In a move that will undoubtedly stoke speculation about his own political future, Mayor Martin J. Walsh will kick off a tour of Midwest states that figured prominently in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory to stump for like-minded Democrats and rally local laborers this week.
The second-term mayor is scheduled to fly to Ohio Thursday before visiting Indiana for a two-day trip through Republican-leaning districts where Democrats are vying for open congressional seats or mounting challenges to longtime incumbents.
In the weeks ahead, Walsh said, he is also planning a similar trip through Iowa and Wisconsin — two states that, like the mayor’s destinations this week, voted for President Trump.
Lamenting that he didn’t do more campaigning to help Hillary Clinton, Walsh said the trips are part of him taking a “very active” role through the 2020 presidential election. His hope, he said, is to use his personal story and labor roots to help connect the Democratic Party with middle-class voters it may have lost to Trump’s populist message in 2016.
It also marks an escalation in the type of out-of-state political activity that Walsh’s immediate predecessor, the late Thomas M. Menino, rarely engaged in during his two decades controlling City Hall but that was common late in Ray Flynn’s tenure as Boston mayor.
“Sitting on the sidelines, for me, is not going to be enough,” Walsh said in an interview Tuesday. “I‘m not forgetting about Boston, I’m not forgetting about Massachusetts. But I feel it’s important as a Democrat to help other candidates, cheer on their successes, and push them and try to make a difference.”
For Walsh, who as recently as a few years ago didn’t rule out a run for higher office, the trip presents an opportunity to boost his national profile by introducing himself to voters, officials, and candidates who would otherwise be wholly unfamiliar with the mayor of Boston and his labor background.
Andrew J. Ginther, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, was among those who asked Walsh to campaign in the state, saying he’s keen on hearing Walsh’s approach on opioids and affordable housing.
“I think Marty has an incredible personal story and narrative,” Ginther said, a reference to Walsh’s recovery from alcoholism and the second chance the labor movement afforded him. “And having a great, results-oriented, innovative person with a powerful personal narrative coming to help elect Democrats in important years and important races, we’d be fools as Democrats not to leverage those and use those skills to benefit candidates in competitive races.”
Walsh said, like the mayors of New York City or Los Angeles, his role in Boston affords him a national platform, but he said the trips aren’t about political ambitions.
“I’m not worried about the next step, I’m worried about America,” he said. “I’m the mayor of Boston, I love my job and I intend on staying the mayor of Boston. But I’m concerned about the direction of our country.”
Walsh hasn’t shied from the road before. He traveled to Pittsburgh late in the 2016 presidential campaign to stump for Democratic nominee Clinton, and he sent teams of volunteers to New Hampshire to bolster her campaign in the first-in-the-nation primary
That summer, he gave a primetime speech at the Democratic National Convention. And he’s already been active in other congressional races this year — albeit closer to home in the Third District, where his former chief of staff, Dan Koh, is running in a 10-candidate Democratic primary.
But this week’s Midwest swing marks a different foray into national politics for the Dorchester Democrat and onetime head of the Boston Building Trades.
He’ll bounce between more than half-dozen events in less than 30 hours, meeting with union leaders and offering support for young Democrats vying in red-leaning congressional districts.
That includes Danny O’Connor, a county official battling a Republican state senator in an Aug. 7 special election for an open US House seat around Columbus. Walsh will help kick-off a neighborhood canvass for O’Connor in Delaware, Ohio, before joining a labor rally later Thursday in Mansfield, according to a schedule his aides provided.
He’ll also address Ohio mayors on Thursday about Boston’s efforts to fight the opioid epidemic. Walsh will then talk infrastructure Friday in Cincinnati alongside several candidates, including Aftab Pureval, a 35-year-old county clerk who’s challenging US Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican who first won the seat in 1994, lost it briefly, and has held it since 2011. Walsh will then travel to Indiana to meet with local Democratic Party officials and labor leaders there.
O’Connor’s and Pureval’s campaigns have each drawn national attention as Democrats vie to take control of the US House in the mid-term elections. O’Connor’s run for a previously Republican-held seat has drawn comparisons to that of Conor Lamb , the Democrat who won a special election in a Pennsylvania district that Trump won handily; Pureval’s challenge of Chabot has been called “one of the fiercest congressional battles” in the country.
Which raises the question: What can Walsh, the mayor of a reliably blue city in a state with an all-Democratic congressional delegation, offer to voters in a state Trump carried in 2016?
Some Democrats think a lot.
“He brings a trade union perspective to public office. I think our members will appreciate that and the larger public will embrace that as well,” said Tim Burga, president of Ohio AFL-CIO.
“I’ve always felt that if you have a progressive populist voice, if you are a policy maker that has a proven track record of putting working people ahead of billionaires, that’s going to resonate,” Burga said of Walsh’s appeal. “That resonates in Appalachia Ohio, that resonates in big cities like Cleveland and Columbus.”