For Conley, A Pivot From Law Enforcement To Something Broader

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, left, during a July news conference on developments in the Boston Strangler case. (Steven Senne/AP)
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, left, during a July news conference on developments in the Boston Strangler case. (Steven Senne/AP)

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, the region's top lawman, is running for mayor in a city not much worried about its safety.

And he knows it.

Seated before a handful of voters in the basement offices of an East Boston immigrant advocacy group on a recent afternoon, Conley said Boston was a "very different city" when he entered public life two decades ago. "Crime," he said, "was at its very highest levels."

That's no longer the case. There hasn't been a single homicide in East Boston in the past year, as Conley told the assembled. And 82 percent of voters in a recent Boston Herald/Suffolk University poll said they feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods.

The district attorney, his shoulders framed by a large American flag, took some credit for the city's safer streets. But after years of focusing on law enforcement, he suggested, he's ready to pivot — to tackle the root causes of the problems he confronts every day.

"Education, to me, really is the final frontier," Conley said, the key to ending "the cycle of violence and dependence in our city."

Education reform and the other focal point of his campaign — jobs — are not just anti-poverty strategies, of course. They are issues of broad appeal.

And with a sizable war chest — he had $847,000 in the bank as of Aug. 31, the most of any candidate in the race — Conley is blanketing the city with his jobs-and-schools pitch in the run-up to the Sept. 24 preliminary election, when voters will narrow the field from 12 to two.

But the district attorney is not the only candidate talking about those issues. And several of his competitors can make a more natural leap from their life's work to the concerns of the moment.

At the East Boston forum, he was flanked by former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative executive director John Barros, who has spent decades fighting poverty on the ground, and City Councilor John Connolly, a former teacher who carved out a niche as the education reformer long ago.

"The problem," said former City Councilor Michael McCormack, "is [Conley is] a DA, a cop, he locks people up. ... He's running for an office that's completely foreign to what he's done for the last 10 years of his life."

Still, his job means a certain level of visibility and name recognition. And over the last two decades, he's built the sort of electoral base that could prove critical in a crowded field. Conley, whatever his obstacles, has found himself near the top of the public opinion polls — trailing Connolly and state Rep. Martin Walsh by just a few points.

He has two weeks to close the deal.

'He's Measured, But He Has To Be'

Conley, 55, grew up in Hyde Park, the oldest of seven children.

His father, an Irish-American, was a phone company technician. His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, was a homemaker who worked seasonally at Lechmere Sales.

His childhood was Italian food and school and sports. He took to hockey at a young age and dreamed of playing professionally. But he also cultivated an early interest in politics.

At Stonehill College, he pinned a campaign button for then-Mayor Kevin White to a bulletin board in his dorm room. It read simply "The Mayor." Someday, Conley told his friends, he would hold the corner office.

As he was finishing up at Suffolk Law School, he went to work on Thomas Menino's campaign for City Council, manning the office and studying for the bar exam when things got slow.

Conley worked as an assistant district attorney for several years. But when Menino ascended to the mayor's office in 1993, Conley ran for his Hyde Park council seat and won.

As head of the panel's Public Safety Committee, he pushed for more police on the street. But he ran afoul of some in the department when he cast the sole vote against the Quinn Bill, which offered a sizable salary bump to police officers with college degrees.

He would retain that independent streak after Acting Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican, appointed Conley, a Democrat, to the district attorney post in 2002.

He reopened cases with questionable convictions. He revamped eyewitness identification procedures. And in 2007, he publicly criticized Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis for appointing a new chief of the homicide unit without consulting him.

Running a district attorney's office is a politically fraught endeavor. High-profile, emotionally charged cases are bound to bring criticism. And Conley has faced his share.

But the district attorney, who oversees about 265 employees and a budget of just over $17 million, has generally won high marks in the legal community.

Along the way, he's carved out a reputation as a serious, sober figure. But standing at the podium to discuss often-horrific crimes requires a certain gravity, his backers say.

"He's measured, but he has to be because of the job he's in," said Anthony Dowling, a politically active liquor salesman from the Readville section of Hyde Park who supports Conley.

Off duty, Dowling said, Conley is a family man devoted to his wife Tricia — a nurse at New England Baptist Hospital on Mission Hill — and his teenage children.

Supporters add that he has long evinced an interest in more than crime and punishment. He's set up special courts for the mentally ill and homeless. And he hosts annual "Basketball for Peace" and "Soccer for Peace" tournaments for kids across the city.

"Even though he's a district attorney," said Oslin "Jack" Mayhew, a soccer coach who volunteers for "Soccer for Peace," "doesn't mean he doesn't know what's going on in the street."

The Achievement Gap As 'Moral Disgrace'

Breaking cycles of crime and poverty are hardly the only issues Conley has discussed in the campaign.

He's argued that the entire city, and not just East Boston, should vote on a planned casino at Suffolk Downs; he's also laid out an East Boston agenda, which includes repositioning highway tolls so only those leaving Logan Airport will have to pay.

And his television ads, while focused on education and jobs, have been the sort of bright and forward-looking fare suitable for a broad audience — with only glancing reference to poverty.

Still, when Conley gave what his campaign dubbed a "major policy speech" on Labor Day in the "mayor's room" at Doyle's restaurant and bar in Jamaica Plain, the tone was striking.

Conley spoke of cutting red tape for small businesses and cultivating high tech jobs as part of his "Better Jobs Now" plan.

But at the heart of his speech was a focus on tackling the "achievement gap" separating white students from blacks and Latinos — and the "employment gap" that follows.

"The educational achievement gap has been a problem unto itself for too long," he said. "But it's also been nothing short of a moral disgrace. ... When I'm mayor, one of the things you'll never again hear is the excuse that kids can't learn because they're poor."

It was a full-throated embrace of a "no excuses" education reform movement that supports charter schools and greater accountability for teachers and has dubbed the overhaul of urban public schools the civil rights issue of our time.

The speech won hearty applause from the roughly 200 supporters gathered for the event.

The question, though, is whether Conley — the upright district attorney — can convince a broader swath of the city that he's got a bit of the social justice crusader in him.

Earlier Profiles:


More from WBUR

Listen Live