Bright skies belie the early spring chill as Joe Avellone, candidate for governor, makes his way down Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown with community activist Jack Kelly.
“Jack!” yells Betty Carrington, president of the Bunker Hill Tenants Task Force and a veteran of Boston politics known around the public housing development as “Big Mama.” She hugs Kelly tightly — then turns blankly to Avellone, who introduces himself as a candidate for the state’s top job.
“Are you a Democrat?” Carrington asks. “A lifelong Democrat,” Avellone assures her.
Anonymity is a daily challenge for a first-time candidate like Avellone. He joins two other first-timers, Democrats Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem, who regularly have to introduce themselves.
These first-time gubernatorial candidates — a biopharmaceutical executive, former health care administrator, and former homeland security official — are trying to break through their limited spheres of influence to engender the broader support of a state.
They are political unknowns unafraid of the liberal label. They embrace it, touting their progressive bona fides at candidate forums, meet-and-greets, and interviews. Gay marriage. Addiction as a health issue, not a crime. Jobs, the economy, and social justice. Access to affordable health care. Comprehensive sex education.
Their campaigns for the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nomination do not come with the name recognition, the political machine, or the war chests of Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman, experienced campaigners whose political resumes include Coakley’s 2010 run for US Senate and Grossman’s tenure as chair of the Democratic National Committee.
While Kayyem and Berwick were political appointees on Beacon Hill and in Washington, D.C., serving in prominent positions in Democratic administrations under Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama respectively, their limited experience in public office has consigned them to relative political obscurity.
Avellone, Berwick, and Kayyem started their campaigns with little to nothing in the bank, according to campaign finance reports, which show that each has lent themselves at least $100,000 — in some cases double that — to pay for their campaigns.
There are just two months before the state’s Democrats meet at their June convention, when party activists nominate their prospects for the corner office. And before Avellone, Berwick, and Kayyem can take on the Republican contestant for governor, they must first conquer an incumbent attorney general and state treasurer.
They must woo party activists as they scrape to capture signatures from 10,000 registered voters and earn 15 percent of the delegate vote at the convention.
“Hi, I’m Don Berwick. I’m running for governor,” the 67-year-old Newton resident says, shaking the hand of the woman at Project Hope’s front desk.
“I hear,” she says, buzzing Elizabeth Maglio, director of sustainability and outcomes for the nonprofit, which provides low-income mothers access to education, jobs, and housing.
Berwick is here to tour Project Hope’s Dudley Street community center, where adult education programs and workforce development initiatives are held.
It’s the end of the day, so few classes are in session, but Berwick and his host still poke their heads into the computer lab and community room.
Berwick wants to know: What’s the history of the building; how was it paid for; who has access to the space; are men also served by Project Hope; how do the housing services work?
When speaking with administrators, Berwick, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is in full policy-wonk mode but put him in a room with a struggling single mother and suddenly he’s in pediatrician mode, empathetic and emoting.
He wants to know the children’s names. He wants to know their ages. He wants to know mom’s story.
“Can you tell me a little bit about your background?” he asks Rhonda Maloney, who was an unemployed mother of three when she walked through Project Hope’s doors about six years ago. They helped her dust off her resume and job interviewing skills.
But that wasn’t enough. So she continued with their education courses, landing an internship that led to a job at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she works in the radiology and ultrasound department. But she’s also studying occupational therapy, a career she knew little about but fell in love with after a research assignment.
“My philosophy . . . was I’m going from a job to a career,” Maloney tells Berwick. “A job is just a job. You come in work 9-to-5. A career is something you build on, longevity.”
“What do your kids think of this?” Berwick asks.
“My kids are thrilled. The oldest one is like, ‘Mom, we’re going to go to college together. We’re going to graduate together.’ ”
“Cool,” he said. “They’re lucky to have you.”
It’s 7:34 a.m., and Kayyem double-checks where the morning’s signature gathering efforts will take place before tweeting the locations — Coolidge Corner, Forest Hills, Salem, Acton — to her 11,700 Twitter followers.
She’s headed to the Coolidge Corner and Forest Hills T stops to meet voters. “Hi, I’m Juliette. Nice to meet you,” she says to a T employee whose hand she shakes. He signs her nomination sheet. “Thanks, and we only need 9,999 more.”
Kayyem’s forces tell commuters a signature is not an obligation to vote for the candidate. Some women voters didn’t care.
“Oh, no. I’m for Coakley,” one commuter said, brushing past a Kayyem volunteer. For other commuters, the signature came after a little trash talk about who is dominant in the world of elementary school sports.
“I think I impressed him with my knowledge of fifth-grade basketball,” Kayyem, the 44-year-old mother of three from Cambridge, deadpanned. “I went from gubernatorial candidate to soccer mom like that.”
As she’s heading to her next stop, Greentown Labs in Somerville, starts talking about her platform. “I am committed to a Massachusetts that is the most welcoming, the most connected, and the most prepared for what’s to come,” she says. “I believe in government’s ability to do good, but it can always do better.”
Massachusetts must be competitive, creating more cohesive transportation, environment, and energy plans between cities and towns, she says. There must be more incentives to keep innovators from leaving the state, she says.
As she tours Greentown’s 24,000-square-foot office and warehouse, where about 40 green technology start-ups have the space to build protoypes, Kayyem also sees immediate applications for the products being designed.
Kayyem’s face lights up when she steps into Silverside Detectors’ workspace. The company’s goal is to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism through low-cost, adaptable radiation sensors that can be stuck to everything from a backpack to a police car.
Silverside Detectors’ technology could make it easier to check cargo coming into Massachusetts’ ports, making the state more competitive in the global maritime industry, Kayyem said.
In Charlestown, a deal is sealed. If Joe Avellone is good enough for Jack Kelly, he’s good enough for Betty Carrington.
“You got enough signatures and everything?” Carrington asks. “We got 3,200 people over here.”
The pairing of Avellone and Kelly may seem improbable, a 65-year-old surgeon and a 33-year-old former heroin addict from Charlestown, but a single cause that unites them: Addiction.
Substance abuse has become a key issue in Avellone’s campaign for governor, and he’s calling for a statewide office of recovery, akin to what Mayor Martin J. Walsh has created at the local level.
“When I started running for office it was a year ago January, and I was not thinking about addiction,” Avellone admits. “I was focused on jobs and education.”
But over and over, he says, substance abuse issues kept creeping into political conversations held in the more than 130 cities and towns he has visited. His path crossed with Kelly’s last summer as the former neighborhood liaison ran for City Council. Kelly made strengthening the city’s substance abuse support network a cornerstone of his campaign.
“It’s one thing to know it clinically, it’s another thing to learn it from the other side,” Avellone said.
And while they have talked about drug addiction on an intellectual level, Avellone had never walked in the steps of an addict, and that in part was what the tour of Charlestown was about, Kelly said.
“I wanted Joe to feel what it would be like if it was his daughter or his children,” Kelly says, standing in front of the Bunker Hill Housing Development. It was the site of a yearlong police sting that in 2012 nabbed a violent drug ring responsible for distributing heroin and crack cocaine.
They continue down Bunker Hill Street, past Hayes Square, where annual memorials are held for those who die from drug overdoses, to their destination, a sober house that sits in the shadow of a police station and a liquor store.
Along the way, Avellone wanted to know what got Kelly started down the path to heroin. Prescription painkillers, after a hockey injury, he said. “To me, it was more plausible to walk on the moon than be an IV drug addict,’’ he said. “And here we are, 15 years later.”Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.