A Q&A with Kaitlin Passafaro, the city’s new director of Intergovernmental Relations

Kaitlin Passafaro: A long history with City Hall

Earlier this month when Mayor Walsh announced the transition of several City Hall staff into new leadership positions in his administration, Kaitlin Passafaro, a lifelong Dorchester resident, was named director of the office of Intergovernmental Relations, which coordinates interactions between municipal, state, and federal governments, assists City departments with advocacy and prospecting for public and private grants, and helps determine the mayor’s legislative agenda. 

Passafaro, the daughter of former District 3 City Councillor Maureen Feeney, most recently served as director of policy in Walsh’s Office of Economic Development. She began working at City Hall in 2010 as a correspondence and advance assistant in the mayor’s office. She is a graduate of Boston Latin School and holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and a master’s from Suffolk University.

Passafaro sat down for an interview with the Reporter last week. Excerpts from that discussion follow:

Q. How did you get involved in local government? 

A. “I grew up in a very civically engaged family. My parents and grandparents grew up in Dorchester. From a very early age I was at Cedar Grove Civic Association meetings and working the polls for different candidates down at Florian Hall while covered in pins and bumper stickers. Both of my parents also spent their careers in public service, so for me it was something that was a very natural fit. When I graduated college, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do but given my love for this city and how important it is to me, I knew that I wanted to go into government in some shape or form. I’m now 34 years old and City Hall is the only place I’ve ever worked post college. … This is the city that I grew up in and that I’m raising my own family in. I feel like it’s ingrained in me.

Q. You’ve worked as the mayor’s liaison to the city council. What did you learn through facilitating that type of coordination?

A. “I came in feeling like I knew the city so well. I know all the streets and I was familiar with the neighborhoods. But I was very fortunate because I was able to see it in different ways. I would visit neighborhoods that I knew, but hadn’t spent a lot of time in. It was all so eye-opening to me and it gave me a very different perspective on the vibrancy of the city and how dynamic its neighborhoods are. 

“I think I came into the job with an understanding of the different districts and an understanding of the council, and then also the dynamic of having a respect for the body, given that my mom spent so much of her time there and that it was  a huge part of our life for so long. It was a little bit of a surreal moment to think ‘I’m now in the hallways that I used to run around in as a kid when my mom was working, and I’m not lobbying, having conversations, and shaping policy.’

“When I went into that role, I also got a new perspective, coming in from the executive branch side and working with the council.” 

Q. You moved on to work in state relations and then as the director of public policy in the Office of Economic Development. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution for you? 

A. “I gained a lot of experience on the city side of things. I had a really good sense of municipal policies and the processes here, how things operate, and how to be a part of good government. State relations is similar to work with the council, but doing everything at that different level, working on filing the mayor’s state legislative priorities and advocating for the city in terms of the budget and different policy areas.” 

“The transition to economic development was an interesting one because, having spent most of my career in intergovernmental relations where you’re involved in a lot of different topics, going into a specific department and working on policy gave me another interesting perspective.  It was really about diving in and seeing the policy being created and being part of the origin and the original conversation to come up with ideas and achieve the mayor’s goals. I learned a ton under Chief John Barros; the work that that department does is so incredibly important in lifting people up and creating a more equitable city.”

Q. Are there any issues or goals that come to mind in terms of determining the upcoming legislative items for the city? How does that process work? 

A. “The Legislature operates on a two-year session, and in normal circumstances it would’ve already ended at the end of last July. Because of Covid it has been extended until the end of the year. Right now we are in the process of working with every city department, taking an assessment of policy priorities for every department to determine what we need to get done at the state level in order to achieve Mayor Walsh’s goals and then we release a packet of bills in January.

“We’re kind of smack in the middle of that process right now. We work with legislators to get bills filed and it’s something that the mayor takes a lot of pride in and that package is sort of his roadmap at the State House for the next two years.”

Q. What kinds of things do you envision in partnership with state and federal programs, especially coming out of the pandemic?

A. “Broadly speaking, I think the Mayor has been very clear on his advocacy to both state and the federal governments that we need relief now. Particularly in terms of economic development – our small businesses, restaurant sectors – there needs to be action now.

“The mayor has been very strong on advocating for that especially on the federal level. There are ongoing negotiations in D.C. now, and, quite frankly, we don’t have time to wait. We’re looking forward to the Biden- Harris administration and working with them but even in the interim we need something. I really think that coming out of Covid, we need to focus on peoples’ livelihoods and how to protect them and our public health. There needs to be relief for our businesses and for people. Not enough has been done.” 

Q. With the pandemic forcing so many workplaces to pivot, what has it been like for you as you look for new ways to coordinate and get things done?

A. ‘I’m a big communicator and I’m also a people person. I thrive on running into people in hallways. A lot of things can get done when you just have those in-person conversations, just having lunch, or passing someone during the day. There’s the challenge of that isolation as the pandemic goes on and just trying to figure out how to navigate that and maintain relationships and communication. On the bright side, it has given me some new skills and I’ve learned that things can get done in new ways. I’m realizing that flexibility is a good thing and can help you realize new goals.” 

Q. What are you the most excited about looking ahead?

A. “I’m excited and so incredibly honored that the mayor trusts me to do this work because it’s so important. The policy work that we do at the city state and federal level has a tremendous impact on the daily lives of our residents. Municipal government is closest to the people and I’m really excited to be part of it; it’s really humbling. 

“I have two babies – one is 3-and-a-half, the other 16 months – and part of my passion for this and working for the mayor is because he is prioritizing the right things and creating a city for them that is better than the one I grew up in. Feeling that I’m part of making a small change is such an incredible honor, and being a woman in this industry, I can’t stress enough the relief it is to be a mother of two young children and to feel supported in that there’s an understanding from top down of what it means to be a parent, particularly in the time of Covid. 

“Not only does the mayor appreciate that, but he also lifts it up. He sees the value of having me at the table with my perspective, being a woman and being a mother. I’ve always felt that; it’s such an incredible experience. But in transiting into this new role and having expanded responsibilities while feeling so supported and valued as a woman and a mother has been amazing.”