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JOAN VENNOCHI

Hillary Clinton searches for the key to Marty Walsh’s heart

Walsh (left) and Clinton.
Walsh (left) and Clinton. charlie neibergall/aP (left); keith bedford/globe staff

At this stage in her troubled presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton could certainly use support from a popular urban mayor with close ties to labor and the recovery community.

And so she searches for the key to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s heart.

During this week’s visit to Boston, Clinton is scheduled to discuss substance abuse issues with Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey — two Massachusetts Democrats with high voter approval ratings. Clinton already has Healey’s endorsement. But Walsh is uncommitted and said to be torn between Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet announced a decision about a presidential run.

Right now, there’s no plan for any private meeting between Clinton and Walsh. But a presidential campaign often accused of not being very smart was at least smart enough to find an issue that Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, cares deeply about. He still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after two decades of sobriety. And the local recovery community provides not just moral support to Walsh, but political backing. So Walsh’s personal interest in the subject of addiction coincides with Clinton’s recently announced $10 billion plan to target drug and alcohol abuse.

But it will take more than a “plan” to win him over.

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As one Walsh adviser put it, “The key to Marty Walsh is when he thinks you really do understand issues that affect people who are afraid their kids will never be able to buy a house.” In other words, Walsh, a former labor leader, relates to the average citizen living from paycheck to paycheck, not to the Clinton Foundation world of multimillion-dollar foreign donors and sky-high speaking fees.

According to another Walsh aide, the Thursday event was set up at the request of the Clinton campaign with the understanding that no mayoral endorsement should be expected. While Clinton is still seen as the party’s likely nominee, her campaign remains mired in controversy over her decision to store e-mail on a private server during her tenure as secretary of state. Meanwhile, Walsh has a close personal relationship with Biden.

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Walsh’s ambivalence underscores the practical political problem faced by Clinton these days. So far, all the passion on the Democratic side comes from the left, which has embraced Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. On Clinton’s side, emotion runs flat, leaving an opening for Biden.

That’s true in Massachusetts, too, despite strong past loyalties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential primary season, the Bay State was ground zero for a fierce fight between Hillary Clinton supporters and those backing Barack Obama.

In that contest, Clinton had the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino in her corner. In his book published shortly before his death last October, Menino took some credit for helping Clinton pull off a come-from-behind victory over Obama in the 2008 New Hampshire primary. While it’s questionable how much a Boston mayor can really do in New Hampshire, Menino did send his political army across the border. When Clinton next won the Massachusetts primary, again with help from Menino’s organization, Menino declared, “This is still Clinton country. Our campaign wasn’t about speeches. It was about work.” After her loss to Obama, Clinton continued to cultivate a relationship with Menino.

But now there’s a new mayor in charge. For Walsh, the personal connection is all about a candidate’s ability to understand the world he represents. It’s a humble world filled with people struggling to overcome adversity — like the network of former drinkers and drug users, to which the mayor still belongs.

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That’s not a political button to be pushed. It’s his life, and whoever Walsh endorses will understand that.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.