Boston Mayor Spills the Beans

By Meg Williams 11/26/13

Newly elected Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh made no secret of his recovery from addiction during his election campaign. Could this be a refreshing trend of political transparency, or an appeal to a growing voter base? Or both?

Photo: Walsh

On November 5th, Boston elected a new mayor named Martin J. Walsh. Formerly a state senator from Dorchester, Walsh is a progressive Democrat with strong ties to labor unions. He’s also a recovering alcoholic.

Marty Walsh acknowledged that some people might not have voted for him as a result. But these people were clearly in the minority. In one interview Walsh explained, “I don’t really care who knows I’m an alcoholic because if it helps someone else ... then they’ll ask me for help if they need it.” He even shared some unsavory details about driving drunk and getting thrown out of a Bruins game.

While campaigning, Mr. Walsh answered calls from addicts and alcoholics looking for support. In his time in the state senate he advocated for increased funding for human services and stricter regulations on “sober houses.” With 18 years of sobriety, he still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly and helps those still suffering from addiction to find beds in detoxes.

Just days before Walsh’s election, a drug scandal erupted surrounding Toronto’s Major Robert Ford who was video taped smoking crack while extremely intoxicated. The conservative mayor had been elected with a campaign that emphasized his role as a “family man” and “authentic everyman.” George Smitherman, Ford’s openly gay liberal opponent, admitted to past drug abuse up front. The Ford campaign used this, as well as Smitherman’s sexuality, against him during the mayoral race. Now that Ford’s drug use has come to light, the situation seems pretty ironic.

Walsh’s opponent, Boston City Councilor John R. Connolly, thankfully didn’t stoop so low as to run a similar smear campaign. Although that might not have worked anyhow; Walsh’s campaign adeptly spun his “story of redemption” to highlight the candidate’s altruism and sincerity.

During his campaign, Mayor-Elect Walsh explained his appeal in an interview, “I think the people of Boston are going to elect a mayor who they can best relate to, they can trust, and they feel will represent their best interests. If you have a family that is being devastated by substance abuse, I don’t think it matters whether it is old Boston or new Boston. If you have economic problems and you are about to lose your house, I don’t think it matters whether it is old Boston or new Boston.”

Marty Walsh’s personal stake in these issues created a strong campaign and a believable commitment to progressive policy.

But all the publicity regarding the new mayor’s status as a recovering alcoholic and A.A. member has raised questions about the idea of anonymity.

Although Mayor Walsh did not use his A.A. membership as part of his political platform, it is known through interviews that he is a member. Other A.A. members have broken their anonymity to the press to come out and advocate for him.

According to reports, a great deal of the people who volunteered and work for his campaign were A.A. members themselves, including the campaign's policy coordinator, Brendan Little. The campaign has also seen support from Kennedy and addiction memoir writer Christopher Lawford.

But in a social climate where being an alcoholic in recovery is no longer a hindrance, what are the dangers that come along with public figures associated with A.A.?

David M., a New York A.A. with 27 years of sobriety, explained that while he doesn’t wholeheartedly disagree with Mayor Walsh’s decision, it might pose some problems: “We are all prone to relapse. If a public figure [known to be in A.A.] has a slip, people might look at that and say the program doesn’t work.”

Though Marty Walsh does not, himself, bring up his sobriety in interviews, he has acknowledged it when asked. He has also spoken of his fear of what people “in the program” would think of his membership becoming known. And he has been sure to draw the line insisting, “We’re not organizing in the halls of A.A. That’s not appropriate.”

A.A.’s break their anonymity in their personal lives at their own discretion. The best way to attract would-be A.A.’s is to show them the transformative power of the program through their interactions with current members. This often calls for a break in anonymity at the “person-to-person” level.

In the formative days of A.A., Dr. Bob explained there were two ways to cause trouble with one’s anonymity: “The A.A. who hides his identity from his fellow A.A. by using only a [first] name violates the Tradition just as much as the AA who permits his name to appear in the press in connection with matters pertaining to A.A.”

Of course, those were different times, when both alcoholism and membership in A.A. were viewed as moral weaknesses. The majority believed that alcoholism was a sign of a deficient character - that the alcoholic could stop drinking as soon as he wanted to. As an extension of this view, the recovering alcoholic’s further dependence on a society of mutual support for his sobriety seemed equally absurd and weak.

Today, the climate surrounding addiction and recovery is starkly changed. During the 1980’s, the American Medical Association officially established alcoholism as a disease in their treatment policies, and today, most treat it accordingly. Many fear if a public figure gets too personally tied with A.A., opinions surrounding him could be conflated with opinions surrounding A.A.

A.A.’s most notable public figure was co-founder Bill Wilson, who became widely known before much about anonymity was established or understood. Fortunately, Wilson stayed sober until his death; however, some still point out his personal faults to discredit AA as a whole.

While this may be true to some extent, in America today Alcoholics Anonymous is synonymous with recovery from alcoholism. Doctors refer people to the program and courts even mandate people to meetings as a part of sentencing. A.A. is a veritable and powerful institution with wide public support.

If a public figure known to be an A.A. member were to “have a slip,” it would not bring the same disaster on the program, as it would have in even the 1950’s or 1960’s. Now the public has a better understanding of the disease of addiction – its recurring and cyclical effects.

Let’s say a person has a friend in recovery, and this friend relapses after being sober in A.A. This could discredit A.A. in this person’s eyes as much as, if not more, than a public figure’s relapse. Both situations can do harm. The most important difference is that a public figure is, well, more public. More people would be affected.

On the other hand, a public figure who is in recovery could also show people that there is hope for those afflicted with addiction. Mayor-Elect Walsh has in no way sought to represent A.A. as a figurehead nor to turn his campaign into a crusade for the fellowship. His mere presence in the public spear could give hope to many.

Several Boston A.A. members have also broken their own anonymity to the press to come out in support of Mayor Walsh. They see the recovery community’s new role as a “demographic” as exciting and empowering. Though Marty Walsh has seldom reached out to these folks, they were attracted to supporting him because of his own service in the fellowship. They know Mayor Walsh is sincere because he played a personal role in their “second chance at life.”

Peter Barbuto, an A.A. member and Walsh advocate, said during an interview, “Like the blacks and gays are now -- they didn’t have any power and then they came out, and now politicians say, ‘We have to get the blacks and the gays.’ One of these days they’re going to be saying, ‘We’ve got to get the recovery community.'”

With the increase of visibility and understanding of addiction recovery, the idea of the recovery community as a “demographic” is new and untested. This community is in no way homogenous in politics, race, or religion. Those in recovery are not categorically Democrat or Republican, pro-big business or pro-labor, pro-gay marriage or against. They may not even have the same views on how to treat substance abuse in the first place.

On the other hand, in close races where undecided voters make the difference, appealing to the “recovery” demographic may be an effective strategy. In Boston’s first contentious mayoral race in several years, this “demographic” certainly helped Walsh gather volunteers to back his campaign and perhaps gave him an edge over City Councilor Connolly.

As one Connolly campaign official commented, “[Walsh] had more money. He had more bodies. And he had more power.”

In the case of A.A., politics is decidedly an “outside issue.” The 10th A.A. Tradition states that “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” This affords the fellowship a protection from going the way of the Washingtonians, a 19th century temperance movement which dissolved because of its involvement in the larger temperance movement, abolition, and other political issues.

The argument could be made that A.A. and the “recovery community” are two distinct entities, however closely tied. On the other hand, perhaps this heterogeneous “demographic” would be better viewed as a set of potential advocates rather than a singular voting block.

As far as the results of Mayor-Elect Walsh’s anonymity being broken, only time will tell. Anonymity is an evolving concept. New challenges are certainly ahead, but a sober person in a respected office could well lessen the social stigma of alcoholism.

There are always personal risks when running for political office—Marty Walsh managed to turn his biggest liability into his biggest asset. It is actions like this that are changing the face of addiction in America.

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the shrinking Big Book.

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