Boston Mayor Marty Walsh takes the oath of office.

Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP Photo

Boston's Marriage To Marty Walsh Could Be Long And Rocky

January 10, 2014

Today marks the end of Marty Walsh's first week as mayor of Boston — and it might turn out to have been the easiest in his term. Walsh made key appointments, among them several minorities — forwarding his goal of a diverse administration. Now he'll turn to the city's stubborn financial problems — problems that have few answers and big consequences.

In a way, Boston got married this week. Its citizens pledged to have and hold Marty Walsh, in sickness and health, for at least four years.

And Walsh vowed, "Together, we can create one Boston, one Boston: a hub of opportunity, community and equality for all."

The city and its mayor may be in their honeymoon phase now, but there will be an adjustment period.

"It will take a while for all of us to remember that Tom is no longer mayor," said former city councilor Larry DiCara. "It will take a while for Marty's friends to remember that he is mayor, and that things are different."

DiCara says if Boston holds true to its history of serial monogamy, teenagers today — who have only ever known Tom Menino as mayor — may be almost middle-aged when Walsh leaves office. But first, Walsh will go through a learning curve that will be necessarily steep, in part because he has to get a budget to the city council by early April.

"We in Boston know almost to the penny what's going to come in," DiCara said. "And the only real variables we have are the amount of money we get from the state. Other than that, it's almost fixed. And it's a very difficult equation to try to satisfy the various constituencies the mayor would have."

DiCara says Walsh will quickly learn that city government is more complex than he can possibly imagine.

"And there will be some things he may not be able to pull off, just because of the realities, and we have to be patient and tolerant about that," he said.

Walsh will also have to be careful about the way he tries distinguishes himself from Menino, says Scott Smith, mayor of Mesa, Ariz., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"Mayor Walsh, the best thing he can do is to not be Tom Menino," Smith said. "But on the other hand, don't work too hard to not be Mayor Menino. The fact is, Mayor Menino was unique and left a good foundation to work from, but Mayor Walsh is his own person."

That good foundation is a major factor working in Walsh's favor. Smith says Walsh will be able to build his administration with the best and brightest candidates from across the county, since Menino set an attractive precedent of investing in innovative ideas.

"There's an incredible sense of optimism for this new mayor and for this city," said Peter Ubertaccio, of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College. He says Walsh has an extraordinary opportunity to reshape Boston.

"He's got some political capital that many other people taking office in difficult economic times don't often have," Ubertaccio said.

Some of that capital comes from Walsh's relationship with the labor community. Walsh's campaign was funded by millions of dollars from union members. Now he has to negotiate three police contracts and a firemen's contract.

"It is a challenge for him, but it's also a challenge for his labor allies," Ubertaccio said. "Every time they ask for something that some neutral observers view as unreasonable, they're going to be making the new mayor's life even more difficult."

Why more difficult? The Boston Patrolmen's League has already won a 25 percent raise that many see as unreasonable. Sam Tyler, of the Municipal Research Bureau, says if Walsh's labor negotiations fail, an arbitration panel will likely grant the other unions the same 25 percent increase.

“Likely it would mean that in order to pay for it over time, that there would be reduction in personnel levels elsewhere," Tyler said.

Tyler says the city of Boston has already reduced its workforce over the last decade. And Walsh told Greater Boston recently he didn’t want to make cuts.

"There’s potentially a $50 million shortfall in the budget," Walsh said. "And that’s a problem. We have to pay for it. If there’s a $50 million shortfall we have to cut services, cut something, lay people off, and I don’t want to start that way."

Either way, the Municipal Bureau's Tyler says, “There’s not going to be a lot of flexibility for … Mayor Walsh to be able to implement some of the initiatives he’s talked about during the campaign, given the fact that there’s all these other pressures on what are really limited revenues.”

Walsh may not have much room to maneuver as he seeks to increase diversity among city employees and reduce income inequality across Boston.

"We have an obligation to encourage people of color to support this mayor," said Darnell Williams, president of Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "But we reserve the right as civil rights organizations to say if we don't agree with it, we want to nudge them in the right direction with a little more aggressive speed."

Williams says he and other leaders in communities of color will be watching closely to make sure that even as Walsh deals with budget challenges, he fulfills his vow to create one Boston.

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