for the Massachusetts Turnpike realignment in Allston, building an addiction treatment campus on Long Island, or finding an appropriate soccer stadium site for the New England Revolution.

Now, business leaders are starting to wonder what life under a new mayor will look like, one who may lean further to the left than Walsh does.

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If they’re worried, they’re not saying it yet — at least not publicly. After all, they’ve been through this before. Progressivism often gives way to pragmatism when you have to run a city as large and as dynamic as Boston.

“There’s always a fear of the unknown,” said Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “We didn’t know Mayor Walsh when he started seven years ago. When he came in there, everybody was saying he was going to be anti-business. I found him to be anything but, to be honest with you. He truly understood there needs to be a balance in everything.”

Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this article.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.