Martin J. Walsh commanded an army of union supporters in a campaign awash in labor money. But he swept to victory Tuesday on his ability to expand past his obvious constituencies, to climb above identity politics and fashion a coalition in neighborhoods unfamiliar with him at the start of the campaign.
While Mayor Thomas M. Menino set the standard for building a durable and diverse coalition in a rapidly changing city, Walsh displayed an impressive capacity to manufacture support swiftly and in unlikely places, in the crucible of a short campaign.
To get there, he needed to delineate himself from John R. Connolly, another white Irish-Catholic male from an outlying neighborhood whose ambition to govern from the fifth floor of City Hall dates back decades.
Enter the outside groups funded by labor, who view Walsh as a fellow apostle in the movement and who reported spending nearly $2.5 million on his behalf by Tuesday night, compared to $1.3 million in outside spending on Connolly’s behalf, mostly by education groups. The pro-Walsh groups did the work that Walsh would not, framing a contrast between a friend of the working man, and Connolly, whom they depicted as an elitist. That allowed Walsh to preserve the “nice guy” persona his advisers believed gave him an advantage over Connolly, who occasionally came across as surly.
The unions’ spending, enabled by a 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened the rules around independent political expenditures, marks a new age in municipal elections. For context, Menino alone spent a record $2.7 million in 2009 against his opponent Michael Flaherty.
With such heavy money coming in from outside after the preliminary election, Walsh was unfettered by the fund-
raising pressures afflicting Connolly. Severely curtailing his campaign schedule, Connolly lost any momentum he might have enjoyed coming out of the preliminary. Walsh, by contrast, could invest in his field organization and campaign team, because ads portraying him in a positive light were already on the air.
The net effect of Connolly’s decision to reject the offer by the education advocacy group Stand for Children will serve as a cautionary tale for future campaigns weighing the option of shunning outside spending.
But dismissing Walsh as a one-dimensional politician, or simply the creation of the House of Labor, overlooks his ability to find support in neighborhoods where traditional hard-hat unions possess little clout. His victory provides labor with a historic victory — their chosen candidate, who wore his union badge proudly — but its support alone could never have lifted him to the win.
If Walsh enjoyed great support in union households, his political range beyond them was never a sure thing. To win the Boston mayoralty at the tail end of the Menino era, a candidate needed to be attuned, or appear attuned, to the needs of the constituencies that embraced the outgoing mayor.
Walsh’s victory, together with the defeat of the casino proposal in an East Boston referendum, amount to a spectacular and unlikely repudiation of Menino’s political legacy. The mayor quietly spent political capital against Walsh in the final weeks. Nonetheless, Walsh’s campaign in many ways was an eight-month homage to Menino’s hustling style.
Walsh reached Menino followers by emphasizing his biography and playing up his record as a champion of human services. He expended considerable elbow grease landing the endorsements of the preliminary election’s top three finishers of color: Charlotte Golar Richie, Felix G. Arroyo, and John F. Barros. Their backing provided Walsh with bridges to voters outside his natural base, reassuring liberals concerned about his progressive credentials.
Walsh’s challenge in office will be convincing those voters they made the right call, reassuring them on the education, public safety, and economic opportunity policies on which he campaigned. The Connolly voters who shied from Walsh because of fears that he would be too tied to labor will be watching closely to see how Walsh will establish the independence he promised during the campaign.
Walsh’s decisions on two prominent posts within the administration, police commissioner and school superintendent, will be scrutinized heavily, as will any decisions to keep on members of Menino’s team.
He hinted at the challenge in his victory speech Tuesday night, saying, “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a whole city to make a mayor.”
The city’s business community, long pleased with Menino-era policies, may be wary of a former union official behind the big desk. But one politically active businessman said he had been encouraged by how Walsh discussed his labor ties during the race.
“I think his actions during the election, by being as transparent as he was, are a solid indication of how he’s going to address it in the future,” said John Fish, chief executive of Suffolk Construction Co. “He dealt with it head-on in a very mature, professional way. I think it’ll be a question he’ll have to address, but I think he’ll do it in the same straightforward manner that he did during the campaign.”
Walsh’s political persona is now defined by his ability to surpass expectations. Once in City Hall, enjoying the seat of power he has longed for throughout his political career, Walsh will be tested once again.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.