Reporter's Notebook | Walsh mulls appointments: ‘Trying to see what works’

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Dec. 31, 2013

On the morning after Mayor Thomas Menino’s first State of the City address in January 1994, an analysis in the Globe said, “Although the new mayor coasted through the holiday season on a surfeit of good will, his administration never got out of first gear.” The report noted that he hadn’t replaced any department heads who had served under Ray Flynn and that he is “still heavily dependent upon Flynn holdovers in critical staffing roles.”

Marty Walsh, who is taking his time with appointments while working to get a feel for the reins of government, could find himself in a similar situation after he is sworn in on Monday. Last week, Walsh mentioned that he had gone down to New York City the week before and met with outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He saw the “bullpen” style of Bloomberg’s office in action, with the billionaire mayor in a cubicle of the same size and in the same room as his staffers. “You know, no walls, everyone’s kind of in a cubicle type of situation, I actually liked it,” Walsh said. “It was impressive.”

Other urban cities have different set-ups, he added. “I’m trying to see what works and what’s the most efficient way of delivering the services we need to the people of Boston. There’s some good stuff that happens in Boston now. I’m trying to see what’s the best way. And over the next couple of weeks I’ll be figuring that out.”

It’s hard to predict what a brand new mayor – one who has spent most of his political life under a golden dome with 159 other lawmakers – will face in his or her first year. Menino had to deal with everything from the New England Patriots pushing for a stadium in Boston to a white supremacist group’s attempt to hold a rally in Southie. That was 20 years ago. Some of the storylines, the ups and downs of the hall at the bottom of a hill, will be different, but there will likely be familiar echoes. Here are a few stories to watch for in the year ahead.

The new mayor’s people: Whom will he hire? This could take a while, but two names are already on the Walsh administration roster: Sheila Dillon, Menino’s chief of housing and the director of neighborhood development, plans to stay on; and Dennis Rorie, the community service officer for District C-11, is expected to be Walsh’s driver. Rorie has been a fixture at Dorchester civic association meetings, and on Election Day, he was with Walsh. They visited Walsh’s father’s gravesite at Cedar Grove Cemetery and then went to Mount Hope Cemetery, where Rorie’s mother is buried.

On the day before Christmas, when Walsh spoke to reporters at the Pine Street Inn, where he was serving food to the homeless, he confirmed that he hadn’t yet picked a chief of staff.

“It’s not like when you have a campaign manager, your campaign manager is working and doing a good job, and you move on, and that person potentially comes in,” Walsh said. “It’s such a different job. And then you have to balance the politics with the job. And that’s why I’m taking my time. Because you’ve also gotta make sure you mix with the person. That’s the person you’re probably going to spend the most time with of anyone in City Hall, and you want to make sure they have the same values that I have and the same understanding of how I want to move the city forward and the same vision.”

How is he prioritizing filling the top slots in the police, fire, and school departments? “I mean, depending on the constituency you talk to, they’re all important,” Walsh said. “There’s not one that’s more important than the other.”

Walsh and his coalition: On Election Day, it was clear that Walsh voters were pulling the levers for both former principal Suzanne Lee and incumbent Bill Linehan in District 2, and Haitian-American activist Jean Claude Sanon and City Hall aide Tim McCarthy in District 5. Progressive activists had been pushing for Lee and Sanon, whose elections would have diversified the 13-member City Council. The incoming mayor may find himself caught between the factions within the coalition that brought him into office. He doesn’t need to look much farther than what happened to Michelle Wu, a candidate elected to one of the four citywide slots, who felt the wrath of progressive supporters when she said she would be voting for Linehan as city council president.

The City Council: Unlike his counterpart in New York City, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Walsh did not wade into the battle over City Council president and signal whom he wants in the chair. “I have a good relationship with pretty much everyone on the council and I look forward to, as the new mayor, working with the new council and collaborating,” Walsh said. “And I’m not going to start by getting involved in that fight.” The council will have more experienced hands than it did when Menino was elected – there are three new faces (Wu, McCarthy and Josh Zakim in District 8) and one familiar one (Michael Flaherty is regaining an at-large seat). District 3 Councillor Frank Baker, a Walsh friend from the time they were small children growing up on Savin Hill, will likely be the new mayor’s eyes and ears and could be particularly helpful as the mayor makes his way through his first budget.

The budget: Once he takes office, Walsh could be grappling with a $50 million deficit. He will also be dealing with union contracts in the aftermath of his campaign arguing that he could talk unions into accepting fiscally responsible positions. But he angered members of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association when he called their arbitration award too rich. After some hemming and hawing, the City Council approved the award, which hikes salaries by 25.4 percent over six years. The strongest argument, one that he rarely made public on the trail, was that he could hardly implement his progressive platform if he gave away the store to unions. So any union contracts on his plate will put the narrative of his campaign to the test. Another looming question: Will Walsh will be able to get his former Beacon Hill colleagues to increase state aid to Boston, which has seen repeated declines in recent years.

The press: When Menino entered office, he had to deal with a much bigger City Hall press corps. Those were the days before Facebook and Twitter, which today virtually define the way politicians and political junkies find out what’s going on locally and around the world. Boston still has two daily newspapers, but many other outlets are available online. And Walsh, like Menino, is unafraid to say when he disagrees with an article. “I woke up this morning to a front page story in the Boston Herald that is inaccurate,” he told the State House News Service recently, citing a Herald report on tensions between the Menino and Walsh camps during the transition.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at dotnews.com/litdrop. Email us at newseditor@dotnews.com and follow us on Twitter: @LitDrop and @gintautasd. Material from State House News Service was used in this report.