Juliette Kayyem might be the most unlikely Democratic contender for governor of Massachusetts since, well, Deval Patrick.
Commentators can’t even settle on a capsule summary of her background. In some accounts, she is described as a “homeland security expert,” while others opt for “former Boston Globe columnist.” Both are accurate, but with vastly different connotations.
Neither quite captures the engaging, confident yet self-deprecating candidate who settled in for lunch and a chat in Harvard Square Friday.
So, I asked, why is she running?
“I’ve spent most of my career in public service,” Kayyem said. “I really believe in government. I believe it can do good. I also, to be honest, believe it can always do better. There’s no finish line.”
A transplant from California, Kayyem, 44, lives in Cambridge. Her resume includes high-level posts in both federal and state government. In federal government she has worked in Homeland Security and in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, while she spent several years as the state’s secretary of Homeland Security. After the Marathon bombings, she was a ubiquitous commentator on CNN.
At the Globe, she was a successful columnist on the op-ed page for two years. While we exchanged the occasional friendly e-mail about each other’s columns, we didn’t cross paths much. For what it’s worth, she’s a former colleague I don’t know well. End of disclosure.
From the outset, Kayyem’s campaign has been shadowed by a minicontroversy. Some who want Massachusetts to join the ranks of states with female governors believe that she should not be in the race against Attorney General Martha Coakley. The presence of two women will only make it easier for a man to win by splitting the female vote, the thinking goes.
Among those holding that view is activist group Emily’s List, which works to elect female candidates. Though the group was initially helpful, it quickly threw its support behind Coakley when she decided to run. In fact, Emily’s List asked Kayyem to drop out, a prospect she briefly pondered.
“Women’s groups better get used to this because there’s going to be a lot of women coming through,” Kayyem said. “I’ll get out when it’s clear I can’t win, not because there’s another woman in the race.”
Kayyem is banking on appealing to a substantially different constituency than Coakley or state Treasurer Steve Grossman, both years her elder. While her Homeland Security background raises eyebrows among some progressives, she believes her civil rights experience and generally progressive bent can offset that.
And while she stops just short of saying so, she believes there is an opening for a candidate who hasn’t been on ballots for two decades, as her opponents have. She repeated that this campaign will be won or lost on ideas, not name recognition.
As Democrats begin selecting delegates for their convention in June, Kayyem appears to be more than holding her own, showing surprising fund-raising strength while building the kind of field organization some of her more experienced opponents have commanded for years. In other words, so far so good — although the campaign trail can pose surprises.
One topic recently arose that she didn’t expect: While discussing medical use of cannabis on Boston Herald radio, Kayyem was asked whether she had ever partaken of marijuana. She freely admitted that she had, leading the tabloid to label her an “admitted pot-smoker.” Her parents were mortified, but Kayyem laughs it off.
“I think we underestimate the former California pothead vote in this state,” she joked. “It is a solid voting bloc, and I am going to show that.”
She believes Massachusetts must maintain its competitive edge.
“This is a state worth fighting for,” she said. “We have amazing people, we have amazing resources. We’re in competition with 49 other states and we should win it.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.