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From Labor to Politics

Path carries Martin Walsh closer to his dream

Martin J. Walsh wins primary election
(Boston Globe) Martin J. Walsh gives speech after winning the primary election for mayor. Video by Susan Chalifoux / Globe Staff

State Representative Martin J. Walsh grew up on Taft Street in Dorchester, the son of Irish immigrants in a family defined by blue-collar work and Catholic faith.

He followed a well-worn family path into Laborers Local 223, the union of his father and uncle. Walsh’s first memory of politics was as a boy, when his uncle was running in a union election. He was struck by the bumper stickers.

“I thought to myself, ‘I want to run,’ ” Walsh recalled in August. “ ‘I want my name on a bumper sticker.’ ”

The 46-year-old Walsh will now see his name on a lot of bumper stickers. After prevailing in the preliminary election Tuesday, Walsh will advance to the Nov. 5 mayoral final, when he will face City Councilor John R. Connolly.


Walsh’s triumph Tuesday is another chapter in the story of a man who rose from the hardscrabble streets of Dorchester to become a towering labor leader and powerful figure on Beacon Hill. And now, he could become Boston’s 48th mayor.

“I envision a city where every kid, in every neighborhood, can believe that someday they too can grow up to be mayor,” Walsh said in prepared remarks Tuesday night. “That’s who we are. And as long as I am mayor, that’s who we will be.”

Walsh has a compelling life story that became part of his campaign narrative.

As a 7-year-old, Walsh was diagnosed with a rare cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma. Doctors gave him six months to live, but Walsh survived after years of radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments. His mother prayed that God would spare her boy, and she took him to holy shrines at Knock in Ireland and Our Lady of Lourdes in France.

To this day, Walsh’s mother says it’s a miracle her son is alive. Cancer caused Walsh to miss most of second and third grade, but he recovered. It would not, however, be his last challenge.


As a young man, Walsh struggled with alcoholism and was grazed by an errant bullet on Dorchester Avenue. But he has been sober for more than 18 years and focused his energy on politics and helping others get treatment.

Walsh joined the laborers’ union at age 21 and became a benefits officer. He ran in 1997 for state representative and won. He is now chairman of the House Committee on Ethics.

While serving in the Legislature, Walsh became president of Local 223. He rose to lead the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella group that represents unions of ironworkers, electricians, and others. The job paid $175,000 a year; he also earns a salary as a state representative. Walsh resigned the building trades job to run for mayor but remains president of Local 223.

Organized labor has defined Walsh’s career and been the bedrock of his mayoral campaign. His volunteer corps and his fund-raising have been buoyed by unions and their members. But in the final election, labor could become a liability.

During the preliminary race, Walsh was asked by opponents whether he could fairly negotiate contracts with city employees, such as firefighters, whose unions have given more than $46,000 to Walsh’s campaign.

On the campaign trail, Walsh has said repeatedly that he would have the upper hand in negotiations because unions listen to their own. Walsh vowed at several candidate forums that he would “not give away the store” as mayor.


“I will go to City Hall as a leader, but also as a listener — a person who understands this city, because I have lived it,” Walsh said at his victory party Tuesday night.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com.