Biden picks Boston mayor as labor secretary, Rhode Island governor as commerce secretary

Published: Jan. 7, 2021 at 3:11 PM EST
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BOSTON (AP) — President-elect Joe Biden will select Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as his labor secretary, according to a person familiar with the decision, choosing a former union worker who shares his Irish American background and working-class roots.

Walsh, 53, has served as the Democratic mayor of Boston since 2014. When he took the oath of office for his second term as Boston’s chief executive in 2018, Biden presided over the inauguration. His selection was confirmed by a person familiar with the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid preempting Biden’s official announcement.

Before that, Walsh served as a state representative for more than a decade.

Walsh, a former union worker, has a long history with labor. He served as president of Laborers Local 223 and, before becoming mayor, headed up the Boston Building Trades — a union umbrella organization.

At Walsh’s second mayoral inauguration, Biden praised him for his character and efforts to create a thriving middle class, calling him a “man of extraordinary character in a moment when we need more character and incredible courage.”

“We’re at a moment when mayors and governors matter more than they ever did,” Biden said at the event. “We need leaders who will stand up against the ugly divisiveness spewing out of Washington every day.”

During his tenure as mayor, Walsh has overseen the city’s ongoing rejuvenation, which has led to challenges that include gentrification and rising housing costs.

He’s also had to grapple with the city’s history of racial tensions to try to make the city more welcoming for people of all backgrounds.

Most recently, Walsh has helped lead the city through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic with its myriad challenges, from helping maintain local businesses to ensuring widespread testing for the virus to figuring out how to maintain access to public schools.

Walsh and Biden share an Irish American background.

Last year, Biden videotaped a message for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. The event pulls together the state’s top elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, to enjoy Irish music and food — and cringe-worthy jokes.

“We Irish, as you know, we’re dreamers, yet we’re realists. We’re spiritual, yet we are doubters. We are compassionate, yet we’re demanding. Everything in us runs deep: sadness and joy, heartache and hope, fortitude and faith,” Biden said in his message last year. “We are the only people on earth who are always nostalgic for the future.”

The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh grew up in a triple-decker in Boston’s working class Dorchester neighborhood. As a child, he survived a four-year bout with Burkitt lymphoma starting when he was 7.

Walsh said one of the toughest things about his cancer treatment was losing his hair, which he said was red at the time and hard to match for a wig. He later recalled how someone living on the top floor of the three-family home clipped a bit of his hair and came back later with an identical red wig.

Walsh has also been forthcoming about his early struggles with alcohol and has used his history with addiction to encourage others to seek help. He began his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention by saying: “Good evening. My name is Marty Walsh, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“On April 23, 1995, I hit rock bottom. I woke up with little memory of the night before and even less hope for the days to come,” he said at the time. “Everybody was losing faith in me, everybody except my family and the labor movement.”

His nomination was praised by union leaders Thursday.

Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said Walsh brings a “pro-worker vision” to the Labor Department that is badly needed and called him a “champion for working people.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Walsh will be an “exceptional” labor secretary who understands that collective bargaining will combat inequality, beat COVID-19 and expand opportunities for immigrants, women and people of power.

“From the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council to the Massachusetts State House to the mayor’s office to his own personal journey with overcoming addiction, Marty Walsh has always been a fighter who understands the power of working people standing together for a better life,” Trumka said.

Walsh’s union history has led to some awkward moments as mayor, including when two former Walsh aides were charged with bullying music festival organizers into hiring union workers.

Kenneth Brissette, the city’s former director of tourism, and Timothy Sullivan, who was chief of intergovernmental affairs, were convicted in federal court in 2019 of conspiring to extort the organizers of the Boston Calling music festival by withholding city permits.

A federal judge later tossed the convictions, saying the government failed to prove the existence of a quid pro quo.

Biden picks Rhode Island Gov. Raimondo as commerce secretary

Biden has also picked Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to lead the Commerce Department, helping set trade policy and looking to promote U.S. opportunities for growth domestically and overseas.

Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, is in her second term as governor and previously served as state treasurer. Her name had been floated for Biden’s health secretary, though she said last month she would be staying in Rhode Island and continuing to focus on the coronavirus pandemic.

Her nomination, which was confirmed by a person familiar with the decision, will need to be approved by the Senate. The person was not authorized to preempt Biden’s announcement and spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity.

The Biden administration’s stance on international trade will likely be a significant shift away from President Donald Trump’s tariff-heavy approach. The Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese goods including steel to punish Beijing for what it said were unfair currency practices and potential national security threats. Those moves were largely opposed by U.S. allies, including Canada.

Biden opposes Chinese tariffs and has promised to improve U.S. relationships with countries around the hemisphere and globe. But he hasn’t indicated that undoing the tariffs will be a top priority. Instead he has promised to while campaigning for president to oversee an aggressive “Buy American” campaign that would use federal funds to purchase $400 billion of U.S.-made goods while spending an additional $300 billion on new research and development from domestic technology firms.

Raimondo, 49, has degrees from Harvard and Yale Law School and was a Rhodes scholar.

She served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York, but ultimately went into business, becoming a venture capitalist. The firm she co-founded, Point Judith Capital, was an early-stage venture capital firm that invested in communications, internet, health care and technology companies.

Raimondo’s first run for office was in 2010, when she was elected state treasurer. While there, she led a state pension overhaul, which cut pension benefits for workers in the state pension system and drew intense opposition from public sector unions. The overhaul was so bitter and controversial that it has created divisions that persist 10 years later.

Raimondo was elected governor in 2014 with just under 41% of the vote in a three-way race. She won reelection in 2018 with more than 52%. She is term-limited and cannot run again.

Raimondo is a former head of the Democratic Governors Association and a prolific fundraiser. She became an early supporter of Mike Bloomberg’s run for president.

Biden’s administration has promised more robust promotion of U.S. exports and to encourage trade that emphasizes protecting the environment and combating climate change.

Biden’s Commerce Department may see much of its political philosophy dictated by his choice for other top economic Cabinet positions, including treasury secretary. Biden picked Janet Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair and labor economist who, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first woman to hold the post.

Yellen will be tasked with mapping the nation’s post-pandemic economic recovery, determining how to stimulate growth and safely reopen some parts of the economy that have been all-but shuttered for months. She has already said she plans to use her agency to help combat economic inequality, which has reached historic proportions nationwide, and to combat climate change.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.