Marty Walsh was going fishing, right there in the basement of St. Brendan's. He baited the hook with budget cuts and cast for a bite with a line about "controversial issues." He waited, eyeing the crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly, socially conservative Cedar Grove residents. Catholics, largely, not disposed to be warmly receptive to a challenge from a local state representative to the Church on its stand against gay marriage.
No nibbles. Walsh dealt a few glancing blows to Governor Mitt Romney, thanked John O'Toole of the Cedar Grove Civic Association, and returned to the wall, looking a touch disappointed that he hadn't been able to reel in the big one. The redhead likes a fight.
And he's adamant on this one, riled by the Catholic hierarchy's demands that Catholic legislators heed its doctrine. Walsh has reasoned through his stance on gay marriage, and come to a conclusion. He champions civil unions and, on an up-down vote on gay marriage, says he would be for it. He's at vocal odds with a popular local pastor, both claiming widespread support.
It's a progressive stand for a white Irish-Catholic from Savin Hill, and the six-year State House veteran knows there are corners of his district where he'll be vilified. Still, he doesn't hide from the controversy, and on a cold January night in St. Brendan's, goes trolling for it.
Walsh's combativeness, and his eagerness to address an array of issues, has carried the former Columbia-Savin Hill Civic president farther left than he would have imagined when he was elected in 1997. Gay marriage, hypodermic needle exchange, driver's licenses for legal immigrants, substance abuse funding — on all of them, Walsh opts for the progressive position.
He rejects the liberal tag, but acknowledges that his ideology has evolved.
"From the first day I got into office, I'm certainly on a lot of issues more liberal today than I was back then," Walsh says over coffee at Green Hills Bakery. "But it didn't take me seven years to change … Some of my ideals have been pretty progressive over my last seven years in the Legislature. It's not like I was an ultra-conservative at one point, all of a sudden now I started voting liberal, if you want to put labels on it."
Walsh says he votes issue-by-issue, guided by the merits of each case. Others see a strategic trend to expand his natural base, a series of politically-minded decisions aimed at molding a candidate with wider appeal. Walsh is unlikely to face a strenuous challenge in November, and maybe the pan is being prepped for bigger fish. Pick 'em: political education or political miseducation. Meet Martin J. Walsh, the unlikely progressive of Savin Hill.
And it's higher office he covets, make no mistake about that. Sometimes to the point of blunder; one Walsh gaffe was his 2002 two-step toward and then away from the register of deeds job, which eventually went to Mickey Roache. The problem wasn't Walsh's motivation, but timing, the result of an overly exuberant ambition. He has voiced in the past a longing for the big office on the fifth floor of City Hall, or a nameplate on a door in Washington. Recent scuttlebutt has him eyeing the lieutenant governor's job next cycle.
And, in maybe the strongest indication that Walsh, 36, considers the 13th Suffolk not just a post but a stepping stone, he raised $146,455.69 last year, third in the House behind only Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Rep. John Rogers (D-Norwood), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Walsh's cumulative war chest seems paltry compared to the House's most well-financed members, in part because others have served longer, and in part because he spends. And spends. Walsh is a one-man economic engine, regurgitating $86,000 out of his coffers, much of it into flower shops, youth sports programs, and restaurants, most of them in his district.
Big dollars like that are hauled in and doled out only by politicians with dreams of advancement. Ledgers like Walsh's are the rough equivalent of a presidential hopeful eating corn-on-the-cob in Iowa in an off year.
And ledgers like Walsh's don't fatten without the blessings of special interests. He's still a dues-paying member of Laborers' International Local 223, and most of his most generous contributors in 2003, scribbling out checks of $500 or more, were unions or contractors. He pulled down a $2,500 check from Boston's Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen local and another $2,000 from the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. There's $500 from Robert Dunham, a drywall contractor, half a grand from the Laborers' International 243 from Auburn, MA, and another $500 from the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, which has not been firing off checks for Mayor Thomas M. Menino recently.
But, then, Menino hasn't sponsored House Bill 2526, which forbids county sheriffs from using outside lawyers to negotiate employee contracts or grievances. It's got Walsh's name on it. Walsh and South Boston state Rep. Brian Wallace pushed for a series of amendments factoring overtime into pension benefits. Filed April 17, 2003, with Walsh's name atop, House No. 1799 mandates the minimum number of crew members that train companies must employ,
From the Office of Campaign and Political Finance: A check, dated March 20, 2003, for $500, made out to Martin Walsh. Signed, Boston Carmen's Union Local 589.
Which is not to say that, while the relationship is cozy, Walsh and unions run a quid pro quo arrangement. Coleman Flaherty, a Walsh ally who nevertheless butts heads with him occasionally, notes that Walsh took heat in 2002 for his opposition to UMass-Boston's plans to build student residences on Columbia Point. The project would have furnished jobs for the labor organizations that contribute to the Martin J. Walsh Committee, but it sparked some fierce opposition in the neighborhood where the rep grew up. Walsh and state Senator Jack Hart moved to block the dorms.
"He caught some grief for that," says Flaherty, whose wife, Rosemary, is Hart's chief of staff. "But the fact of the matter was, he stuck with the neighborhood."
'I get right involved'
The neighborhood has changed. When Walsh was elected in 1997, he beat out a field of other Irish-Americans to represent a district packed with Irish-Americans. And, while Walsh's tribe still wields the bulk of the electoral clout, a confluence of redistricting, immigration, and the political maturation of different demographics have forged a new face for the 13th Suffolk.
In Walsh's State House office, for a long time, that diversity found representation in staffers with last names like McHugh, Dunn, McLaughlin, and Moran. Diversity meant Irish Catholics from both St. Ann's and St. Brendan's.
But last summer, Walsh hired Thien Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American graduate of UCal-Berkeley. Nguyen, who lives in Malden, speaks fluent Vietnamese, a skill Walsh says is important in a district where neighborhoods like Fields Corner are populated heavily with Vietnamese-Americans who have begun to exercise their political potential.
"The last couple years, there have been certain instances where we've had a huge language barrier," Walsh says. "And after my last re-election, I noticed that Vietnamese people, a lot of them weren't comfortable with dealing with the government. I realized that fact, and I said, I have to do something about it."
Enter Nguyen. She helped put together 2,000 pieces of direct-mail literature in Vietnamese, all of them touting Walsh.
"I'd love to get a person of color, a girl or a guy, who's looking for an opportunity, and hopefully when I have another opening, I will do that," Walsh says, adding he's been frustrated with such efforts in the past. "Because I'd like to express the diversity of my district."
"I think he's growing in the job, and he's becoming more of a serious legislator," says Walsh's predecessor, Jim Brett. "This city's changing, and I think he's cognizant of what that constituency is like."
Perhaps, then, it is not just his present constituents whom Walsh is seeking to please, but prospective ones as well. Prospective voters like the 34,685 who backed Felix Arroyo in November's City Council election. Walsh's endorsement of Arroyo, a liberal Latino at-large councillor, steered made for a busy grip-and-grin season, with official backings also meted out to incumbent Steve Murphy and unsuccessful challenger Matt O'Malley, both comparatively conservative.
There was little ideological cohesion between the three candidates, and Walsh says now his decisions were made based on personal appeal or loyalty. In District Four, where Charles Yancey defended his seat against Ego Ezedi, Walsh reportedly was infuriated by a Boston Herald article that aligned him with Yancey. Walsh threw his weight behind Ezedi in Ward 17, where the challenger won, but to small effect.
They were inconsistent, almost flailing, maneuvers that left many political watchers baffled. The "Marty Party" was a speckled coalition whose members represented sensible backings individually, but whose differences made some wonder if Walsh's decisions were too erratic.
"You generally spread yourself a little too thin, and that's my downfall, I spread myself too thin when I'm supporting people," Walsh admits of his endorsement methodology. "But I get right involved, I'm not going to back away from anybody for any particular reason. And I think by just simply endorsing somebody and putting your name on a piece of paper, that's fine and dandy for some people; if you win, you can take credit for it. But unless you get into and get your hands dirty, I don't take any gratification in the victory."
In July, he joined Menino, state Rep. Kevin Honan, and left-wing state senators Dianne Wilkerson and Jarret Barrios in sponsoring a law that would allow hypodermic needles to be sold at Massachusetts pharmacies.
"If you want to label me a liberal because I'm supportive of people who are trying to get sober and trying to recover, and trying to stop infectious diseases, they can label me as a liberal all day if they want," Walsh says, a little defiantly.
You won't find Walsh lurching left on crime. He still grapples with his most high-profile vote to date, a 1997 nay to reinstating the death penalty in the commonwealth. But he's outspoken on life sentences without parole for rapists, and stricter penalties for drug dealers.
And if there is creeping political calculation in Walsh's creepingly progressive ideology, it stems from a desire to appeal to those prospective voters. An Irish surname and an old CYO basketball jersey don't mean what they used to in Boston politics; Walsh and other mayoral aspirants — City Council President Michael Flaherty, for one — recognize the march of time. Flaherty, of South Boston, has strained to expand his own natural base; like Walsh, he garners naturally the allegiances of labor and a working-class neighborhood. Flaherty, 34, and his advisors adroitly market him as a "new" kind of politician for the hackneyed "New Boston," one who bridges divides instead of widening them. He, too, endorsed Arroyo.
And Flaherty boasts strong ties to the city's burgeoning gay community, an unexpected strength for a politician from a neighborhood whose St. Patrick's Day parade has provided an emotional flashpoint for gay issues over the years. Largely through his own efforts to steer the council toward a constituent service-based body, Flaherty has not been forced to adopt a public stance on many of the divisive issues that legislator Walsh has. There will be no up-down vote on gay marriage in Flaherty's council chambers.
Flaherty's office did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Walsh acknowledges the import of his position on gay marriage, and has set his jaw against the criticism he expects to take: from gay marriage opponent Finneran and from local clerics.
Rev. Chris Hickey, pastor of St. William's, is one. Adhering to requests from Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, Hickey and other priests have asked in parish bulletins that parishioners write their state legislators and pressure them to support Defense of Marriage Acts in the Legislature.
While Walsh lives within St. William's Parish, he doesn't attend Mass there; he and Hickey have spoken nonetheless about the fractious issue. Hickey calls Walsh "a good churchman" and says, "I believe he probably believes in this," but thinks he's "misguided."
"I would say that he's a lone voice in the wilderness," Hickey says. "I would say that he will not see a lot of support."
But Walsh's stance is examined, and his justification of it impassioned, and he says he knows that many of his constituents will be taken aback by it.
He knows, too, that Dorchester neighborhoods like Jones Hill, Ashmont Hill, Melville Park, and Clam Point are selling homes to gays and lesbians. A union vote is no heavier than a gay vote.
Again, he says it's all about the issues.
"I'm not concerned about being labeled one way or the other because of how I feel on one particular issue. I'm not concerned about that. If people want to call me liberal, they can call me liberal. If they want to call me conservative, they can call me conservative. I don't think I fall in either category, but I fall maybe in the middle of both," Walsh says.
"Because I'm a white Irish Catholic, people will assume that I'm gonna be a conservative, and I think that's unfair because people don't get an opportunity to talk to me and ask me my positions on the issues, or talk about issues. I think it's kind of an unfair label."
"He's not going to be the guy leading the charge on these social issues, but he'll take the reasonable position," Coleman Flaherty — no relation to Michael —says.
All about the issues, except when it comes time to fling an arm around a fellow politician, smile for a picture, and lend his name to a campaign mailing. Then it's personal, and hang the ideology. It'll be personal later this year when Suffolk County fissures over the sheriff's race. Steve Murphy and incumbent Andrea Cabral will vie for Dorchester's electoral affections, and Walsh's endorsement will be courted by both sides.
He knows he'll be pressed. With Murphy a longtime ally and Cabral considered a rising star, the politically expedient maneuver for Walsh might be to float lukewarm expressions of support for both sides, and avoid making enemies on either one.
So, Marty, you gonna stay out of this fight?
"Probably not. That's not my style."
Jim O'Sullivan is now a political reporter and editor for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter  at @JOSreports