BOSTON — Boston mayoral candidate Daniel Conley is the top prosecutor in Suffolk County. He’s been the district attorney since 2002 — a Democrat appointed by Republican Gov. Jane Swift — and before that he was a Boston city councilor.
Now, at age 55, this West Roxbury resident and Hyde Park native wants to run the city.
WBUR is interviewing all 12 mayoral candidates before the Sept. 24 preliminary election, and when Conley spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer, he explained what his time in law enforcement has taught him about fighting crime that he’d put into practice if he were mayor.
Dan Conley: Prosecutors, police, we come in at the end when all other social systems have failed — when schools have failed, when intervention programming and prevention strategies have failed. And again, especially prosecutors come in at the end after someone’s life has gone off the rails and they’ve done something egregious, like shooting someone or assaulting someone. What I want to do and why I’m running for mayor is really, once and for all, to get at the root causes of crime. And, for me, that’s under-performing schools, that’s poverty, that’s lack of opportunity, that’s broken families, that’s social dependency.
Sacha Pfeiffer: But for decades we’ve heard politicians say we have to get at the root cause, we have to get to young kids before they go down the wrong path. And not much has changed. What do you think you could do that would be different than what’s been done by other politicians before you?
Well, a couple of things. One is — and I guess this will reflect negatively on politicians as a class — most politicians care only about the immediate moment, and so they’re looking for programming that addresses things in an immediate way so that they can take credit for it.
I know that sounds a bit cynical. But when you’re talking about attacking the root causes of crime, what you’re talking about is probably being gone yourself when the products of your labor, when the fruits of your labor, materialize. I’m OK with that. I love the Churchill quote. He said it’s amazing what you can accomplish in government if you don’t care who gets the credit. I would like to be in retirement when we reflect back and say, “Wow, Boston is a remarkably safe city across all neighborhoods” because of the fact that everyone is well-educated, that somebody took hold of true education reform and closed the achievement gap in Boston — so African-American and Latino students, there is no opportunity gap.
So be more specific here, because this is a big promise you’re making to close the achievement gap that so many people have tried to close. How would you do that?
Well, I think it’s really taking ed reform — education reform — to the next level. And I’m not an educator. I don’t speak the language of the education bureaucracy. But I do know what needs to be done. I know what kind of leadership needs to occur. You need someone that is willing to stand up to powerful interests. Certainly at [Boston School Department headquarters at] 26 Court St. there’s a top-down management structure. It seems to me to be a bloated bureaucracy. It needs to be thinned out. So, for me, true ed reform is going to be about turning the system upside down and shifting autonomy and decision-making down to the school level to, hopefully, great principals and teachers who are empowered to be creative and innovative. That’s why, with respect to the charter schools, I’m in favor of lifting the cap or at least raising the cap so that we can have more charter schools. Our Boston public charter schools are performing at a high level. And why? It’s the autonomy, it’s the decision-making. That’s where true change and reform is occurring, and that’s where we see the best, where the achievement gap is being closed and narrowed. So true education reform is an imperative for the next mayor. It really is the social justice issue of our time.
You’ve said you’re the only candidate in this race to have led a large, complex public agency — the Suffolk County DA’s office. But one of your competitors, Bill Walczak, headed the Codman Square Health Center. John Barros ran the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Of course, those are nonprofits. But how do you consider your management experience superior to theirs?
Well, Bill and John are outstanding, I think, nonprofit sector managers. They’ve been very, very successful. But they are not operating with tax dollars. They are not being scrutinized with the kind of intensity that my office has been. The importance here that I bring is the final decision-making skill. And I’ve been doing that for nearly 12 years now. And that leadership, that executive-level management of a large, complex public organization, really prepares me well to step in on day one — no learning curve — to get the job done as mayor.
You support a citywide vote on a casino in Boston, but you think that a no vote in East Boston should trump a citywide vote of yes. If the city voted no but East Boston voted yes, in that case do you think there should be a casino in East Boston?
No, I don’t. The casino, if it is situated in East Boston, will affect East Boston more than any other neighborhood. But it will affect all neighborhoods of Boston to varying degrees.
I framed the vote as a citywide vote really for the idea of having a full-on debate. I mean, this is a proposal of immense magnitude to our entire city. It will change the culture and the character of our city. And there’s been very little debate about it.
Are you sorry to see a casino possibly come to the Boston area?
I have some real skepticism about casinos, but I’m not going to tell people what’s best for them. When they see the facts, when they see the evidence, they’ll make the good judgments themselves. I’m very skeptical, though, that a casino anywhere in Boston is a good idea for our city. I mean, right off the bat, the fact that the legislation requires the host community to enter into a mitigation agreement with the casino suggests there are enormous social costs to this and that’s why a citywide vote is so important.
As the DA, you have a public persona that’s generally tough and no-nonsense. And you’ve been criticized for occasionally getting testy in public settings, including on the campaign trail. And you’ve had to field questions about your temperament. Do you think you have the personality to be an effective mayor?
Without question, Sacha. And I know most people say that, “Dan, you know, please show a little more emotion.” And I’ve been working on my smile, I have to be honest with you. Mayor [Thomas] Menino said to me, “My bit of advice: smile more.”
But, you know, let’s face it: I have a serious job now and I talk about serious matters. So my public persona is a serious man. But I certainly have a light side, as well — a lot of fun with my own children, my wife, my extended family, my friends. And I certainly have a balanced and even temperament. But I am a serious man. I have a serious job. Being mayor is serious, but I do certainly have a light side as well.