Smooth sailing for Walsh in confirmation hearing
Boston mayor looks poised for confirmation as labor secretary
BOSTON MAYOR MARTY WALSH, a former union leader who said organized labor provided his immigrant parents a pathway into the American middle class, seemed well on his way to becoming the next US labor secretary after more than two hours of largely friendly questioning from Democratic and Republican senators during his confirmation hearing on Thursday morning.
Walsh received bipartisan praise, including from the ranking Republican member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who likened his anticipated move to Washington to the migration of another Massachusetts resident, Tom Brady, who recently made his way south for a new job.
The committee’s new Democratic chair, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said Walsh’s leadership of the Department of Labor will be a welcome change from Trump administration policies that she said set back the plight of American workers. “We desperately need a secretary of labor like Mayor Walsh who will fight for workers, not against them,” said Murray, who declared that Walsh has “the right experience, leadership, and priorities to protect workers during this critical moment.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Walsh’s home state and a close political ally, introduced him at the hearing. “I trust Marty to look out for America’s working men and women because he has a strong record of having done exactly that,” she said.
Walsh said addressing the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, including millions of jobs lost, particularly among immigrants, women, and people of color, will be an immediate priority of the Labor Department, if he is confirmed.
He vowed to champion the cause of workers, while working collaboratively with business leaders to grow jobs and economy.
Walsh recounted his roots in an immigrant, union household, and his battles to overcome cancer as a child and alcoholism as a young adult, both of which he said were made possible by good union health care benefits. He talked about the value of job training and ongoing opportunities for education, telling the committee he did not finish his college degree until he was in his early 40s.
“These are not just policies to me. I lived them,” Walsh said of the opportunities provided by good jobs. “Millions of American families right now need them. I’ve spent my entire career at different levels fighting for them.”
The 53-year-old Dorchester native started working in the Laborers Union, which his family was active in, eventually rising to become head of the Boston Building Trades Unions. He was a state representative for 17 years before being elected mayor in 2013.
The confirmation hearing took place only hours after the Boston Globe reported that Walsh put newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White on leave, only two days after swearing him in, because of past allegations of domestic violence. Walsh said the allegations, which stem from an incident in 1999 involving White’s then-wife, were previously unknown to him or his staff. It seemed possible that the news would prompt questions from senators about Walsh’s management skills, but it did not come up during the two and a half hour hearing.
Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire asked about his commitment to access to addiction treatment for workers.
“I believe in second chances, or I would not be sitting here today as the nominee for secretary of labor,” Walsh said.
Republicans made mild attempts to trip Walsh up by asking about policies being pushed by President Biden that they say will hurt workers. Two Republicans asked about Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, a move cheered by environmentalists but criticized by some union leaders because of the job losses it will cause.
Walsh said Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda would lead to lots of new job opportunities in the clean energy sector, but Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, pushed back.
“Will those jobs be available tomorrow?” he asked.
When Walsh started to again tout Biden’s recovery plan, Cassidy cut him off.
“I think you’re talking past me,” he said. “Because the Keystone XL jobs are gone today, actually last week. The jobs you’re describing are in the by and by.”
Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas, tried to get Walsh to acknowledge the folly of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage by asking what he paid for the last cup of coffee he got in Boston.
Walsh is not only no Starbucks guy, he offered no national plug for the Dunkin’ brand that’s as linked to the region as a dropped “r.” Instead, Walsh said he paid $1.75 for a coffee at Doughboy Donuts, a long-time fixture on Dorchester Avenue in South Boston.
It didn’t seem to be the answer Marshall was looking for. “Well, that’s a good deal,” he said, before touting Kansas gas stations that offer a free cup with a fill-up (something not exactly unheard of in Massachusetts, either). Marshall moved on to compare median home prices of $600,000 in Boston and $83,000 in his hometown of Great Bend, Kansas, to make his point about the dangers of applying a uniform minimum wage across the country.
“How can we have a nationwide minimum wage of $15, which, frankly, would kill jobs in Kansas?” he asked.
Walsh didn’t engage, simply saying he supports Biden’s effort to ramp up the national minimum wage over time to $15 an hour.
Some senators used their time more as a platform for speech-making than questioning. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, talked about unique aspects of her state’s economy and her hope that Walsh will come visit, but had no questions for him.
Sen. Bernie Sanders seemed to draw straight from his presidential campaign stump speech. “Let me begin by telling you what you already know — and that is that tens of millions of workers in this country are working at starvation wages,” he said. “The gap between the very, very rich and everybody else is growing wider.”
Murray did not say when the committee would vote on Walsh’s nomination, but said she wants to schedule it to take place “as quickly as possible.”
Walsh is expected to resign as mayor once he is confirmed by the full Senate. That would thrust City Council President Kim Janey into the role of acting mayor.
If Walsh resigns before March 5, the city charter calls for a special election to be held, but the City Council passed a home-rule petition on Wednesday that would suspend that requirement and allow Janey to serve until the regularly scheduled municipal election this fall. The petition is awaiting action by Walsh. If he signs it, it then needs approval by the Legislature and the governor.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican member of the committee, suggested at the start of the hearing that Walsh’s nomination was on track for confirmation. “Tom Brady’s proven that a Massachusetts guy can hop on I-95, go south, and do good things,” he said. “If doing good things is your goal, and I think it is, you’ll have an ally in me.”“I expect by the end of this hearing I’ll be able to support your nomination, and I will encourage my colleagues on this side of the aisle to support you as well,” Burr said.
Nothing seemed to have changed when the hearing was adjourned a little more than two hours later.