The third of three profiles of the advisers closest to Mayor Martin J. Walsh as he embarks on his bid for reelection.
Dan Koh wants to run. Maybe for Congress. Maybe for another office.
“I’d be disingenuous,” said the mayor’s 31-year-old chief of staff, “if I said I’d never thought about it.”
Has the campaign already begun? Is that why Koh so often finds himself in the spotlight? Or does that reflect the mind-meld that has grown between Koh and Mayor Martin J. Walsh — a boss happy to relinquish the starring role?
Think about it: Why was the chief of staff on stage, talking about his big idea for a baseball-like batting average to measure City Hall performance? Why was Koh surrounded by cameras, kneeling at the Boston Marathon finish line, proposing to his girlfriend? (The mayor’s press office helped corral media to capture the moment.)
Chiefs of staff usually work in the shadows. It’s elected officials in the limelight. But in Koh, Boston City Hall has something it has not seen since 1968. Remember that 27-year-old Harvard wunderkind who took the reins as chief of staff in the administration of Kevin H. White?
Maybe in Koh, the mayor has unleashed a Barney Frank for a new generation.
“The mayor is not in the least threatened by Dan. I don’t think he’s jealous of the press,” said Frank, the former congressman who has spent time in his old City Hall office with Koh. “I’ve been very impressed with their relationship, the honesty of it, the mutual confidence.”
Frank recalled that White “said to me, ‘Hey look, if they write good things about you, people know I appointed you. That reflects well on me. Nobody thinks you came down here from Mars.’ ”
That’s why Walsh dismissed a reporter’s question about whether Koh was using his post as a political springboard. The mayor may be 18 years older than Koh, but Walsh said the two men have forged an unexpected friendship.
They can read each other’s expressions — each other’s eyes — communicating without words, like spouses or siblings do. It’s a marriage, they say, of Koh’s Harvard Business School smarts and Walsh’s Dorchester street sense.
“We’ve really learned off each other,” Walsh said. “I’m certainly more analytical now. . . . He’s picked up a lot of my passion for politics.”
And Koh’s ubiquity in the press? From TV to print to Twitter?
“That stuff doesn’t bother me,” Walsh said. “Never did, never will. I actually think it’s great.”
Other staffers also get press, Walsh and Koh said. Look at economic development chief John Barros. Or housing chief Sheila Dillon.
Koh has a powerful pedigree from a political family. He is equal parts Harvard (undergrad and B-school) and Huffington Post (managed an online television network.) At City Hall, Koh has advocated for analytics and video “data dashboards” for Boston officials, pushing the narrative that hip, young technophiles have taken over Government Center.
He glances at his Apple watch. He is a to-do list maker, a check-off-the-box-and-get-it-done guy.
Koh believes government is a force for good. He recalled taking calls from struggling Gloucester lobstermen as an intern for former senator Edward M. Kennedy. Koh said his most gratifying moment is having a ramp fixed for a Roxbury senior. The real victories, Koh said, are helping constituents.
He credited the mayor for everything. It was Walsh who empowered him, Walsh who wanted initiatives such as high-speed Verizon FIOS Internet and television. It was Walsh’s vision. Koh said it’s his job to execute.
Walsh ticked off accomplishments involving Koh: streamlining permits, overhauling the Cabinet structure, a new 311 helpline, a management culture built to resemble the baseball strategy detailed in the “Moneyball” book and movie. Exhibit A: the administration’s most consequential accomplishment, General Electric’s decision to relocate to Boston. Koh closed the deal.
“He was the guy who was on the calls for the city who really helped us get over the finish line,” said Ann Klee, General Electric’s vice president for Boston development and operations. “He’s not the big personality in the room, but the thoughtful guy who listens first and then talks at the right time.”
But Koh’s watch includes missteps: the implosion of the Olympics bid; the ill-fated IndyCar race; the federal indictment of two City Hall department heads. (Koh won’t say whether he has hired a lawyer or appeared before a grand jury.)
“You get the sense that if the ship had been tighter run, if [Walsh] had a stronger chief of staff, maybe a lot of these public relations errors and bone-headed political moves could have been avoided,” said Thomas Whalen , an author and political historian at Boston University.
Perhaps the nadir of Walsh’s term came the last Wednesday in June. Federal authorities arrested a second City Hall department head. A neighborhood coffee hour took a turn as the mayor faced a swarm of media and picket signs from three groups of protesters.
Koh left that day for his wedding in Milwaukee, posting a playful, mock campaign slogan on Facebook that riffed off his fiancee’s last name, Sennett, which sounds like Senate.
“Here. We. Go,” Koh writes. “#kohforsennett2016”
Every wedding has a hashtag, he said, and that was his.
“People who want to criticize, they have every right to,” Koh said. “At the end of the day, it was my wedding. I owed it to my family and my wife to be excited about it.”
There will always be critics. But Koh has also gained admirers.
“He is a tremendous ambassador for the mayor and the administration,” said Mo Cowan, who served as former governor Deval Patrick’s chief of staff and served five months as an interim US senator. “When he engages, you feel confident that you are engaging with someone who has the confidence of the mayor and is acting on behalf of the mayor.”
Koh also has a following inside City Hall. The administration has hired Koh’s high school and college classmates and friends of his friends. The mayor asked him to dig deep into his network for talent, Koh said, and he’s proud of the hires.
One of Koh’s fans inside the administration is Jascha Franklin-Hodge , who had not met Koh until being interviewed and hired as the city’s chief information officer. Franklin-Hodge described Koh as a conductor leading the orchestra of city government.
“He’s the guy that I go to if I’m stuck with something,” Franklin-Hodge said. “He’s a very quick thinker, and so he’s able to be thoughtful and get to the core of a question and help you move forward.”
But Koh has also been polarizing. Early in the administration, a City Hall power struggle emerged. “Team Dan or Team Joe?” read one Globe story. It was Koh against Joe Rull, a high-ranking Walsh campaign aide who became the city’s director of operations. Koh ultimately triumphed, and Rull left the administration.
Rull did not respond for comment. Walsh disputes the veracity of the story. Koh acknowledged that he and Rull fought, but like brothers.
Koh has converted adversaries into allies. As the dream for a Boston Olympics faltered, Koh reached out to one of the loudest voices of opposition on Twitter. It was Robin Jacks, an organizer of the group No Boston 2024.
Koh treated her to Pinkberry frozen yogurt on Newbury Street. The conversation led to a meeting with the mayor. They discussed the homeless, the rising cost of housing, neighborhood issues.
Her impression was that Koh “wants to be genuinely liked and respected,” Jacks said. “If someone is mad at him, I think it is a really terrifying place for him.” She dismissed a question suggesting that Koh’s motivation may be a strategic effort to neutralize a foe.
“Down the road politically, I don’t think I’m a benefit to him,” Jacks said. “If he’s running for office at some point, whether I like him or don’t like him is irrelevant.”
“I genuinely like Dan.”
Maybe Koh’s super-sized presence says more about the mayor than it does the chief of staff. Or maybe Koh’s Twitter-and-Facebook approach is the new way for a chief of staff in an open-source world. Gone are the shadows and smoky back rooms.
“The job is different for every chief of staff and every mayor because a lot of it depends on the relationship between the two people,” said David Passafaro, who described being chained to his desk when he served as former mayor Thomas M. Menino’s chief of staff. “Mayor Menino had five or six chiefs of staff, and the job was different every time.”
The Walsh-Koh relationship has extended outside City Hall. Walsh traveled to Milwaukee as a groomsman in Koh’s wedding. The mayor showed up at the funeral for Koh’s grandfather in Andover.
“He is beyond a friend and beyond a boss to me,” Koh said. “I honestly love the guy. I’m not afraid to say that. I love him.”
“I can see it being a lifelong friendship,” the mayor said.
Doesn’t anything bug you about the guy?
“He eats salad every single day,” Walsh said. “He never eats a chicken parm.”
It’s true. Koh power-lunches on the chopped salad at the Oceanaire Seafood Room.
Koh has raised eyebrows. He held his engagement party at the Parkman House, an ornate city-owned mansion. (Records show Koh paid the $500 standard fee to use the space).
He has gone to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Japan. It’s $50,000 in travel. Almost all the bills were paid by foundations, not taxpayers. Like the trip that put him in the snowy mountains of Davos, Switzerland. Koh was interviewed as “chief of staff to the City of Boston.”
Koh is more than a boldfaced name. He publicly lambasted Boston Public Library trustees for failing to serve as “an independent check” on former library president Amy E. Ryan and her staff after two valuable prints went missing after being misfiled. The New York Times reported that Walsh and Koh “pursued the case with a prosecutor’s zeal.” A Globe columnist nicknamed the chief of staff the “Koh-mayor.” The artwork was located, but not before the resignation of Ryan.
Before this job, Koh didn’t know Walsh. When Walsh announced Koh’s appointment, a Boston Herald columnist wrote, “Daniel . . . Who?”
Now, Koh’s big-time profile in City Hall has sparked chatter about his ambition. Gossip intensified when the Eagle-Tribune newspaper ran two Koh features in August. Could the Andover native be eying a run for Congress when Niki Tsongas retires?
“Congresswoman Tsongas is doing an amazing job there, and I have no desire in doing anything to disrupt that,” Koh said, fiddling with his gold wedding band. “I haven’t thought about a single seat and said, ‘This is where I’m going to go.’ ”
“I’m really happy,” Koh added, “with the job that I have.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.