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Siebel Scholar Mitchell Weiss is Boston Mayor Menino's new Chief of Staff

The Boston Globe

January 3rd 2010

Mitchell B. Weiss doesn’t come out of the traditional school of Boston politics.

As the 33-year-old Harvard Business School graduate prepares to ascend to his new job as Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s chief of staff, you won’t find him tossing back pints at Doyle’s or poring over ward and precinct numbers from the last election.

Instead, Weiss has been boning up on his favorite books, rereading “The Wealth of Networks,’’ an erudite exploration of how online collaborations are changing society, and “Predictably Irrational,’’ an MIT professor’s unraveling of how social norms skew our ability to reason.

Weiss - who has spent the last four years thinking about regulatory policy at The Tobin Project, an obscure Harvard Square nonprofit - is putting his own cerebral spin on things as he goes to work for Menino, the ultimate meat-and-potatoes urban mechanic.

“There are 1,463 days left when the new term starts Jan. 4th,’’ said Weiss, a native of suburban Chicago who moved to the Boston area in 1995 to attend Harvard as an undergraduate. “The mayor wants to make the most of every single one of those days, and my mission is to help him really make this term his best yet.’’

Chiefs of staff for Menino have traditionally served as his political guardian and gatekeeper, but former city officials say Weiss’s hiring suggests that the 67-year-old mayor’s desire to move beyond the basic city services that have defined his career and toward some of the larger problems that have bedeviled his 16 years in office, like poorly performing schools.

“It appears, with the appointment of Mitch, that he’s looking at some fresh thinking and a new perspective than has existed at City Hall, and that’s a positive thing,’’ said James E. Rooney, a former Menino chief of staff. “I think the mayor means what he says in terms of wanting a bold, fresh agenda for the fifth term, and that requires a new set of lenses, and Mitch is bringing that.’’

Current and former city officials say Weiss is an unusual hire for Menino, in that he has little experience in the bare-knuckled world of Boston politics.

“My sense is he’s the classic, bright young man in a hurry, and he’s going to ask a lot of questions,’’ said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former City Council president. “I think that’s very healthy for Tom Menino, and healthy for the city, and he’s going to make some people squirm, and that’s probably also healthy.’’

After graduating from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in economics, Weiss worked at Merrill Lynch in Chicago, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. He returned to Boston to attend Harvard Business School, and interned after his first year of graduate school in Chicago’s city budget office. In 2004, he was awarded a business school fellowship at Boston City Hall, and it was there that he first met Menino.“I’ve learned so much from him about how you treat people, and how important government’s role is in helping people,’’ Weiss said. “Being next to him, that strain is what comes through all the time.’’

The mayor was impressed.

“I liked his intelligence, his grasp of the issues, and we worked well together,’’ Menino said.

After his fellowship, Weiss became the first executive director of The Tobin Project, a nonprofit that seeks to engage academics in public policy questions. “He helped build a fantastic organization,’’ said David A. Moss, the organization’s founder and one of Weiss’s business school professors.

Behind the scenes, Weiss remained “one of the Tom Menino gang,’’ - a small circle of confidants the mayor regularly called upon for advice, according to David A. Passafaro, a former chief of staff who is now treasurer of the mayor’s campaign committee.

The mayor, for example, quietly enlisted Weiss to help him write his 2005 state of the city address, his 2006 inaugural address, and his victory speech on election night last November, when Menino declared: “We haven’t made history with this election, but we will, with what we create of it.’’

At the same time, Weiss was becoming a Bostonian. He proposed to his wife, Lori, on a 17-foot motorboat in Boston Harbor, and they were married last summer. The couple live on the South End-Back Bay border, and have gotten to know Boston, he said, by “eating our way through most of the neighborhoods,’’ and going to games at Fenway Park.

“The Cubs aren’t going to be in the World Series anytime soon,’’ said Weiss, who grew up in Deerfield, Ill. “So I find it easy to root for the Red Sox.’’

Weiss also enjoys running and clocked 4:31:33 in the 2005 Boston Marathon.

In 2006, Menino appointed Weiss to the Boston Retirement Board, where he was credited with helping to limit abuses by firefighters accused of filing questionable pension claims. “He’s exerted a lot of influence,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

While serving as a member of the retirement board, Weiss chose not to accept the $2,500 annual stipend. He stepped down from the post after accepting the job as the mayor’s sixth chief of staff, a post that pays $147,000 a year.

Weiss will replace Judith Kurland, whom Menino appointed to a new job as director of partnerships.

Chiefs of staff under Menino have had varying degrees of power, and Menino relies heavily on other aides as well, including longtime ally Michael J. Kineavy, whose title is chief of policy and planning, but who has been the mayor’s political eyes and ears. Kineavy is under investigation by the attorney general for possibly violating state public records law by deleting thousands of e-mails, but Menino has made it clear he considers Kineavy a valuable member of his team.

Asked about Weiss’s role, Menino said, “He’ll take charge, and that’s what I said to him: ‘People are going to be answerable to you. You’ll be the point person in the administration. When you speak, you’re Tom Menino speaking. You’re speaking as the mayor.’ ’’ Menino said Weiss’s job will “give me leeway to do other things.’’

Weiss said he wants to bring “urgency, accountability, and outside-the-box thinking,’’ to City Hall. He talks excitedly about “deliverables,’’ “choice architecture’’ and “surfacing ideas.’’ He declined to discuss specific issue priorities, saying that is the mayor’s purview. He said his job is “to support the mayor’s agenda for the city, and I think that breaks down into helping surface and gather ideas, move the agenda forward, and help to make sure that it turns into results for the people.’’

Weiss, who acknowledges some nervousness about his new job, said, “I’m definitely going to make some mistakes. I have no ego about this whatsoever."

“Look, it’s important to go around and listen to what’s working first,’’ he said. “There are some very talented people, so it’s a matter of helping to set the direction and letting them go and do the work and achieve great things.’’

Article by:  Michael Levenson

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