Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 18, 2010

Bill Walsh

Filed under: Cambridge government — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:39 am

Oct 17, 2010 – Bill Walsh

There’s a lot going on right now in the civic landscape of Cambridge. Anyone who has been around for a couple of decades will surely note the sudden death several days ago of former Cambridge City Councillor Bill Walsh, a man who made more than his share of friends and enemies over the years. Indeed, some of his best friends became his most bitter enemies, and some of his greatest adversaries became his closest friends. I am certainly not the person to write any definitive story of the man. Like many others at the time, Walsh was the lawyer in 1985 for the person from whom I bought my house, and I was able to witness up close the wild frenzy that was the offices of Ferraro & Walsh during those crazy days of real estate wheeling and dealing, condo conversion, and speculative deals that promised big profits on quick turnarounds. I was even invited to invest money in some of those deals, but I never did. Not only did I not have the money, I also understood that something that sounds too good to be true generally isn’t true.

My enduring sense of the man is as the janitor’s son who grew up on Hurlbut Street and who was less than welcome among the "lace curtain" crowd of the local Irish. He was even less welcome among the genteel Brattle Street crowd whom he disdained. Like many Irish-Americans in Cambridge, Bill Walsh saw his hometown of Cambridge as a place not so far removed from the days when "Irish Need Not Apply" was the rule, even though it’s unlikely that this was ever his own personal experience. Around 1990, he responded to a petition campaign to prevent the Commonwealth Day School, a very un-Yankee elementary school, from relocating to Brattle Street by making it into a personal campaign against the local upper crust. Bill, like many Irish-Americans, also saw politics as an essential tool for doing business and, perhaps, to even the score.

Though he ran successfully for a Cambridge City Council seat in 1985 and served until his sentencing for bank fraud in 1994, Bill Walsh’s first attempt at political office was when he ran for City Council in 1971 at the young age of 26. He finished 12th in #1 votes and was the next to last candidate counted out. His ballots primarily transferred to fellow Independent candidates Dan Clinton (who was elected) and Lenny Russell (who was the next and last candidate to be defeated that year). After his 1985 election, it could be said that Bill Walsh saw himself as the central figure among local Independents, political opposites of the now defunct but at the time very powerful Cambridge Civic Association (CCA). Of course, since the 1940s the central figure among Independents was Edward Sullivan, Middlesex County Clerk of Courts, former City Councillor, former Mayor, and the brother of City Councillor Walter Sullivan. Walsh was something of an upstart, but he did manage to galvanize the forces opposed to rent control like no one before him. The thing that defined Bill Walsh’s political role more than anything was his opposition to the rent control laws of the time.

Political players with the pro-rent control CCA hounded Walsh from the day he was elected to the day he went to jail in 1994. Some have suggested that these same political players dropped more than a dime or two to facilitate the prosecution. They were there most days at his trial. Ironically, the statewide passage of Question 9 in 1994 that ended rent control occurred soon after Walsh’s conviction and just before his sentencing when he was forced to vacate his Council seat. The CCA then began it’s own rapid descent into oblivion. Walsh’s political career may have gone down in flames, but his efforts helped bring the CCA to the edge of ruin and, without rent control as their defining issue, they came unglued. Bill Walsh may now be gone, but the CCA preceded him in death.

It is widely acknowledged that Bill Walsh resumed his real estate wheeling and dealing after his release from prison, though he largely acted through other agents and remained out of the public eye. Some current city councillors clearly benefited from their ties to Walsh in recent years, though no one has definitively proven anything illegal in these deals. Nonetheless, association with Bill Walsh in recent years has always raised a few eyebrows and suspicions. It was only during the last few years that his presence would be acknowledged at public events along with other former elected officials.

I still think of Bill Walsh as the janitor’s son who built his political and financial network by providing the means for working people to obtain property and wealth, but who was both reckless and somewhat unscrupulous in delivering those benefits. Perhaps his greatest violation was not any specific violation of law, but rather the fact that he left his friends in financial ruin when the speculative housing market soured in the early 1990s. Of course, anyone who chose not to see the Ponzi-like quality of some of Walsh’s schemes must bear much of the responsibility for their own financial losses. Some choose to blame Walsh for the changing demographics of Cambridge after rent control, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that this shift was already occurring and that the transition of Cambridge into the condo-dominated city it is today was inevitable. In any case, the passing of Bill Walsh is the passing of an era in Cambridge. — Robert Winters

Obituary: William Holland Walsh of Cambridge and Ogunquit, Maine suddenly October 15, 2010. Beloved husband of Mary Hayes Walsh. Visiting hours in St. Peter’s Church, 100 Concord Ave., Cambridge Wednesday 4-8pm. Funeral mass on Thursday at 10am.

William Holland Walsh of Cambridge and Ogunquit, Maine, Suddenly Oct. 15, 2010. Beloved husband of Mary Hayes Walsh. Son of the late William J. and Catherine A. (Holland) Walsh. Nephew of Donal Holland of Ballineen, Cty. Cork, Ireland. Funeral mass in St. Peter’s Church, 100 Concord Ave., Cambridge on Thursday at 10am. Relatives and friends kindly invited. Visiting hours will be held in the church on Wednesday from 4-8pm. Interment Cambridge Cemetery. In lieu of flowers please send donations in Bill’s memory to St. Peter’s School, 96 Concord Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138. In addition to serving as a Cambridge City Councilor for five terms, and serving the City he loved and his widespread constituency with tireless energy and enthusiasm; Bill had a very active law practice for many years. Although the firm, Ferraro and Walsh, was highly regarded for its work in the real estate field; there was no problem, big or small, that Bill did not take on, on behalf of his clients. His clients, many of whom became his friends over the years, were from all walks of life. Bill had great success both as an attorney and a real estate developer, but the true measure of his success was the degree to which he could help other people. Their success was his success. His good counsel, kindness, and caring touched the lives of countless people. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten.

4 Comments

  1. Robert,

    As usual you have provided a thoughtful and analytical perspective on Cambridge politics. I think what really set Bill Walsh apart from his other Council colleagues was the unique make-up of his political coaltion. When Bill was first elected to the City Council in 1985 our politics were overtly tribal. Who one voted for in a municipal election was largely a function of where you grew up, what your level of education was, and what you did for a living. There was rigid slate voting and little transfer of votes ever occurred between candidates on opposing slates. Bill defied those political conventions. His base was without question the most diverse that Cambridge politics had ever seen. His political rallies had all nationalities, all creeds, all income levels, and people from every neighborhood in Cambridge. While it was true that “property rights” was the defining philosophy that drew them all together, that coalition really reflected Bill’s outlook on people and life. His friends came from every walk of life and he was never overly impressed by someone’s social standing. At the height of his financial and political success, he was still driving an old car and holding court until the wee hours of the morning in an office on Cambridge Street that looked shabby compared to the manager of the average auto body shop. For sure, a cultural divide still exists in Cambridge politics but it is far more subtle today than it was in the days of rent control. As a City Councillor, Bill Walsh bridged that divide in a way that no one else had ever done. For me, that will be his most lasting political legacy.

    Comment by Jim Rafferty — October 18, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  2. I agree with Jim. Bill’s outlook on people and life was incredibly inclusive and generous. All of those RE profits financed an amazing amount of charity, both formal and informal. He never needed or wanted what money buys.

    I had the pleasure of visiting him at his home in Maine during this past summer. This home remains a modest and welcoming place among much more “showy” neighbors.

    Surely, he made a number of bad decisions in his life, but this does not make him a bad person. On balance, I think he was an incredible force for the larger good. I am really glad I knew him.

    Comment by Sally Ackerman Eaton — October 18, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  3. The irony is the condos did much to get rid of the white working class in this city and give the upper hand to the upper crust in many of our political battles.

    Comment by James Conway — November 14, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

  4. Bill and his cronies at City Hall were/are crooked, plain and simple. The Feds need to do another sweep.

    [Editor’s Note: This poster chose not to provide his full name along with his sweeping statement. Next time, I’m sure he will.]

    Comment by Sam — December 12, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

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