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The toughest questions for Marty Walsh are in Boston, not Washington

Walsh is leaving the police department and the city in flux on several fronts.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on his nomination to be labor secretary on Capitol Hill, Feb. 4.Graeme Jennings/Associated Press

The toughest query Mayor Marty Walsh faced in Washington for the job of labor secretary was how much he paid for a cup of coffee in Boston.

Back home, the questions are much harder. They range from curious personnel matters — like what really prompted the resignation of Police commissioner Willie Gross and what triggered the quick naming of a successor? — to serious economic recovery issues — like what’s the COVID-19 comeback plan?

When Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas asked Walsh the coffee question during his confirmation hearing, the Republican was jabbing the mayor gently about the cost of living in Boston. In response, Walsh said he bought his last cup “probably” at Doughboy Donuts & Deli for about $1.75. However, the actual cost of a small coffee at the South Boston shop is $1.95, and Walsh usually buys a medium, for $2.40, the owner told the Globe. It’s a small discrepancy. But still, the mayor’s answer was inaccurate.

Back in Boston, it feels like Walsh has also been getting away with something less than accuracy, especially when it comes to Gross’s unexpected exit from the police department. One minute, the city’s first Black police commissioner was floating a trial balloon about running for mayor. Then, suddenly, he announced his retirement, and left the next day. Gross said his decision was about “my family, my health, and my friends” and he always planned on leaving whenever Walsh left. Walsh, meanwhile, thanked Gross for his service but never addressed the why of his departure. Then the mayor quickly appointed Dennis A. White, Gross’s friend and chief of staff, as the next commissioner. Two days after White was sworn in, Walsh placed the new commissioner on leave following a Globe inquiry about a 1999 allegation of domestic violence involving White.


In a statement, Walsh said, “These disturbing issues were not known to me or my staff, but should have been at the forefront.” That failure to conduct due diligence was a disservice to Boston and to White, who now faces the public airing of allegations that he pushed and “wanted to shoot” his then-wife, who was also a Boston police officer, back in 1999. At the time, White denied the allegations in court filings and there’s no record of any criminal charges. White is Boston’s second Black police commissioner, and some supporters are trying to make race part of the story. It shouldn’t be; the issue is whether Boston police properly handled the allegations when they were made and why White wasn’t properly vetted before being named commissioner.


Without further comment from Walsh, we are left to speculate, as my colleague Yvonne Abraham has written. The speculation includes the following: Gross left his position because Walsh wanted that outcome; and a successor was quickly appointed to keep City Council President Kim Janey from making that call when she becomes acting mayor. A source close to Gross said he left on his own timetable. But the other scenario sounds familiar. A year ago, for example, Joe Finn announced his retirement as fire commissioner, after Walsh made it clear that’s what the mayor wanted.

Walsh is leaving the police department and the city in flux on several fronts. Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, Walsh has talked the talk when it comes to taking on systemic racism. He declared racism in Boston a public health crisis and announced an equity and inclusion office and agenda. Yet, according to a new report commissioned by the city, during the first term of the Walsh administration, just 1.2 percent of the $2.1 billion in contracts for construction and professional goods and services that the City of Boston awarded went to Black- and Latino-owned firms.


That ties into the biggest question facing Boston: What’s the COVID-19 pandemic comeback plan, and how will it address longstanding equity issues? Last week, Walsh increased some capacity restrictions on public and private gatherings, and also allowed some businesses to reopen.

But Boston is still very much a city on pause. Office towers are going up, but who will fill them remains a question. Meanwhile, businesses from the downtown to the neighborhoods are struggling in a city that’s a shadow of itself.

Walsh will soon be out of here. The questions he leaves behind will linger long after he’s buying his coffee in the nation’s capital.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.