When Daniel F. Conley sought Thomas M. Menino’s counsel on how he could be a better candidate for mayor, the city’s longtime leader had a succinct piece of advice: “Smile more.”
It was a telling bit of wisdom for Conley, as the 55-year-old Suffolk district attorney tries to make the transition from sober prosecutor, often presiding over the grimmest of press conferences, to accessible leader who can appeal to a city teeming with diverse constituencies.
And so over the past several months, voters have been introduced to a sunnier Conley, smiling widely in stump speeches and in television ads funded by his ample war chest.
On the trail, he has even broken into song, recently crooning “Dirty Water” at a fund-raising event on Cape Cod.
“People do say that I’m too serious,” Conley said over a chicken sandwich at Finagle A Bagel,, not far from his downtown Boston office. “In my private life, I have a sense of humor.”
Conley’s job as the county’s top prosecutor has put him at the center of emotionally charged murder trials and crime scenes, giving him a far brighter spotlight than other mayoral candidates who serve on City Council or the state Legislature. But that job can make Conley a target for criticism from people dissatisfied with the criminal justice system.
It also placed him in charge of more than 250 employees and a $17 million budget — key executive experience that he says would serve him well if elevated to the top post at City Hall.
“I certainly know how to manage a crisis and help make the city as safe as it can be,” Conley said. “I’m the candidate most suited to take us from good to great.”
Conley touts a high conviction rate for defendants tried for murder, and courtroom observers praise the professionalism of his office, which handles more than 40,000 cases a year. In Boston neighborhoods where crime is prevalent, he has shown up at peace rallies when other elected officials have sent representatives, and he encourages those who work for him to volunteer in their neighborhoods.
Friends say his no-nonsense image belies a quick, self-deprecating wit and a fierce devotion to his wife of nearly 20 years and two teenage children, with whom he spends most of his free time, watching them at their soccer and hockey games.
But most of Conley’s public appearances involve him announcing arrests or sternly warning criminals after a large police raid that they could be next.
“The person that the general public sees is a real indicator of the type of job he has,” said John Tobin, a former city councilor who calls Conley a friend. “You can’t be Giggles the Clown. A lot of it is grim.”
Conley was raised in Hyde Park by an Irish-American father who spliced lines for a telephone company and an Italian-American mother who took seasonal jobs at Lechmere Sales to help buy Christmas presents for the couple’s seven children.
Conley, the eldest, attended Catholic school and hoped to be a professional hockey player, a dream he abandoned when he realized his skills were not going to land him in the NHL.
Politics became his other passion when he was 14, and he stayed up well past his bedtime to watch the 1972 Democratic convention as his mother slept on the couch.
At Stonehill College, he pinned one of Mayor Kevin H. White’s campaign buttons on a cork board in his dorm room and told friends he would run for mayor one day.
His formal political training came in 1983, when Menino, a fellow Hyde Park native, hired Conley, who was in his third year at Suffolk University Law School, to work on his City Council campaign.
A decade later, Conley succeeded his mentor, winning his council seat after Menino became mayor. In 1998, Conley was the only councilor to vote against the Quinn bill, a lucrative benefit that awarded salary increases to police officers who earned college degrees. It’s a position, based on concerns about cost, that many police officers still hold against him.
“I lost friends over it,” Conley said.
He is proud that he was the deciding vote on a decision to extend domestic partner benefit to gay city employees in 1996, a move that angered many of the conservative Catholic constituents in his district.
In 2002, acting governor Jane Swift, a Republican, appointed Conley, a Democrat, to fill the position of district attorney, an office he has kept without a challenge through two elections and one that he believes should advocate fiercely for victims and their families.
Jose Cruz, a 60-year-old maintenance company supervisor in Dorchester, recalled the empathy Conley showed as he and his family waited for a jury to render a verdict in the 2005 murder of his niece, Lourdes Hernandez. Conley repeatedly came to the waiting room at Suffolk Superior court to check in on them.
“What moved me was the way he approached us,” said Cruz, who is now volunteering for Conley’s campaign. “He was really concerned about us.”
But Cathy Woodman, the mother of 22-year-old David Woodman, who died in 2008, two weeks after Boston police officers wrestled him to the ground during an arrest, described a different experience.
She said Conley’s office consistently postponed meetings with her family to discuss the case. They finally met, hours before Conley held a press conference about the case, where the media received a copy of the investigative report, which the family had not yet seen.
“When we went through the most horrible pain in our lives . . . he was insensitive to us,” she said. “We were helpless.”
Conley said his office followed their usual protocol in such cases and that during the meeting, he offered the family full access to the police files.
“Everything we do is about service to victims,” he said. “I can understand her disappointment. But that case was decided like all my decisions, based on the facts and the law.”
In 2010, the city agreed to pay the Woodmans $3 million.
On the trail, Conley lauds plans to create more affordable housing for the middle class, lift the cap on charter schools, and revitalize the East Boston waterfront.
On a recent Friday, he spent more than an hour in the cramped basement of an East Boston health center, introducing himself to a small audience of mostly Latino immigrants.
When a moderator began to translate his words into Spanish, Conley interjected.
“Me llamo Dan Conley,” he said, in halting Spanish, as the crowd laughed, delighted. “Su voto cuenta.” [Your vote counts.]
Later that evening, Conley canvassed in West Roxbury, not far from the home he shares with his wife, Tricia, a nurse whom he met on Valentine’s Day in 1987, when he was bartending at a Jamaica Plain pub.
Conley spent more than two hours walking through the quiet streets, accompanied by a dozen volunteers who knocked on doors, quickly calling Conley over when someone answered.
Conley jogged by, hand extended, his smile broad.
“I’m your neighbor,” he said to one voter. “Please consider me.”
He petted one voter’s Maltese poodle and commiserated with another voter, who complained about her hip replacement.
“Where’d you have it done?” he asked. “My wife is a nurse at New England Baptist . . . If you ever need a consultation, just let me know.”
He spent several minutes chatting with 55-year-old Tony Mannion, as he checked the engine of his Chrysler.
After Conley left, Mannion said the brief encounter convinced him.
He would vote for Conley: “Seems like a pretty nice guy.”