Newspaper article International New York Times

A City Leader Draws on His Stormy Past

Newspaper article International New York Times

A City Leader Draws on His Stormy Past

Article excerpt

Martin J. Walsh is able to bridge worlds at tense moments using his personal experiences.

The new mayor was nervous. He felt it was too early for him to speak. He had just been whisked down the corridors of the South Bay House of Correction, past the firearms locker, and into a fluorescently lit visitation chamber, where he now sat across from seven prisoners in jumpsuits and white sneakers, uncuffed, jailed for acts involving drugs, guns and the street.

The event had been billed as a "panel discussion." The seven inmates were the audience, and they were to sit and listen while about twice as many people -- ex-convicts, prosecutors, mentors -- took turns making speeches to them about the re-entry program they belonged to, which seeks to smooth inmates' return to the free world.

Before the new mayor, Martin J. Walsh, could get a feel for the room, his host prodded him to stand and give a speech. He looked around for someone to go first: nope. So he rose and walked over to the prisoners, a 46-year-old mayor of Irish Catholic origin hovering over seven young black and Hispanic men in this very tribal city, and spoke to them with an ease that can escape him when addressing less troubled people.

He told them of quitting drinking after April 23, 1995; of being grazed by a bullet during a drunken St. Patrick's Day five years before getting clean; of how a fellow addict he mentored returned to drugs and ended up robbing a Dunkin' Donuts. Eyeing the inmates one by one, he told them that if they did not change, they were tempting early death.

"For me, I don't know what death is," he said. "I don't really want to go there and see what it's like." He urged them to stay away, too. He could have added, but didn't, that at 7, his first Communion was moved earlier, from spring to Christmastime, because doctors assumed lymphoma would kill him before first blossoms.

Mr. Walsh took Boston's helm in January, at a tense moment for American cities. Inequality, renewed drug problems, gentrification, scarce jobs and other issues have sharpened class tensions. In San Francisco, it's protesters blockading the buses that ferry highly compensated technology company employees to work; in New York, it's the filmmaker Spike Lee ranting against Brooklyn's "great influx of white people. …

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