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Biden Rapport With Labor Pick Raises Workers’ Political Sway (1)

Jan. 8, 2021, 8:12 PM; Updated: Jan. 8, 2021, 10:18 PM

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday publicly introduced his friend, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, as his nominee for U.S. labor secretary, offering workers hope that they will benefit from the personal and professional bond between the two men.

“For secretary of labor, I nominate a good friend and a stand-up guy—Marty Walsh from Boston, son of Irish immigrants,” Biden said during a press conference in Delaware, following news of the Cabinet pick a day earlier. “I know him, tough as nails; diagnosed with cancer at age 7, beat it at age 11.”

Walsh, a former construction union official and Democratic Massachusetts legislator who has been Boston’s mayor since 2014, would make his first foray into federal government service, if confirmed by the Senate. It also would be his first time working for Biden.

The duo have similar approaches to politics, and have a friendship dating back to 2007.

They share a working-class, pro-labor, Irish Catholic upbringing, as well as a reputation as pragmatic deal-makers. That has some in organized labor optimistic that Walsh will be able to use his connection to Biden to prevent labor issues from receiving short shrift in White House economic discussions.

“Working people have been struggling for a long time under the erosion of their rights, and the deep inequalities of race, gender, and class,” Walsh said Friday, appearing alongside Biden. “For the last four years they’ve been under assault—attacks on their rights, their livelihoods, and the unions that built the middle class.”

An effective working relationship between the two friends could be especially important for workers, as the U.S. Labor Department will play a pivotal role in the incoming administration’s efforts to rescue the pandemic-devastated workforce. It also could have bearing on a potential legislative battle over labor law overhaul, a priority for U.S. unions.

Union leaders in particular are hopeful that Walsh can leverage this friendship to ensure that organized labor has the type of White House clout they say was missing during the Obama administration.

Biden’s and Walsh’s lives have been on “such similar tracks,” said Ed Kelly, general secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “That will be a significant catalyst towards effectively ensuring that change for the better for working families will be a priority in the Biden administration.”

Walsh will be under pressure from Democrats to quickly reverse some of the deregulatory actions President Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has taken, and to have the federal government respond more forcefully to lift up low-wage workers.

Biden said his choice of Walsh was a tough one, and that he “gave serious consideration” to picking Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for labor secretary. The president-elect said, however, that after twin victories in the Georgia runoffs gave Democrats control of the Senate by a single vote, he and Sanders agreed that the Vermont senator was needed on Capitol Hill instead.

The Connection

The Walsh-Biden friendship began with Biden’s efforts to build ground game for what ultimately became his second failed bid for president, in the 2008 cycle. Biden was a U.S. senator from Delaware in 2007 and frequently made pit stops in Boston on his way up to campaign in the early primary state of New Hampshire, said George Cronin, who was Biden’s New England political director for that campaign.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., late last month.
Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Cronin assembled a group of Massachusetts state legislators to meet with Biden during one of those visits, in an attempt to recruit surrogates to deploy in New Hampshire, Cronin said. Walsh, then a decade into his tenure as a state representative, was one of those attending.

“They hit it off pretty well. There were a lot of synergies,” said Cronin, now a principal at the public affairs firm Rasky Partners Inc., a prominent political shop founded by a longtime Biden fundraiser.

“They both have a lot of respect for tradition, loyalty, their religious beliefs, and a shared set of values,” Cronin added.

The Friendship

It also helped that Biden and Walsh had two mutual friends who were instrumental figures in their lives. The first was the founder of Rasky Partners, Larry Rasky, who died in March due to complications from Covid-19.

In addition to his service for Biden, Rasky was a frequent adviser and fundraiser for Walsh as he ascended in Boston politics.

The second shared ally was Kevin Fitzgerald, a Massachusetts state representative for more than 25 years who mentored Walsh on the latter’s arrival at the state house in 1997 as a young legislator. Fitzgerald was also a supporter and friend of Biden, said John Tobin, another friend of Walsh’s.

During one of Biden’s trips to New Hampshire in 2007, the senator insisted on making an unannounced stop to visit Fitzgerald in a Boston hospital, to pay his respects. Fitzgerald died from cancer that October, at age 57.

“Marty really appreciated that,” Tobin said of Biden’s visit.

Cronin recalled the hospital stop made Biden two hours late to his New Hampshire event, but Biden was adamant about seeing his friend one last time.

The Test

The bond between the two Democrats strengthened after Walsh began his first term as mayor in 2014. That April marked the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, and then-Vice President Biden spent the somber day in Boston with the mayor, at a memorial honoring the victims.

They’ve continued to stay in touch over the years, occasionally appearing together at public events. That includes Biden presiding over Walsh’s 2018 inauguration for his second term as mayor.

Their connection will be put to the test in 2021 as they seek to forge an effective working relationship in the crucible of Washington, collaborating on issues such as worker safety, overtime wages, and unemployment insurance.

“This is one of the most important departments to me,” Biden said of the Labor Department. “I trust Mayor Walsh, and I’m honored he accepted.”

(Updated with additional reporting, starting in 12th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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