WASHINGTON — These should be exhilarating times for Martin J. Walsh.
The worries of running a big city, particularly during a pandemic, are gone. His new job as labor secretary puts him in the middle of a major debate over rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. He meets with influential lawmakers and other Cabinet secretaries in Washington, travels the country promoting worker-friendly policies, and even gets to joke around in the Oval Office with his longtime friend, President Biden.
Then every weekend, for the time being at least, Walsh flies back to his beloved Boston.
But instead of being celebrated in the city he led for seven years, Walsh is facing criticism and controversy over his appointment of Dennis A. White as police commissioner – and it’s all started to spill over into his new life in the nation’s capital.
Walsh departed Washington on May 20 as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Seth Moulton of Salem said they wanted more information about what he knew about allegations of domestic violence about White before hastily appointing him in his final weeks as mayor. Moulton went so far as to say that Walsh should resign from Biden’s Cabinet if he were lying about his knowledge of White’s past. Former police commissioner William Gross and White said in court affidavits that Walsh was aware of the allegations at the time of the appointment.
Walsh repeatedly has denied knowing about the allegations when he named White, and his account has been backed up by former police commissioner William Evans. In the wake of the latest developments, Walsh arrived at Logan Airport and found a TV news crew waiting for him.
“Can you just clear up what you knew and when you knew it with Commissioner White?” Jason Law of Boston 25 News asked as the labor secretary wheeled his luggage toward the exit. He pulled down his black facemask and responded, “I’ve been pretty clear about it. I put my statements out the other day and I’m going to stick to that.”
As the controversy continues to swirl in Boston, Walsh has worked hard to avoid it.
He’s tried to focus on his duties as labor secretary, which this past week included traveling to three Wisconsin cities to pitch Biden’s infrastructure plan, and on overseeing the Labor Department’s section of the administration’s reported $6 trillion budget proposal released Friday. In dealing with the controversy, Walsh is taking it one day at a time, according to a person who knows him well, relying on a strategy learned as a recovering alcoholic.
“His mind always goes back to today is today,” the person said. “As long as he keeps his head down, he focuses.”
Aside from the airport ambush, Walsh has given no interviews about the White controversy, relying on carefully worded statements issued by a Labor Department spokesperson. He’s avoided situations where reporters from Washington or Boston could ask him about it, canceling a May 21 appearance in New Hampshire and excusing himself from a virtual press conference on child care on May 19 with four members of Congress when it was opened up to questions.
“Mr. Chairman, I have to jump off right now, but any questions directed toward the Department of Labor we will be sure to get an answer back. I have a meeting in about one minute,” Walsh said. Wisconsin was safer territory and Walsh answered questions from local reporters about jobs, immigration child care, and the pandemic.
Walsh was unrepentant when questioned about the controversy at the end of a Thursday appearance on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss Biden’s infrastructure plan. Asked if he now regretted appointing White, Walsh said he did not and that he wanted to let the legal process play out. ”There’s a process of the court proceeding going on,” he said. He reiterated his past statements, including that the allegations about White “probably should have been brought to my attention” before the appointment.
The next step in that legal process is for Acting Mayor Kim Janey to hold a hearing to fire White as commissioner after a Massachusetts court on Thursday denied his appeal. Following the ruling, Janey said she would schedule a hearing immediately but did not give a date.
Walsh is making the right move politically in trying to avoid talking about the White controversy, said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“Right now, it’s ‘he said, he said.’ That’s a draw, and a draw is in Marty Walsh’s favor,” O’Brien said. Walsh’s goal is to keep the controversy from becoming national news by gaining significant attention in Washington, she said.
There have been stories by Politico, CNN, and Axios, but they have not gained much traction. A recent Snapchat interview of Walsh that included him talking about his love of cargo shorts was shared far more widely, underlying the strength of his image as a folksy regular Joe. Republicans in Congress haven’t publicly raised any concerns and the White House has declined to comment on the issue.
“I think he’s handled it the best he can,” James T. Brett, a longtime friend of Walsh from Dorchester, said of the controversy. “I believe Marty. You won’t find anybody with more integrity and honesty than this guy.”
But there continue to be questions about Walsh’s handling of the hurried White appointment and its aftermath.
After Globe inquiries about a domestic violence allegation against White in 1999, Walsh announced on Feb. 3 that he was placing him on leave just days after he was sworn in and that the city would conduct an outside investigation. Walsh’s confirmation hearing took place the next day and he was not asked about the controversy.
After a Senate committee approved Walsh’s nomination, the mayor’s closest political confidant, city attorney Eugene O’Flaherty, stopped the investigation. White’s attorney, Nicholas B. Carter, wrote in a March 2 letter to the city that O’Flaherty called him and indicated Walsh intended to reinstate White. Carter backed up the claim with a log showing phone calls to and from O’Flaherty.
A Labor Department spokesperson said in a statement this month that Walsh hadn’t tried to halt the probe and had only requested an “update on the status of the investigation.” The statement was contradicted by the outside investigator’s report. The investigator also said another city official told her to restart the investigation a week later.
Two days after Walsh’s confirmation by the full Senate in March, news came that O’Flaherty also was headed to Washington. The lobbying firm Ballard Partners announced it had hired O’Flaherty and federal disclosure forms show he has begun lobbying the Labor Department.
Brett said it was a difficult decision for Walsh to leave Boston, where he’s lived his entire life. It’s also been an adjustment to go from mayor to part of a team in the Cabinet. But Walsh couldn’t turn down Biden and has no regrets, said Brett, a former state representative who now heads the New England Council, a regional business association.
“He really believes he’s got a mission. He’s serving the president on a major agenda issue he’s going to have a say on,” Brett said. “He’s so excited about that.”
Walsh has known Biden for years. Their shared Irish heritage and middle-class background provide a strong connection.
“When I talk to the president, I feel like I’m talking to somebody from a neighborhood in Boston,” Walsh told the Globe in an interview in April. “He’s real. He cares about people.”
Their ease around each other was clear in a Mother’s Day video Biden posted on Twitter of him calling Walsh’s mother.
“Hey mom, it’s Joe Biden,” Biden said into speakerphone after getting her voicemail. He left a short message, which included instructing Walsh to say hello, and Biden finished by telling her “it won’t surprise you he’s doing a hell of a job, but I’ll deny having said that.”
Walsh’s relationship with Biden makes it more likely the president will stick with him even if the White controversy deepens, O’Brien said.
“This is not an appointment foisted upon Joe Biden,” she said, noting he chose Walsh as labor secretary despite strong pressure to nominate an Asian American and Pacific Islander. “This is a Joe Biden pick.”
Walsh is one of five Cabinet members who Biden tapped to sell his infrastructure plan, which has him out on the road more now that the country is reopening. It also allows Walsh to spread his own inspirational story about overcoming alcoholism and earning a college degree later in life, as he did during a roundtable discussion with recently trained construction and manufacturing workers in Milwaukee on Wednesday, a thousand miles from the White controversy in Boston.
“Life is complicated. Life is difficult,” he told the small group, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees as they sat in a semi-circle. “There’s all kinds of obstacles that everyone has to overcome.”