Being mayor of Boston was Marty Walsh’s dream job — so much so that when he was first elected in 2014, it felt like he would be happy to become another “mayor for life,” like his predecessor, Tom Menino.
But unlike Menino, who spent 20 years in City Hall, Walsh moved on. Two years ago, in the middle of his second term, he took a job as labor secretary in the Biden administration. Now, halfway through President Biden’s term, he’s said to be finalizing a deal to become the next executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. This latest career move, first reported by The Daily Faceoff, comes with a salary that’s reportedly in the $3 million range — and a penalty box full of controversy.
In The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner writes that Walsh blindsided “the White House, senior Labor Department officials, and his close allies in the labor movement” with his decision to leave. More seriously, according to Kuttner, Walsh got the offer “because of his close ties to Boston Bruins owner and NHL Board of Governors Chair Jeremy Jacobs, who has donated thousands of dollars to Walsh’s campaign committees over the years.” As Kuttner sees it, that not only puts Walsh on the wrong side of the bargaining table but also has “all the appearances of a sweetheart deal” and “looks like hell.”
To be fair, Jacobs gives money to numerous Massachusetts politicians, although Walsh is the only one to jockey for a job representing hockey players. Meanwhile, Walsh, who is reportedly under orders from the Biden administration to say nothing until he has officially resigned his Cabinet position, could not be reached for comment. Which is too bad because he should be able to defend his integrity and his honor on behalf of the working people of America.
In Boston, Walsh was known as a skilled negotiator who knew how to reach compromise while fighting for worker rights. His reputation as labor secretary is less fulsome. That’s partly due to the big expectations that went along with being the first union leader in over 40 years to head that department, one who was working for a president who called himself “Union Joe.”
Walsh drew recent criticism for his handling of the railway workers labor dispute, which played out against the political pressure of November’s midterm elections. Walsh personally helped negotiate the initial deal that headed off an economically disastrous railroad strike. But after 4 out of 12 unions rejected the deal, Biden was ultimately forced to ask Congress to impose it. While it included a significant increase in pay and benefits, it left rail workers with no dedicated sick day, paid or not, and just one personal day.
However, probably of greater interest to the hockey players’ union was Walsh’s behind-the-scenes involvement to help broker a deal between baseball owners and players. For that, he drew praise from Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy, who said at the time, “Having the Secretary of Labor of the United States, someone with direct access to the President as an internal advisor helped both sides talk through things that were important to both sides.”
As for the more prosaic day job of being labor secretary, Walsh seemed ambivalent about that. He enjoyed a close personal relationship with Biden and was an effective road warrior for him. But he never moved to Washington and chafed at the restrictions that go along with working for a president. As mayor, he could speak his mind. As a Cabinet secretary, he could not.
There also seems to be a whiff of elitism in the blowback to Walsh’s latest career move. The Daily Faceoff writer points out that Walsh will be the first executive director of the players’ union without a law degree. He also describes Walsh as a college dropout who graduated from Boston College at the age of 42 by taking night classes. Walsh, the piece also notes, “has publicly acknowledged … that he was thrown out of a Bruins game in 1995 for excessive alcohol consumption, an event that ultimately led him on a journey to recovery.” In other words, is this guy really worth $3 million?
Walsh has been underestimated his entire life. All the challenges he faced and embraced made him the man — and the successful politician — he is. He was the mayoral candidate who grew up in a triple-decker in Dorchester, survived cancer as a child, and then, as a young man, took up a path of recovery from alcoholism.
He’s also the mayor who left Boston behind. With that comes a bigger stage and more risk of being called for hooking, holding, roughing, or slashing.