Kamala Harris, Marty Walsh and the unlikely bonds of politics

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National

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Marty Walsh as secretary of labor in 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – One speaks with a thick Boston accent, the other is a proud daughter of California. One has distinct Irish roots, the other has ancestors in India and Jamaica. One proudly wears pearls, the other has a declared love of cargo shorts.

In what has become one of the more unusual pairings in the Biden administration, Vice President Kamala Harris and Marty Walsh, the secretary of Labor, have struck up a tight bond that started with policy and has evolved into a personal connection that has surprised those close to them.

They talk on a weekly basis and Harris has spent more time one-on-one with Walsh than any other Cabinet member, according to aides in the vice president’s office. Walsh now has drop-in privileges at the VP’s office, allowed to swing by unannounced anytime he chooses. When Walsh recently told Harris that he was going to be a grandfather this summer, she expressed delight – and is now planning a baby shower at the U.S. Naval Observatory, her official residence, for Walsh’s stepdaughter.

“Listen, I’m a guy from Boston. Secretary of Labor. Former mayor,” Walsh said in an interview. “If you had said to me the day I got sworn in that one of my relationships, probably the closest, would be the vice president – I wouldn’t have said no, but I wouldn’t have expected it.”

On Friday, after a celebration at the White House with Supreme Court Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson, Harris spotted Walsh near the Rose Garden. She cupped her hands over her mouth and called out, in her best Boston accent, “Hey MAH-tee!”

The unlikely connection – between the former mayor from Boston, an Irishman who sounds like his native Dorchester, and the former prosecutor from Oakland, raised in the multiethnic milieu that is California – is a pairing that brings political advantages to both. Harris gives Walsh an entree to the White House (and to a possible future president), and he gives her access to a part of the Democratic Party that could be useful, or even critical, to a future presidential run.

Harris declined a request to be interviewed, but those close to her described a relationship that has grown organically.

“If you stack up all the Cabinet secretaries and said, ‘Who is she going to have the closest relationship with?’ most people would not have had Marty Walsh,” said Tina Flournoy, the vice president’s chief of staff. “But when you see them together, you would think they’ve been friends for 30 years. Complete comfort, complete honesty, complete trust.”

The two have been thrown together in large part because Harris has focused much of her attention on labor issues, as the Biden White House works furiously to slow the exodus of blue-collar workers from the Democratic Party. The pair has a long-running road tour of sorts, the labor secretary at times directing his security detail to pull into Dunkin’ so he can get his favored brew before boarding Air Force Two.

They’ve met with unionized Google contractors in Pittsburgh, visited plumbers and pipe fitters in Columbus, Ohio, and toured an apprenticeship program in Durham, N.C. They traveled to Upper Marlboro, Md., for the signing of an executive order protecting construction workers, and on Tuesday they are heading to Philadelphia for another joint event that will be held at a sheet-metal workers’ local and include a wide array of unions.

A few months ago, a meeting in the West Wing appeared on the schedules of Walsh and Harris. Staffers scrambled to figure out how to prepare background briefing materials and talking points, but it turned out they just wanted to talk. “They’re just meeting to hang out and talk and spend time together,” said one of the officials involved. “It’s not often when there’s a meeting between the vice president and a Cabinet member where no one needs to write a memo.”

The relationship started in 2018 when Walsh, having recently won a second term as mayor of Boston, was watching the turbulent hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and was impressed with the pointed questioning by the then-junior senator from California.

On his next trip to Washington, he sought a meeting with Harris, and they spent nearly 45 minutes together. “We just hit it off,” he said.

Later, during Harris’s ill-fated presidential run, she was visiting Massachusetts and stopped by Boston City Hall.

“She walks in the door. She says, ‘I know you love Joe Biden, I know you serve with Elizabeth Warren, I know you like Mayor Buttigieg,’ ” Walsh recalled, ticking off a list of presidential hopefuls whom he was presumed to be more likely to endorse. He said he appreciated that she wanted to meet even though he was unlikely to back her – he ultimately stayed neutral – and they toured the fifth floor of City Hall, shaking hands with staffers.

Later, after she was vice president and he was the incoming labor secretary, it was Harris who swore Walsh into office.

“The first three months of me being secretary of labor, the vice president called me ‘mayor.’ She said, ‘You’ll always be mayor to me,’ ” he said, a nod toward a job in which he still takes pride. “I think that was awesome.”

During Biden’s presidential transition, Harris was asked to lead a task force on labor issues. Walsh – who headed the Building and Construction Trades Council before becoming mayor – joined the group as vice chairman.

The task force released a report this past February that includes nearly 70 recommendations to make it easier for workers to organize and gain access to collective bargaining. The two hand-delivered it to Biden in the Oval Office.

“They make such a powerful pairing because they bring different perspectives but are rooted in the same values,” said Liz Schuler, president of the AFL-CIO. “Sometimes the most rich exchange of ideas and perspectives is when you come from such different places.”

Walsh’s frequent trips outside Washington are an asset, she added. “Often we’re in an artificial environment in D.C. where we’re in our bubble,” Schuler said. “Marty has been out probably more than anyone in the administration – out on picket lines, marching with workers and listening to people both on corporate side and those on strike.”

Walsh contends that their image as a pair of opposites can be misleading, saying they have connected over a similar middle-class upbringing with parents who taught them to support causes. “She grew up in Oakland, me in Boston. She grew up with her mother, going to protests; I grew up on picket lines with my dad and my uncle,” he said. “We have more in common than people think.”

When they spoke together last November to Local 189 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters in Columbus, Harris called Walsh “my friend, an incredible union man.”

“I’m going to tell you something about Marty,” she added, nodding in his direction. “I’m going to talk about you in front of your face. Solidarity is in Marty’s blood. It is his life’s work.”

Both Walsh and Harris were deeply influenced by their immigrant mothers; his was Irish, hers Indian. Last year, on Mother’s Day, Harris and Walsh were in the Oval Office when Biden decided to call Walsh’s mother. She didn’t pick up, and the call went to voice mail.

“Hey mom, it’s Joe Biden. I’m standing in the Oval Office with a guy who says that he’s your son,” the president said, according to a recording of the encounter. “Sorry we missed you, Mom. The vice president is here as well. We just wanted to say hi.”

“Anyway, I’ll catch you when you’re home,” Biden added.

Harris was hugely entertained by the call, Flournoy said, and has since made a point to regularly ask about his mother. For Walsh, the episode was a human moment in the maelstrom of political life.

“There are people in politics who you meet and you don’t realize what that relationship will end up being,” he said. “This is one of those cases.”

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