Marty Walsh for president? No. But for vice president? A kid from Dorchester can dream — or at least his supporters can and do, after Walsh, the former Boston mayor who is now US labor secretary, helped negotiate a deal between railway workers and freight rail companies.
But, first, a reality check.
This deal is a big one. It saved the Biden administration from an immediate strike with severe economic consequences for the country. Walsh personally negotiated 20 hours of talks that included a call from President Biden. The contract proposal includes an increase of 24 percent in worker wages over five years; a cap on health insurance premiums; and the ability to take time off for medical appointments without penalty, although it would be unpaid. Declaring victory in the White House Rose Garden, a delighted Biden called it a “big win for America.”
However, this win for America still needs to be ratified by union members and that’s no slam dunk. According to The Washington Post, “many workers remained confused about exactly what benefits had been won, showing the uphill climb union officials face in selling the compromise.” But Walsh remains bullish. Once union leaders explain the details, “I think most people will think it’s a very good package for them and their families,” he told me in a telephone interview.
In the meantime, Walsh is being hailed as “distinguished pol of the week.” His moment of glory was somewhat undercut when media attention shifted suddenly to the story of some 50 migrants who were sent by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard. But heading off an imminent strike raises Walsh’s profile as a working-class hero at a time when Democrats are fighting the perception they represent the party of elites. And he’s good at using the opportunity to tout Biden’s commitment to the cause.
“That has been President Biden’s whole mission, to push to make sure workers are treated fairly and with respect,” he said.
As labor secretary, Walsh has carved out a lane as a can-do member of the Biden administration who can help broker difficult agreements. His mantra — keep talking and get the deal done — helped Major League Baseball avert a strike, just as it helped avert a rail strike. He said the key to reaching this deal was to make both parties understand “this was not simply about a contract. It was about our economy moving forward.”
Walsh, who was in Boston when we spoke, said he was heading to New York and then Las Vegas before returning to Washington. When I asked what he thinks about speculation that he might be interested in being someone’s running mate, he said, “I don’t know about that. When I was the mayor, I wanted to be mayor of Boston. After becoming mayor, I never, ever imagined myself in a presidential cabinet. When asked to serve, I couldn’t believe it.”
Note: He did not call the speculation crazy.
A spot on the 2024 ticket would definitely not work if Biden seeks reelection. Biden can’t alienate Black voters by jettisoning Vice President Harris, and besides, he doesn’t need a fellow Irish American with working-class appeal. But would another Democratic presidential nominee see potential in Walsh? In Massachusetts, where the political universe is especially susceptible to Potomac Fever, there are people who want to think so.
After all, a previous Boston mayor did have a famous brush with vice presidential ambition. In 1972, George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee, asked then-Mayor Kevin White if he would consider being his running mate but ultimately withdrew the offer. As the late journalist and pundit Mark Shields related, he subsequently told White his candidacy had been sabotaged by a fellow Massachusetts Democrat, Senator Ted Kennedy. According to Shields, White replied, “I would have done the same thing to him if I’d had the chance.” Not being picked was probably a blessing, since McGovern ended up losing in a landslide to Richard Nixon. Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, the running mate McGovern picked instead of White, exited the ticket following reports he had been hospitalized for depression and underwent electric shock treatments.
Whatever happens next for Walsh, he took an unexpected leap beyond Boston politics and seems to be thriving. As labor secretary, he’s an asset to a president who did not need a rail strike but who does need a political friend who can talk up the Biden administration to working men and women.