Obituaries

John Marttila, ‘savant’ among campaign managers, dies at 78

Mr. Marttila with John Kerry during a campaign event in the 1980s. Mr. Marttila “didn’t let you stray from the values,’’ Kerry said. “We always had an ethic of trying to win, but to win in a way that you could be proud of.
Richard Sobol
Mr. Marttila with John Kerry during a campaign event in the 1980s. Mr. Marttila “didn’t let you stray from the values,’’ Kerry said. “We always had an ethic of trying to win, but to win in a way that you could be proud of.

Fresh from his disillusionment with the Republican Party, John Marttila left his hometown of Detroit and moved to Boston in 1970 to manage the congressional campaign of a longshot Democrat.

By using innovative approaches to engineer the victory of the Rev. Robert Drinan, and by turning the Jesuit priest’s opposition to the Vietnam War into an asset, Mr. Marttila rewrote the Democratic Party’s campaign playbook in Massachusetts and beyond in ways that resonate nearly four decades later.

“John changed American politics, it’s that simple. He was a groundbreaker,” said John Kerry, a longtime friend who sought Mr. Marttila’s counsel during campaigns for the US House, US Senate, and president.

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Mr. Marttila was 78 when he died in Boston Saturday of advanced prostate cancer, a dozen years after being diagnosed. From before Watergate to today’s turbulent times, he served as a consultant or campaign manager to a who’s who of Democrats, a list that includes Kerry, Drinan, Joe Biden, Kevin White, Michael S. Dukakis, and Ed Markey.

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In victory and in defeat, Mr. Marttila’s political wisdom and personal integrity left its mark on candidates and shaped how they aspired to ever-higher offices.

“He really changed the way American campaigns are run,” said Biden. “He was one of the finest men — this is no exaggeration — that I’ve ever met. He had more integrity in his little finger than most people have in their entire body — their whole body.”

Long before Biden was elected vice president, Mr. Marttila ran his first US Senate campaign in Delaware.

“I never second-guessed a single thing he said,” recalled Biden, who was elected in 1972 before even reaching the minimum age of 30 to be sworn into office.

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Mr. Marttila “was a very generous friend and a sage counselor to everyone who ever knew him. His strategic advice always seemed to come from a deep level of humanity that he wanted to inject into politics,” said Markey, a US senator.

“Meetings always seemed shorter when John was present because nothing more needed to be said after he weighed in,” Markey added. “In precise and unpretentious language, John would restore calm, articulate strategy, and re-instill confidence. When he was done, everyone just nodded and left the meeting thinking, ‘That went well.’ ”

Mr. Marttila was only 29 in 1970 when longtime Massachusetts Democratic activist Jerome Grossman recruited him to run Drinan’s campaign. Already a seasoned operative in Detroit, Mr. Marttila quickly cut a mythic figure in Massachusetts.

That October, a Sunday Globe Magazine profile of the campaign said that he “in some ways resembles the gunslingers from the old West: Tall, broad-shouldered, mustached, long blond hair. He gives the impression of a man able to carry out assignments and inspire others to do theirs.”

The gunslingers Mr. Marttila drew into politics packed ideals, not six-shooters, and he was known for attracting scores more volunteers than rival campaigns mustered.

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“John really was a political savant,” said Dan Payne, a friend who formerly worked with Mr. Marttila in the 1970s consulting firm Marttila, Payne, Kiley, and Thorne. “He used to preach that the number one reason people don’t get involved in campaigns is that nobody asks them, so we’re going to ask them all the time, every time.”

Tom Kiley, a Democratic pollster who also was part of that long-ago firm, said his friend “had a way of conceptualizing a campaign and breaking down all its components in a fresh way.”

Mr. Marttila “was very much the leader, the teacher, the mentor, the lead strategist — pushing us to do things we didn’t think we were able to do,” Kiley added. “John made us believe we could do it. That was a huge part of his legacy.”

That legacy extends across the country to New Orleans and to Michigan, where Mr. Marttila ran the 1974 campaign of Richard Vander Veen, a Democrat who scored an upset victory in President Gerald Ford’s former congressional district. Mr. Marttila also ran Boston Mayor Kevin White’s 1971 reelection campaign, when he defeated Louise Day Hicks a second time. That was a key race for White, who lost the gubernatorial race a year earlier, garnering fewer votes in Boston than Republican Frank Sargent.

“The thing that was eerie about John was that he would walk into a situation, size it up, and in what seemed like no time tell you exactly what you needed to do,” said Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist.

Over the years, Mr. Marttila also worked on campaigns abroad, on numerous ballot initiatives, and on surveys for clients that included the Boston Archdiocese.

For that groundbreaking 1970 campaign to elect Drinan, Mr. Marttila used expansive phone canvassing to identify likely supporters, who then received direct mailings, phone calls, and personal visits. Workers entered voter information into what then were rudimentary computers — an innovative approach that many campaigns disdained at the time. Those methods helped Drinan’s campaign, and the campaigns of Biden and others afterward, quietly build support without the overt public display and costs of extensive advertising.

“Politics is common sense and hard work,” Mr. Marttila told the Globe in 1970. “I have never been involved in a campaign where the work hasn’t been brutal.”

For him, though, elections were always about more than just winning: “I wouldn’t work on a campaign I couldn’t really believe in.”

The second of three children, John Phillip Marttila was born and grew up in Detroit. His father, Jacob, was a craftsman and a union organizer. His mother, the former Inez Killonen, was a homemaker.

Mr. Marttila graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and dropped out of law school there to work as a political activist.

“He really found his place in the sun in his early 20s,” said his former wife, Nancy. The couple had two children and remained close, though their marriage had ended in divorce. Politics, she added, “just exactly fit him, and vice versa.”

In the 1960s, Mr. Marttila worked organizing inner-city African-Americans for the state Republican chairwoman. He found the party less hospitable in the wake of President Richard M. Nixon’s election, however, and left when the job offer came from Massachusetts.

Mr. Marttila “spent his life fighting for the little guy,” said his son, Doug of Somerville. Though Mr. Marttila loomed large in Democratic politics, “he was a giant in the father world, too,” said his daughter, Katy, who also lives in Somerville. “He gave us the childhood that he never had.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Marttila, who in addition to his children and former wife leaves two granddaughters.

“He was one of the few people in my life I looked up to,” Biden said. “He instilled confidence. The fact that someone that decent and smart believed in me made me believe more in myself.”

Kerry, a former US secretary of state, recalled that Mr. Marttila “didn’t let you stray from the values. We always had an ethic of trying to win, but to win in a way that you could be proud of. He was a very special, talented, gifted human being, and he gave his life trying to make our democracy work better.”

Mr. Marttila “dedicated his life to getting people elected who he felt could change the course of history in a way he thought would be progressive,’’ Markey said. “It’s hard to think of anyone who did as much to reinvent the Democratic Party in America as John Marttila did in his life.”

Said Biden: “We could use a lot more John Marttilas.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.