Dan Gaynor talks family roots, vision for Newton and run for City Council

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Newton Beacon is a nonpartisan news organization interviewing all candidates running in the upcoming Newton municipal elections for this candidate profile series. Profile pieces are not endorsements.

Dan Gaynor grew up on Cabot Street in Newton watching his father serve in elected office. Now he’s raising a family of his own, hoping to serve the city in his father’s footsteps with a run for a City Council seat.

“I grew up walking these streets, playing hide-and-seek behind what’s now LeDu Thai Eatery and George Howell, and I know how much Newtonville’s changed and evolved and, frankly, is a better place for my fourth-generation Cabot Street resident, my daughter, Poppy, to grow up in,” Gaynor said, sitting outside his favorite Newton restaurant, Mochiko Hawaiian, which has a smoothie named after his daughter.

“I’m hoping to ensure that Newton’s the best place to live at any age,” he said.

Gaynor, 36, is one of three candidates vying for a Ward 2 City Council seat, with City Councilor Emily Norton not seeking reelection—which means that ward will have a September preliminary election before the general election season.

Family traditions

Gaynor’s family has lived on Cabot Street for three generations. His grandfather was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and immigrated to Boston, where he became a lawyer and moved the family to Cabot Street Newton in 1939.

Gaynor’s father, Robert, served as an alderman for 10 years in the 1980s.

Dan enjoyed playing youth sports and attended Belmont Hill School, a private school for boys his father had attended.

“Somewhat against my will,” Gaynor laughed. “You can’t imagine any logical 14-year-old wanting to go to an all-boys school, but that’s where I was sent.”

Gaynor later graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and then the London School of Economics for graduate school.

Government calling

Gaynor wanted to get involved in policy and government, so he headed to Washington, D.C., where he started working for the Truman National Security Project in 2012.

“It was effectively a bunch of alumni from the ‘John Kerry for President’ campaign who understood that Democrats needed to have a stronger voice in foreign policy,” Gaynor said.

In 2014, the Obama administration appointed Gaynor to work for U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID)—the federal organization that oversees foreign aid programs—in a national security capacity during major crises.

“I worked on the Ebola epidemic—I remember when that came out, it was terrifying,” Gaynor reflected. “I worked on the earthquakes Nepal and Haiti. And I worked on all sorts of urgent economic issues like fighting famine in Sudan and economic opportunity for underserved women in Vietnam.”

Data-driven purpose

In 2015, Gaynor began working as policy development director for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley when O’Malley launched his 2016 presidential campaign. O’Malley had implemented StateStat, a statewide version of his Baltimore CitiStat system, used for analyzing data to make policy decisions, and that focus on data drew Gaynor in.

“I really got the hook into data to not only operate more efficiently but analyze objectively what’s making an impact,” Gaynor said.

Dan Gaynor, seen here showing his daughter Poppy’s namesake smoothie at Mochiko in Newton, is running for a seat on the Newton City Council representing Ward 2. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

That love of data-driven purpose would bring Gaynor to Oregon and Nike Inc., where he worked for three years helping to establish that company’s Center of Excellence and crafting its mission of sustainability, diversity and philanthropy.

Gaynor moved back to Newton with his then-fiancé, Cara, in 2018 and worked for an analytics company and then started his own company—Kelp, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze large amounts of data—from his basement during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Kelp was bought by Signal AI last year, and Gaynor works for them today.

A local run

“I think if you had interviewed me for my tenth birthday and said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up,’ I would have said a Newton city councilor,” Gaynor said over the chorus of Walnut Street traffic.

“Being able to contribute to Newton at the local level I think not only is a good use of my skillset and energy but it’s very much a passion project for me and a way for me to scratch my civic itch and contribute to the community, who I credit for shaping me into the person I am today,” Gaynor said.

And having had his father as an example of local service shaped that passion.

“I watched him take public service to the personal level,” Gaynor said. “He was famous for literally shoveling people’s driveways if city plows couldn’t get there fast enough. He was famous for taking every call and having people over for coffee. There was always a rotating cast of characters, local citizens, in our house.”

Balancing growth and quality of life

If Gaynor wins, his passion and purpose will turn into votes that will impact the daily life of Newton residents. And there are some big quality-of-life decisions coming.

One of those involves the proposal to rezone the city’s village centers to allow bigger buildings, more housing units and fewer parking spaces in compliance with the new MBTA Communities Act. Gaynor supports moving ahead with that proposal.

“The reality is the MBTA Communities Act must be adopted into law by Dec. 31. We are required alongside more than 170 cities and towns, to redesign our zoning to accommodate additional housing here,” Gaynor said.

Dan Gaynor, seen here with his wife, Cara, and their daughter, Poppy, is running for a seat on the Newton City Council. Courtesy Photo

Gaynor said that he also wants the city and its businesses to still extract concessions from developers, for things like building positioning, bigger sidewalks, outdoor public seating, green energy infrastructure and more.

“I believe we can balance preservation of the historic character of our neighborhoods and the progress that we are required to take under the MBTA Communities Act,” Gaynor said. “So for that reason I am supportive, though I still see the City Council having an active role in maintaining oversight of developments.”

Gaynor wants Newton to combat climate change by innovating old buildings, requiring clean technology with new construction and making Newton a more walkable city. He also wants to make Newton’s streets safer by updating the roads and giving police the resources they need to fight recent increases in crime.

And as he and his wife, Cara, raise their a 1-year-old daughter, he wants to use his voice from the City Council—with things like infrastructure improvements and budgeting—to help out the city’s schools.

“I am a future Cabot School parent. My daughter is a future Cabot School student. My dad went to Cabot School. And I want to be a supporter of strong schools,” Gaynor said.

Newton’s preliminary elections for Wards 2 and 6 will be held on Sept. 12. In each race, the two candidates with the most votes will proceed to the general election set for Nov. 7.