Dan Mulhern was sitting in a cafe in Nubian Square one day in 2018 with a buddy who had recently been freed from federal prison when a political candidate he’d never met stopped by to introduce herself.
At the time, Mulhern was chief of public safety in City Hall and a former Suffolk County prosecutor, and Rachael Rollins was soon to become the city’s new progressive prosecutor.
The two stuck up a conversation that became a professional relationship, leading to Mulhern becoming Rollins’s first assistant.
With Rollins now nominated to become US attorney, Mulhern has emerged as a serious contender to replace her. And I hope Governor Charlie Baker selects him, because Mulhern has all the qualities to be a superb district attorney.
If you know next to nothing about Mulhern, that’s not an accident. Mulhern, 53, has made a point of shunning public notice. In nearly two decades of public service, he’s always operated outside the limelight, though very effectively.
He’s a Boston native who grew up in West Roxbury, and played basketball at Catholic Memorial and St. Michael’s College. He was first hired by then-Suffolk DA Dan Conley in 2003, and eventually spent seven years running the gang unit.
Along the way, he developed a reputation as a strong advocate for rehabilitation and reentry programs. And he worked the streets, seeing beyond the misdeeds of the gang members he was responsible for putting away.
He was lured to City Hall in 2014 by his friend Marty Walsh, who hired him as the city’s first director of public safety. Walsh needed someone who could work with the Boston Police Department and the DA’s office and who also had strong ties to people in the neighborhoods. Mulhern — who had strong connections in both agencies — fit the bill.
Rollins has made no secret of her strong support for Mulhern. He has been responsible for helping her implement her policies since the day she took office, and she values his connections to the community as well as law enforcement.
The politics of this appointment are complicated. In a sign of the times, the major argument against Mulhern isn’t that he is too progressive. Rather, it is that he’s a white male.
In conversations with Baker, Rollins has made it clear that Mulhern is her choice. The governor, meanwhile, has asked for a slate of candidates to choose from. He’s open to picking Mulhern, but he’s not into an anointed successor, however qualified.
One thing Baker and Rollins seem to agree on is that this is a fraught moment. With the city under the leadership of an acting mayor, and the police department in the hands of an acting commissioner — who’s said to want to leave — continuity in the DA’s office would be a good thing.
But as Baker eyes a (possible) reelection campaign, his ideal appointment would be a woman or person of color. So we have the interesting dynamic that the outgoing Black female DA is supporting a white male, while the white male governor is asking for a list of diverse candidates. For now, they’re in a standoff.
For me, the most important thing is picking the right person. Political considerations should be secondary.
But even beyond that, the office under Rollins has been a success, with no small credit to Mulhern. Despite initial fears that she would be soft on crime, her tenure has proved that a different approach to law enforcement can be successful. The city needs a district attorney committed to pushing back against the unexamined practices and excesses of the past. The office has successfully turned a corner, and shouldn’t turn back.
Rollins’s nomination to be US attorney is a deserved sign of her success, but her foreshortened tenure as DA means the work of reimagining criminal justice in Suffolk County has far to go. A prosecutor with credibility in the office, in the community, and with other public safety agencies is just the person to continue that work.
Dan Mulhern is right there, waiting for the call from the governor.