Mr. Walsh goes to Washington

Abington native, former selectman, now Sen. Markey’s Chief of Staff

John Walsh’s first political campaign was an Abington school committee race in 1981. His candidate lost. 

This past year Walsh managed the reelection campaign for a United State Senator. His candidate won. And now he’s off to Washington D.C.   

Walsh, who grew up on Monroe Street, attended St. Bridget’s School, and has owned an insurance business in town for years, was recently named chief of staff for Massachusetts’ senior senator Ed Markey. 

“This is a time of real heightened challenges and risks for our country,” Walsh said in a recent phone interview.  “We have an opportunity to do some important stuff and I really feel [Sen. Markey] is a leader who was tested severely in this campaign and came out with a strong victory.”

Walsh, who developed a reputation over the years as one of Massachusetts top political campaign advisors, signed on to the Markey re-election campaign last August and helped the longtime Democratic politician overcome a fierce primary challenge from Congressman Joseph Kennedy III. Markey then easily defeated Republican Kevin O’Connor in the general election last month.  

Despite more than two decades in politics, Walsh has never had a full-time public sector job, and had never worked in Washington D.C. But Walsh said when Markey asked him to be his chief of staff, it was the right guy at the right time. 

“I’d been a member of the Markey fan club since [former Mass. House Speaker Tom McGee] threw his desk out in the hallway,” Walsh said. 

The son of Irish immigrants who attended Cardinal Spellman High School and Princeton University, Walsh got his start in politics by helping a St. Bridget’s classmate, Mike Nickley, run for Abington School Committee in 1981.   

“He almost won,” recalled Kevin Whalen, who also helped on the campaign and struck up a close friendship with Walsh. 

Whalen and Walsh both ended up on the Finance Committee just in time for the town to weigh a multi-million dollar override vote to bring sewer service to its west side.  

“It was to a point where people in West Abington couldn’t even use their washing machine,” Whalen recalled. “You’d go by some neighborhoods and the septic systems would be bubbling out of the ground.”

Not only did Walsh support the override when the divided Finance Committee made its recommendation, Walsh also helped wrangle votes ahead of the town election.  

“John was so far ahead of his time, breaking down Abington maps into 50 neighborhoods with 50 captains, and then driving out the vote,” Whalen said.

When Bob Driscoll stepped down from the Board of Selectmen in 1983, Walsh ran and won. He was reelected two more times, and eventually served 10 years on the board. 

In the following years Walsh emerged as a leader in Plymouth County Democratic politics. He managed campaigns for John Buckley, Jr., and Emmett Hayes, chaired the Abington Democratic Town Committee, as well as the Plymouth County Democratic League, and in 2002 he led the state Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign. 

Walsh gives a lot of credit to Buckley’s father, Jack Buckley, who was a major figure in town and county politics prior to his passing earlier this year.

“Jack Buckley was absolutely my mentor,” Walsh said. “He taught me everything I know, sometimes forcefully. He was a very smart guy.”  

In 2005, Walsh received a call from a then-little known former Department of Justice and corporate lawyer interested in running for Massachusetts governor. Walsh helped Deval Patrick emerge from a crowded field to win the 2006 gubernatorial race. His successful campaign blueprint — both the aspirational messaging and focus on person-to-person contacts — influenced Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign strategy.

Walsh, who headed the Massachusetts Democratic Party from 2007-2013, said growing up in a small-town like Abington showed him early the importance of retail politics and door-to-door campaigning.  

“Politically, Abington, in today’s parlance, is a purple town,” he said, using a term to describe a community that could vote left or right in any election. “As a crazy liberal Democrat, I know there’s no such thing as a safe election. You had to learn how to campaign.” 

Walsh moved from Abington to Dorchester seven years ago, and is now settling in to a Capitol Hill apartment within walking distance of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.  

“It was a good time to be looking for an apartment in the city,” joked Walsh. “The city has cleared out a lot.”

At the top of his portfolio is going to be driving action on climate change, which is a key policy priority of Sen. Markey, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal.

“This is a very straightforward thing and it’s been ignored for far too long,” Walsh said. “We have eight years to make some serious adjustments in the way we do things, or we’re going to trip over the edge and not bring things back.”  

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