Meet the Parents

Former Congressman Jim Walsh and his wife DeDe talk about public life, career, family and how they feel about having their son Ben as the new mayor of Syracuse

By Aaron Gifford

Jim and DeDe at their Otisco Lake home in January. Photo by Chuck Wainwright
Jim and DeDe at their Otisco Lake home in January. Photo by Chuck Wainwright

Jim Walsh can handle dilemmas. Take, for example, a situation in June of 2014 during a trip to Ireland. He had a rare opportunity to fish a dam known for its big bass. But at the same time, the United States was playing Belgium in a televised World Cup quarter final game.

Walsh, a serious angler and a devoted fan of the beautiful game, attempted to watch the match on his cell phone while fishing. He found the task too tricky to manage, so he packed his gear, shut off the phone and stepped inside a local pub. No one there knew him. Although the soccer fans were happy to have a Yankee in their presence to add to the ambiance of their World Cup experience, Walsh saw no reason to tell anyone that he had served in the U.S. Congress. Instead, Walsh sipped stout and cheered on Uncle Sam’s team with his new friends.

Jim Walsh can handle dilemmas. Take, for example, a situation in June of 2014 during a trip to Ireland. He had a rare opportunity to fish a dam known for its big bass. But at the same time, the United States was playing Belgium in a televised World Cup quarter final game.

Walsh, a serious angler and a devoted fan of the beautiful game, attempted to watch the match on his cell phone while fishing. He found the task too tricky to manage, so he packed his gear, shut off the phone and stepped inside a local pub. No one there knew him. Although the soccer fans were happy to have a Yankee in their presence to add to the ambiance of their World Cup experience, Walsh saw no reason to tell anyone that he had served in the U.S. Congress. Instead, Walsh sipped stout and cheered on Uncle Sam’s team with his new friends.

“Every single person in that bar was rooting for us [United States],” he said. “That was such a great feeling.”

As a congressman, Walsh was a moderate heralded for level-headedness, making balanced decisions with his heart and mind, and serving his Central New York area well without diving too deep into the ugly side of politics that has tarnished reputations of so many leaders. He represented the 24th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years.

“He was one of the good guys, and that’s saying a lot these days,” said Jim O’Connor, Walsh’s longtime friend and former communications director. “He always did the right thing, like turning down first class flights that were offered to him when he wasn’t looking for anything like that to begin with. He took the role of a congressman seriously and worked for our neighbors. He had the integrity to know his priorities and not get himself into trouble.”

Walsh, 70, is the son of former Syracuse Mayor and Congressman William F. Walsh. And now one of Jim’s sons, Ben Walsh, continues that legacy as he was recently sworn in as Syracuse mayor. Unlike his Republican father, Ben is an independent and not affiliated with a major political party. But like his Dad, Ben has said he embraces the service aspect of public leadership and is hoping to minimize, if not avoid, the ugly side of politics.

In the wake of his son’s election, Walsh took some time recently to discuss his Syracuse upbringing, career, family, and other events leading to the new era of Walsh leadership.

Goose hunting in 2016 with friends on the eastern shore of Maryland. Photo provided.
Goose hunting in 2016 with friends on the eastern shore of Maryland. Photo provided.

Jim Walsh, the second oldest of six children, grew up in an Irish neighborhood on Syracuse’s west side. Forty cousins and a host of aunts, uncles and grandparents all lived within a few blocks of him.

“They are there when you need them, and they are there when you don’t,” Walsh quipped about his extended family, adding that at his first house, the family shared one bathroom for 10 people. The advantage of such a big family was there were always plenty of hand-me-down toys, books and clothing, and no shortage of kids to play with. Life was never boring. The basketball hoop over the Walsh garage became a gathering spot for neighborhood youngsters.

Like most kids on Tipp Hill, Walsh also enjoyed football and baseball. He attended St. Patrick’s school and later graduated from Christian Brothers Academy. He frequently traveled outside of the city to go hunting and fishing, and spent his summers on Otisco Lake, where he continues to maintain a home, splitting time between Washington, D.C., and Central New York.

Involvement in Politics

The Walsh legacy of public service began when Jim’s father took a job as a social worker and then moved up the ladder in the Onondaga County Planning Department before eventually seeking an elected position as mayor. Jim’s parents were focused on serving their community, and they tried to instill the same values in their children at home and through school, church and scout programs. The Walsh children watched intently as their father helped to integrate city schools and managed emergency responses to snow storms.

“Those issues were really important,” Walsh said. “It was a pretty good time to grow up.”

Walsh attended a Catholic university in western New York, St. Bonaventure. At the time, he had no aspirations to become a politician or a leader. During his junior year, Walsh’s friend talked him into running for student council vice president. He agreed, “as long as I didn’t have to do anything.”

The day of the election, Walsh went to Olean as a student volunteer to help fight a forest fire. He lost the election, but still felt good about what he did that day. The following summer he joined the Peace Corps and, after completing training at the International Rice Institute, was sent to Nepal to help citizens of that country plant fields. For two years, Walsh lived in a hut with a mud floor and no running water. He befriended the locals, sharing meals with them and engaging in pick-up soccer games.

“As different as they were, the basic human values were the same — family, education, and making a living,” he said.

Golf outing in Ireland in 2017. Photo provided.
Golf outing in Ireland in 2017. Photo provided.

Upon returning home, Walsh took a job at the Onondaga County Social Services Department. He embarked upon a career, got married (to DeDe), and started a family. Seeking a better paying job to support the household, Walsh left the county job to work for New York telephone. As a homeowner who was unsatisfied with city services, Walsh started to make his presence known around City Hall. He joined a young Republicans association and threw his hat into the ring for the Common Council president position, challenging an incumbent.

“He throttled me,” Walsh recalled of the losing effort. “You really got to pay your dues. It was a great lesson. You really need to get out there and meet people.”

That’s just what Walsh did. He was good at it, and it was a skill that would come in handy decades later when he went door to door for his son’s mayoral race last year. Jim’s second run for a council spot was successful. He is pretty sure he knocked on every single door in the city’s third district, “maybe twice.”

But Jim Walsh’s experience in local politics was different than his father’s. Mayors have executive powers, but legislators must wait for things to happen, Jim explained, as they make deals and build relationships. He was later elected council president and considered running for mayor, but decided the move could be risky for his career and chose a path with more job security.

When Walsh stepped into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1989, the environment felt much more hostile than anything he experienced in Syracuse. The Democrats had held the majority for more than 40 years.

“They owned everything and they ran everything,” he said. “Even the buildings and all of the rooms inside the buildings were named after Democrats.”

Walsh did not enjoy partisan politics, even after the tide shifted in 1994 to put his party in the majority. But it did give him more power within the appropriations committee, where he could focus on getting funding for programs back home. He brought home money for Syracuse neighborhood initiatives and saved the 174th Fighter Wing Air National Guard base from closure. With rust belt cities like Syracuse in peril, Walsh felt it was his duty to get Central New York as much federal funding as possible.

“That was my whole goal,” he said. “I went to Washington to be an uber-city councilor.”

But the Upstate New York representative eventually had opportunities to help folks outside of Central New York. Newt Gingrich, then the house majority leader and a fellow Irish-American, appointed Walsh as chairman of the Friends of Ireland Committee. For the next 12 years, Walsh led delegations to Belfast and Dublin, helping to ease tensions in the North Ireland conflict and fostering solid relations between the United States and the two Irelands.

“It became a labor of love,” Walsh said. “The more I went there, the more I realized that I had so much more to learn about where my ancestors came from.”

DeDe Walsh with granddaughter Breena on Otisco Lake last winter. Photo provided.
DeDe Walsh with granddaughter Breena on Otisco Lake last winter. Photo provided.

Walsh is also credited with creating a universal hearing screening process of newborns, improving health care benefits for veterans, and securing $160 million for the Onondaga Lake clean-up project.

In 2008, Walsh decided not to run for another term. Power in Congress had shifted back to the Democrats, and after barely beating challenger Dan Maffei in the previous election, his seat was vulnerable.

“We went from the top of the mountain to the bottom,” Walsh said. “I felt like I had accomplished everything I set out to do, and at 60 I was still young enough to do something else.”

Upon leaving the House of Representatives, Walsh accepted a job as a lobbyist/government affairs specialist with the K&L Gates in Washington, D.C., which is one of the largest law firms in the nation. He develops legislative strategies to help elected leaders obtain federal funding for their districts. Walsh enjoys the job, because “it’s a team sport here.”

He cherished his role in serving constituents, but does not miss the political games. And even though his party won back the majority of the legislature in the last election, Walsh couldn’t imagine being in office during these very trying times.

“The country is basically bi-polar right now,” he said, “and Congress really reflects the country. The key to doing your job the right way is to find people who disagree with you but are still willing to listen. That might still happen, but not enough.”

Support for Ben Walsh

Walsh and his wife, DeDe, who is an educator by trade and had worked for the Syracuse City School District, split time between D.C. and a home they own on Otisco Lake. They have three grown children (Jed, Ben and Maureen, all registered to vote as independents), three grandchildren and another grandchild on the way.

At any given time, DeDe said, all three of the Walsh children, along with so many of their cousins, showed interest in public service and leadership, though all of them are well rounded with many interests.

She described Ben as a quiet leader. He was assertive and liked to explore different ideas, and in doing so he always attracted an audience of peers who were curious to see if his ideas worked. She initially discouraged him for running for mayor, but when he made up his mind, she was thrilled to help with the campaign.

“It can be challenging, because you are open to public criticism,” she said of the mayor’s position. “A mother’s job is to protect her kids. They have such a great time as a family. I was afraid he would be torn from it.”

Jim Walsh added that he has emulated his father’s approach. “I tell him that I’m here if you need me, I’m there, but beyond that, I stay out of it. We took a very low profile. We love going door to door. But these guys, they have more energy and they are so savvy with social media. These guys were really organized on their own.”

DeDe said that in the Walsh household, politics was never discussed as much as most folks would imagine. And despite Walsh’s commitment to Washington, the couple worked very hard to support all of their children’s activities and give them opportunities to pursue whatever path they chose.

“Jim would get off the plane, meet us at the soccer game and then drive a carpool of kids home,” DeDe said. “For me, the best thing was to hear our kids say he did everything that he was expected to do.”


Meet the Walshes
Granddaughter Inga with DeDe and Jim Walsh during a visit in Washington, DC in 2015.
Granddaughter Inga with DeDe and Jim Walsh during a visit in Washington, DC in 2015.

Jim Walsh

Age:
70

Residence:
The Syracuse native splits time between homes in Otisco and Washington, D.C.

Family: Wife DeDe; children Jed, Ben and Maureen; three grandchildren.

Career:
Currently employed as a lobbyist and government affairs specialist with K&L Gates in Washington, D.C. Prior to that he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989 until 2009. He served on the Syracuse Common Council from 1978 to 1988.

Hobbies:
Mountain climbing, watching soccer, traveling. He also played on the Congressional baseball team for 11 years. He loves hunting and fishing, especially the Salmon River. Said long-time fishing buddy Jim O’Connor: “He goes winter fishing in the Salmon River, and then will fish in the blazing heat on Skaneateles Lake on Father’s Day. We’ve hit all the weather extremes. The 15-pound king salmon he caught, I think it may have broken his rod.”

Fitness:
Walsh works out 30 minutes a day without the use of weights, preferring stretching, push-ups and exercises that work the core.

Quote:
“I consider myself very lucky,” Walsh said. “I found a wonderful woman to take me through life. I was also lucky enough to have a great career, and it’s still going.”

DeDe Walsh

Age: 67

Career and Civic Activities: Previously worked for the Syracuse City School District. She has also served on several local boards, including the Children’s Consortium, the St. Camillus Foundation, Onondaga Community College Foundation and the Onondaga Lake Parks Association.

In Washington, D.C., DeDe has continued to serve as a member of the Bipartisan Congressional Club, which is a philanthropic group that also puts on luncheons for the First Lady.

Hobbies: Spending time with friends and family, especially the grandchildren.

Favorite Foods: Pasta and seafood.

Thoughts on aging: “As your family grows, you feel happy for them. We feel blessed. These are great years.”

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