Martin Walsh’s battles with adversity struck a chord

Martin J. Walsh celebrated with supporters at his victory party at the Park Plaza Hotel.
Martin J. Walsh celebrated with supporters at his victory party at the Park Plaza Hotel.

He is the boy who wore a wig to school when his hair fell out from chemotherapy, the college dropout who went back for his degree in his 40s, the recovering alcoholic who once took a bullet to the leg after a long night of drinking.

The struggles that shaped Martin J. Walsh’s life also helped him become the next mayor of Boston, allowing the lawmaker to bond with a diverse array of voters in a city that prizes resiliency and the ability to recover from adversity.

His rise to power was fueled by the upward arc of his biography, by the story he told of a working-class kid from Savin Hill whose battles help him relate to the ordeals faced by people from Mattapan to Hyde Park.


Like Mayor Thomas M. Menino before him, he blazed a more personal style of politics that was ultimately more visceral in its appeal than any policy paper or pressing concern pushed by his opponent, John R. Connolly.

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He emphasized his blue-
collar upbringing on the first floor of a three-decker, along with his roots as the son of Irish immigrants and his background as a laborer who once busted sheet rock for a living.

He touched on the theme of redemption in his victory speech Tuesday night.

“For this son of immigrants, you’ve made Boston a place of comebacks and second chances,” Walsh declared to hundreds of jubilant supporters at the Park Plaza Hotel. “My life story is made possible by this city.”

He has promised some changes as mayor, if not a wholesale break from the Menino era. He plans to abolish the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the agency that has shaped commercial real estate development in the city for decades and has served as a lever of power for Menino.


Walsh plans to diversify the leadership of the Police Department and has hinted he may appoint a person of color to replace Commissioner Edward F. Davis, who resigned last week after seven years.

Walsh has also pledged to focus on schools, an issue that Connolly embraced as the thrust of his campaign. A supporter of charter schools, Walsh says he will also establish ninth and 10th grade academies in the city’s high schools, to ensure that fewer students fall through the cracks.

Walsh’s roots in the labor movement are deep, which meant they were both a wellspring of campaign cash and field support, but also a source of controversy. Walsh is the president of Laborers Local 223 and was until April head of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council, which represents more than 35,000 workers in 16 trades in Greater Boston.

Walsh’s father was also a member of Local 223. His uncle was for years its leader. These days, Walsh’s cousin, Martin F. Walsh, is the union’s business manager. Another cousin is the office manager. Though he distanced himself from his labor background during the campaign, there were signs of union pride Tuesday night: Labor banners festooned the balconies around his victory party, including one from Local 223.

Walsh, 46, still lives in Savin Hill, where he was raised by a father who worked as a laborer and a mother who had dinner on the table at 5 o’clock sharp, seven days a week.


As a boy, Walsh attended St. Margaret School, became an altar server, and played floor hockey at the community center near his home on Taft Street. But his childhood was defined by his diagnosis at age 7 with Burkitt’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer that spread to his pancreas and bowels. Sapped of energy, he missed most of the second and third grade and repeated the fifth. Burkitt’s often responds well to chemotherapy, however, and Walsh’s eventually did. When he was 11, a scan revealed that he was free of the disease. To mark his recovery, Walsh’s mother took him to the shrines at Knock in Ireland and Lourdes in France.

After graduating from Newman Prep, a private school in the Back Bay, he attended Quincy College and Suffolk University, dropping out after a year and a half. Following in the footsteps of his father and his uncle, he spent two years as a laborer, before ditching his work gear for a desk job in Newton, working as a collection agent for the laborers’ pension fund.

It was around this time that he started drinking heavily. Walsh acknowledged that he drove drunk, blacked out, and was once thrown out of a Bruins game. In 1990, he was hit in the leg by an errant bullet after a night out with friends. It was not until 1995 that he entered a detoxification program on Cape Cod and got sober. Two years later, he was elected to the Massachusetts House. His union career began flourishing.

In 2001, he became recording secretary of Local 223 and union president in 2005. Frustrated that he never finished college, he got his bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 2009. Two years later, fellow union officials elected him general agent of the Boston Building Trades Council. The job paid him $175,000, on top of the $76,000 he earned as a state representative, and furnished him with a Jeep with gasoline.

In that role, he emerged as one of the most influential figures in Boston’s construction industry, a labor leader with deep political connections who could help developers secure financing for projects, hammer out contracts for union workers, and navigate neighborhood opposition to projects. He held the position until April, when he resigned to run for mayor.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@