On the heels of his election in 2013, Boston residents were already speculating about who might challenge their incumbent mayor, Marty Walsh. He won office by a margin of fewer than 5,000 votes, and some Democrats felt that their diverse city might be better represented by a black or female candidate. But fewer than two months into a Trump presidency and six months before the Democratic primary, Walsh is riding a 74 percent approval rating. The 49-year-old Dorchester native became a darling of progressives after a hastily arranged speech against the Trump travel ban went viral. “We will not retreat one inch,” he said, addressing the majority-minority city. “To anyone who feels threatened or vulnerable, you are safe in Boston.”
A series of three well-attended rallies — for the Women’s March, for the Affordable Care Act, and against the travel ban — suggests Boston residents have embraced a modern sort of rebellion among the winding streets where the Founding Fathers walked. We talked to the mayor — the son of Irish immigrants himself — about where this revolutionary spirit is coming from.
[ This interview has been condensed and edited.]
MTV News: You were one of the mayors who came forward right after the travel ban was announced and said that you and your city would be doing whatever you could to resist.
Walsh: The U.S. Conference of Mayors had a meeting in Washington two days before the new president got sworn in. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is made up by a bipartisan group from all over the country: big cities, small cities, middle[-sized] cities, all over the country. We focused on three areas of concern. One was the Affordable Care Act and how that would have consequences on our cities and our budgets. The second was climate change and global warming. ... The third was immigration.
Fast forward to the day the executive order came out. We put together a press conference in about 35 minutes where we invited all immigrants who worked for the city and all first-generation [employees] who worked for the city to join me. I started to explain who we are as a city. [Our] strength is really our diversity. The numbers in Boston — I think we have 27 percent foreign-born who live in our city. Fifty-one percent are first-generation, who live in our city. Three-quarters of our city are either first-generation or immigrants.
Was there anything else that prepared you to take action against the ban?
Walsh: During the presidential campaign, I visited a lot of schools. What kept occurring to me is that young kids in our system — first grade, second grade, third grade — I noticed that there was something different, that there was fear there. The teachers were hearing it, the principals were hearing it. I just feel that it’s the wrong approach, putting fear in people and uncertainty.
Many of the people who are here came from far worse situations — countries that were torn apart, through war or terrorism or poverty. The majority of people who come to America come for a better life, just like the Italians, the Jews, the Irish, and the Polish did in generations before. A lot of the Irish came here back in the turn of the 19th to the 20th century because there were no opportunities and no options at home for them. There were no jobs and there was extreme poverty. They came here to be able to send money back home. So I felt that — this didn’t bubble up, per se, maybe it did during the campaign and it just came out after the president got elected and he did the executive order — it was just wrong.
“The majority of people who come to America come to America for a better life for their family.”
Boston does not have a history of racial harmony, however.
Walsh: No. Our cases have been more public than other places. Clearly, I think that there have been racial problems in America for a long time. I still think that, particularly during the second half of the Obama presidency, there has been a lot of emotion, a lot of feeling stirred up. When I ran for mayor, I promised a conversation on race. You can’t really move forward if you don’t heal the past and identify and address the fact that you had a problem and in some cases still have issues. That has to be dealt with.
Do you think that the executive orders and actions that the president is taking might be something that helps brings Boston together?
Walsh: In some ways it might, but I’m [more] afraid it’s going to tear our country apart. I was at a mosque last night, the Boston Islamic Center. I was talking about the differences in people, and even though we all might have differences, there’s commonality in the sense [that] people are hard-working, people want to raise a family, people want to put a roof over their head, people want to put food on their table, people want good things for their children. That’s what American values and ideals are all about: We can come here and be different and celebrate different faiths and be OK with that. I’m worried about what the long-term effects are going to be in some of these [executive] actions. And it’s not just actions. It’s also followed up by very harsh, hateful comments in a lot of places.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because the MTV readership is young people all over the country who tend to have progressive social views, but they’re not necessarily in blue states. A lot of them are in blue cities. You’re in a blue city in a blue state. But they’re seeing the same stuff and they can feel pretty powerless.
Walsh: No, they are powerful. They have to reach out to their elected officials. They have to put it on them. They have to talk to them about this. They have to express their concerns. I think that in this past presidential election, people said that there was a silent vote out there for Trump that was so disgruntled. That doesn’t mean [you] turn into that silent group. Turn into that vocal group. Get out there. Hold your elected officials accountable.
And you hear from millennials, right? There are voices that you hear that are making a difference to you, I imagine?
Walsh: Absolutely. The millennial that lives in a very red state might not even realize that their congressman thinks that they have no constituents that feel the opposite of what the president or they are doing. This is the time to step up and push back.
What’s this been like for you personally?
Walsh: When I ran for mayor, one of the strengths I had that I think that the other candidates didn’t have is the recovery side of this, for me. [ Editor's note: Walsh is in recovery from alcoholism, and has been 21 years sober.] I truly do live my life a day at a time. When I talk to people trying to get through anything, it’s a day at a time. If people stop to think, “It’s going to be potentially three years and 10 months for the new president to come in,” that’s a very long time and that can have major effects on somebody’s psyche. But if you take this thing a day at a time, and break it down a little differently, and do what you can do today, it will make it easier for people to move forward, and it makes it easier for me to move forward.
We in recovery know it’s almost impossible to think about never drinking or using again, but we just ask ourselves, “Can we do it just for 24 hours? Can I just not drink for a day?”
Walsh: There’s a healing process in recovery, and part of this is about recovery. Part of it is identifying that there is an issue, part of it is confronting the problem, and part of it is changing the way that you live. I think that part of what we’re going through today is we’re confronting a problem. Eventually, we’re going to have to change the way that we do things. I’m saying that in a positive way. As Americans, we took things for granted a little bit here.
I love the concept of trying to apply these principles of recovery to what we’re going through right now.
Walsh: When somebody in recovery goes to a meeting, they go to a meeting to get support and to be with other people that are in similar situations or who have gone through similar situations. I think that can be equated to some of the rallies that are happening around the country where people are coming out. They’re all in the same situation. They’re not really sure what to do, but there’s this support out there.
Do you have any other things you’re worried about? Or things beyond the immigration issue that you feel like, as mayor, you’re going to step up on?
Walsh: The Affordable Care Act is a huge problem. [Repealing the ACA is] going to have huge implications. We have millennials that live in our city that are on their parents' health insurance. The businesses have hired them and have been able to hire more people because they have been able to be on their own health insurance. We have seniors in our city who have preexisting conditions, or something called a “donut hole,” which is a prescription drug [gap] in Medicare. Whatever changes they make could have detrimental effects on people’s health care, but also on the economy. We’re very involved and concerned about that.
It’s the cities that are going to have to pick up the slack if the ACA goes away and people start using emergency rooms as their primary care.
Walsh: Yeah, we will go back to a big problem. It will affect the state budget in the $1 billion [range]. It will affect the city budget in the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions. There are implications that run deep. Boston’s just one piece of it.
If you go around the country and you talk to mayors with community hospitals in their neighborhoods, they’re going to say, “Wait a second, the community hospital has not only gotten stronger in our neighborhood [because of the ACA], but it’s an economic engine in our community whereby people get employed and helped, not just get treated both for a condition or preventative care.” There’s a lot more to it.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has Republican mayors, but you all came together on these issues. Mayors see these stories that you’re talking about, even if they’re conservative or Republican mayors, and they see the same things that you do.
Walsh: It’s our responsibility. I said last night too at the meeting that I am the mayor of Boston, I am a Democrat. But, I am not the mayor of Democratic people in Boston. I am the mayor of Democrats and Republicans, Independents, Tea Party, and the unenrolled. I am the mayor of conservatives and progressives. I am the mayor of all the different races. I am the mayor of the rich and the poor. As a mayor, I don’t make my decisions based upon whether it is a “Democrat” issue. You make your decisions based upon the people you represent as a city to move our city forward. There’s probably never been a more important time for mayors in America than there is right now in this country, because the people who are being targeted, and the fear that’s happening out there, those people live in our cities.