Here’s how John Walsh felt being Ed Markey’s campaign manager last year, after Joe Kennedy made his U.S. Senate challenge official.
“The first three weeks, it felt like I was attending Ed Markey’s wake," Walsh said. "People would say, 'Oh, it’s so bad, Ed’s a good guy... probably going to have to quit.' And I was like, 'Well, there’s no chance he’s going to quit.'”
Still, in an era when young progressive candidates were beating older, veteran congressmen, most thought the 38-year-old, energized Kennedy, would squash 73-year-old Markey on Primary Day.
Why didn’t Walsh believe that narrative?
“I know what being a son of a milkman and succeeding means somehow inside. There’s a determination, a grit, a relentlessness,” he said.
Walsh had key allies in the fight with him. Most of them young people, many of whom list climate change as their number-one issue. Markey had just authored the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
So if there had been no Green New Deal and there had been no Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, could Ed Markey have pulled this off?
“Of course," Walsh said. "The AOC association opened the door and then they opened Google.”
What people learned is that you couldn’t out-progressive Markey. He hired a smart and savvy staff who knew how to work the grassroots and social media.
More on Markey's Victory Over Kennedy
And as organizations of young people like the Sunrise Movement got involved, Walsh welcomed their input.
“Our campaign was literally about passing that control. Now we benefited like hell by passing the control, by trusting those young leaders and they’re inspiring,” he said.
Just don’t try to tell Walsh he took part in a rebranding of Markey.
“That’s one of the most annoying storylines in the world to me. It’s like, I don’t have to rebrand a guy when he’s a 27-year-old freshman state rep from Malden and he tells the party leaders to go to hell and supports the black caucus to create the first black Senate seat. You don’t have to rebrand that guy.”
And while Walsh basked in the glow of victory over the Kennedy campaign -- the first congressional loss for the Kennedy dynasty in Massachusetts -- a week later, he reflected on how his Irish roots made that quiet improbable.
“My dad came here on a boat from Clonakilty, I’m genetically incapable of thinking anything bad about a Kennedy,” the veteran Massachusetts political operative said.
Taking on a Kennedy was never in the cards for Walsh, who vividly remembers the day in 1963 when his mother pulled him from the sandbox after President John F. Kennedy, Joe Kennedy III's great uncle, was assassinated.
“We went to Saint Brigid’s for the rest of the day,” Walsh said.
The son of a janitor, Walsh said the Kennedys were always an inspiring and motivating force: “I was a selectmen for 10 years in Abington, starting at 26, which proved to me that I liked campaigning better than governing.”
Fast forward to 2005. Walsh became concerned about state leadership, feeling the 16-year reign of Republican governors had hurt the state.
“The fact that our intention was to nominate the next Irish guy in line and somehow we win because there are more of us than them felt like a foolish repetition of a pattern that hadn’t worked,” Walsh said.
Walsh had heard a guy named Deval Patrick was thinking of running. So he invited him to speak at a local St. Patrick’s Day dinner.
“Honestly, he told a terrible joke and he didn’t have a green tie or anything. So I’m thinking this guy could use some help,” Walsh said.
Patrick asked him how he could win. Walsh was honest. With no campaign account, endorsements or past political experience he couldn’t win, by any standard measure.
“But you could run a grassroots, issues-based campaign in Massachusetts, this internet thing makes it possible. It’s something new and you’re obviously very impressive. I think you can pull it off,” Walsh recalled.
Patrick went from complete unknown to becoming the state’s first Black governor.
How gratifying was that campaign?
“Oh my God. Life-changing for me," he said. "It flipped my life upside down. I actually have a formula if that’s helpful. Start with the best candidate. Have a clearly articulated message about why people should vote for you. And then organize like hell and communicate as clearly as you can."
Walsh has a message for elected leaders, too: The younger generation is watching and, if you welcome them, they can help you win, too.