Tobin to leave City Council for college job

John Ruch

Courtesy Photo Boston City Councilor John Tobin in 2008.

O’Malley, Isberg eye seat

City Councilor John Tobin will leave the Boston City Council for a community relations job at Northeastern University at the end of the month, he revealed Tuesday in an announcement that was a surprise even to his own staff.

“It’s kind of like being the district councilor for Northeastern,” said Tobin, who has held the District 6 seat for nearly a decade, about his new job in a Gazette interview.

Matt O’Malley, a Jamaica Plain resident, is already running for Tobin’s District 6 City Council seat, which will be filled in a yet-to-be-scheduled special election later this year. David Isberg, Tobin’s longtime chief of staff, told the Gazette that he is considering running for the seat as well.

“What I find so appealing with local politics and local government is, you’re on the front line of defense for so many people,” said O’Malley, who made two previous unsuccessful runs for Boston City Council, in a Gazette interview.

Isberg told the Gazette that he is consulting various people about whether running for the seat makes sense for him. One thing not in question, he said, is his experience.

“I know the business, that’s for sure. I know the district. I know the issues,” Isberg said. “I’ve seen it all.”

Tobin’s City Hall office will remain open and his staff in place until a successor takes office.
Tobin’s surprise

“The two biggest reasons are named Matthew and Danny,” Tobin said, citing increased family time with his young sons as a big motivation for taking the more flexible Northeastern job.

Tobin will be taking a long-unfilled government and community relations position at the school, whose relationship with abutting neighborhoods has soured badly in recent years. Those neighborhoods include Mission Hill, parts of which Tobin currently represents.

“This job is going to be a difficult one at Northeastern, no doubt about it,” Tobin said. “But they told me, ‘In the heat of it, you could be going to a meeting one or two nights a week,’” he said with a laugh, noting that is a far cry from the demands of the city councilor’s job.

Tobin said the job offer and interviews happened quickly in recent weeks. Other factors in the decision, he said: Better pay and the chance to “be part of something special over at Northeastern.”

Tobin’s resignation is especially surprising because he has repeatedly pledged to run for mayor in 2013, and as recently as two weeks ago expressed excitement to the Gazette about the City Council’s new sense of power and purpose. He repeatedly flirted with leaving office in recent years, but that would have been to run for a state Senate seat.

“It caught me by surprise because we were focused on 2013 and completing his dream” of becoming mayor, Isberg said of Tobin’s decision. “I think it’s something that’s going to eat at him,” Isberg said of the lingering question of whether Tobin could have been mayor, while adding that at age 40, Tobin could still have a political future.

Only seven months ago, Tobin told the Gazette that he likely would be running for mayor “if I’m upright in four years and taking nourishment.” This week, Tobin was vague about his political future, saying, “Who knows what unfolds ahead?”

He said he intends to be at Northeastern for a long time, while noting it is a “political job” that he intends to run “like a campaign.” He is even bringing along one of his City Council staffers, Anna Sylvester, as his administrative assistant.

Tobin said he will continue living in West Roxbury, where he is building a new house. He also will stay in his side business of owning and managing comedy clubs. In another sudden change, Tobin’s comedy club partner, Frank Ahearn, died unexpectedly on July 5, the same day word of Tobin’s resignation came out.

Tobin won the District 6 seat in 2001 on his third attempt, and only after a colorful election where his main opponent—current state Rep. Mike Rush—claimed to be a progressive but was revealed by the Gazette to have been a former supporter of conservative figurehead Pat Buchanan.

Tobin’s politics at first were more centrist than those of the JP part of the district. He regularly faced local opponents on the ballot and particularly took heat for opposing rent control. But as Tobin and JP got to know each other better, he drew praise for his support of the arts, high-tech and government reform initiatives, and for providing basic city services. He ran unopposed in recent years.

A major effort Tobin leaves unfinished is a charter reform committee he was expected to head. It was to examine possible changes in Boston’s form of government, which could include giving more power to the City Council and altering the controversial Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

“I will admit to you, it’s a tad bittersweet,” Tobin said of leaving the City Council job. He thanked everyone who voted for him, including those who “were hard on me” at times, saying that made him a better councilor.

“This district, more than any other, pays attention,” Tobin said. He added that he is particularly pleased that his sons got to join him at the district’s diverse community events.

“They got to meet people who don’t look like them, don’t talk like them,” he said, calling that an invaluable lesson for children.

Isberg said that in JP, Tobin was a “50-50 guy” in terms of electoral support. But, he said, Tobin always listened, heard people out and responded to problems.

“They’ll miss him if the right guy doesn’t get in,” Isberg said.

O’Malley wants to be that guy. Less than 12 hours after Tobin’s resignation, O’Malley called the Gazette to announce his candidacy, already boasting endorsements from at-large City Councilor John Connolly and Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, who is also a JP resident.

O’Malley’s political claim to fame is running Cabral’s 2004 campaign, where she won office as a first-timer against veteran campaigner and City Councilor Steve Murphy. A woman of color winning the sheriff’s seat was hailed as the rise of a “new Boston.”

O’Malley’s resume also includes serving as a legislative aide to former City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen and a city councilor in Washington, D.C. He has worked at the political organizations MassEquality and the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

O’Malley is a veteran campaign worker, including for Tobin. Most recently, O’Malley was field director for Steve Grossman, a candidate for state treasurer—a post O’Malley resigned to run for the District 6 seat.

O’Malley calls Boston city councilor his “dream job.” He ran for an at-large council seat in 2003 and 2005, failing both times.

He said he wants to be a “fierce advocate for all neighborhoods” on such issues as public safety, education and the environment.

As for Tobin’s charter reform effort, O’Malley said, “I honestly don’t know” about it. But, he added, “The council needs a bigger voice in planning and development.”

“I think it’s a very talented, diverse bunch,” he said of the current City Council, particularly citing its newest members, Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, for “hitting the ground running.”

O’Malley lives on the Jamaicaway between Castleton and Bynner Streets.

A West Roxbury resident, Isberg previously worked as an aide to Davis-Mullen and was a community liaison for the D-4 Police Station in the South End.

Isberg is Tobin’s right-hand man, often taking on dirty jobs—literally. Isberg once opened the trunk of his car for a Gazette reporter to show a shovel and bags of dirt—the leftovers from his personal effort to clean out a blocked storm sewer for a resident when city workers were taking too long. Such hands-on work is standard operating procedure for Isberg.

Isberg also played significant roles in policy brainstorming and behind-the-scene political wrangling. He had prominent roles advocating for the neighborhood in such local controversies as Arbour Hospital’s quality-of-life issues and a city crackdown on unintentionally illegal driveways.

“I’d be honored. What a job,” Isberg said of the possibility of holding Tobin’s seat. But, unlike O’Malley, he will take his time in deciding whether to run, he said. He wants to weigh his odds of winning, and the impact of the more-than-full-time city councilor job on his family.

But Isberg has clear ideas of how the job should be done.

“The job’s not in that building,” Isberg said of City Hall. “That job is 85 percent constituent services. If people take the time to call you on an issue, small or large, it’s important to them, so it should be just as important to you.”

But Isberg knows how things work inside City Hall and even the State House, too. He described one of Tobin’s most successful legislative tactics: spotting a good initiative that is stalled in the State House, then passing a Boston-only version of the law to prod statewide action. Tobin used that tactic with groundbreaking efforts to ban texting while driving and junk food in schools, and to pass the “safe haven” law that allows unwanted infants to be given up at hospitals and police and fire stations with no legal repercussions.

Isberg said he would not necessarily pursue all of Tobin’s policies, including charter reform. He said he is not sure that charter reform is a good idea, though some of its potential changes are—“the BRA, the control the city gives away.” He noted the process could result in a full charter commission that would take on a
lot of governmental power itself, which “could get a little dangerous.”

If Isberg does not run for the City Council seat, he said, he will seek some other public service job. Ten years ago, he said, he took a lower salary to work for Tobin.

“To me, it’s not about the money,” Isberg said. “I want to help people.”

West Roxbury resident Jim Hennigan, the brother of former District 6 City Councilor Maura Hennigan, announced his candidacy for the seat as the Gazette went to press Thursday. For updates on the race, see

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