When Kenneth Donnelly died of brain cancer in April, he left behind an open seat in the Massachusetts Senate and a district shaken by his loss.
Last week, voters in the Fourth Middlesex District turned to the aide who most often stood by his side at the State House: his chief of staff, Cindy Friedman. Friends and district residents remember the two as equals and partners — and complementary ones at that.
“People always saw Ken and Cindy together, as being part of a team,” said Arlington School Committee member Jennifer Susse, a Friedman supporter. “I think she was just more than the average staff person, so it felt natural to have her continue his legacy.”
Friedman, the Democratic Party’s nominee, won a special election for Donnelly’s former seat over Green-Rainbow Party candidate Ian Jackson. Turnout was low for the midsummer election, but Friedman won with 89 percent of the vote, according to the state. After taking the oath of office last Wednesday, she became the 13th woman currently serving in the Massachusetts Senate, representing the district that includes Arlington, Billerica, Burlington, Woburn, and parts of Lexington.
Friedman is far from a newcomer on Beacon Hill — and the memory of her former boss, and now predecessor, has guided her path to its upper chamber. Donnelly’s posters of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. hung on the walls of the makeshift headquarters in Arlington where the grandmother of two and former teacher had run her campaign since April. Campaign materials and supporters frequently invoked Donnelly’s name.
Donnelly’s legacy, in turn, is inseparable from Friedman’s, friends and colleagues said. She fleshed out his policy positions, drafted many of his bills — including several still wending their way through the Legislature — and steered his office. When Arlington School Committee vice chairwoman Kirsi Allison-Ampe made her annual trek to the State House to argue for increased school funding, she said it was often Friedman who listened to her concerns.
Such an equal relationship between senator and chief of staff was unusual by Beacon Hill standards, according to state Representative Jay Kaufman, a campaign cochairman and longtime friend.
“I came to see her, and I think a lot of colleagues came to see her, as a co-senator,” he said. “I think it’s unusual to be quite at that level of equality. . . . Cindy and Ken sort of charted a course together.”
In an interview last month, Friedman’s voice softened as she spoke about losing Donnelly, 66, who was treated for brain cancer for eight months before he died.
“I think without the incredible support and urging of his family and my husband, I wouldn’t have put myself in this race because it was too overwhelming in a way,” she said. “This is a huge loss for me. This was somebody that I loved dearly; we were completely partners in what we did.”
Aside from her grief, running for office didn’t feel natural at first, Friedman said. For her, public life felt like a radical departure from backstage political organizing.
“I’ve always been the person behind the scenes,” she said.
Friedman moved to the area from Philadelphia when she was 19 years old. According to her campaign website, over the years she founded several education advocacy groups, cochaired Donnelly’s campaign for Senate, ran former governor Deval Patrick’s campaign in Arlington, and managed Don Berwick’s campaign for governor in 2013.
Kaufman described Friedman as “the queen bee of citizen activism,” but until April she had never been the candidate. She said it was an interview between Globe reporter Joshua Miller and US Representative Katherine Clark, in which Clark urged women to run for office, that served as the catalyst for her to run.
Donnelly’s family endorsed her bid early on. After defeating state Representative Sean Garballey and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Mary Ann Stewart in the June primary, Friedman racked up endorsements from community leaders and high-profile Democrats, including US Senator Elizabeth Warren, US Representative Seth Moulton, and Clark.
She’s “an unapologetic progressive,” in Kaufman’s words — “a pragmatic liberal.”
“I don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, and I understand that there is no perfect solution,” she said. “Sometimes you have to take strong positions, and as Ken and I used to say, you die on some hills and you don’t die on others. Some hills are worth dying on, and some — you just say, ‘We’ll move on.’ ”
Donnelly, a former firefighter and union organizer, was known for his specialty in labor issues, while Friedman focused on education and mental health policies.
Politically, they agreed on nearly everything — except the salary increase lawmakers gave themselves in February, which Donnelly supported over Friedman’s protests, she said.
But the two had different temperaments, colleagues and district residents said. Donnelly was boisterous and outgoing, while Friedman’s style is more subdued and reflective. He painted the world, and policy making, in broader strokes, Friedman said; she, on the other hand, is more focused on wonky nuances.
She also said her gender will inevitably shape how she approaches the office.
“I think I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you I’m going to be really sensitive to issues that affect women,” she said.
Friedman managed hardware and software development groups in the ’80s and ’90s, a time when, she said, few women went into the industry.
“I certainly can’t represent all women, but I do have a good understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace,” she said. “I worked in high tech for 20 years — I know what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world.”
Women make up less than one-third of the 40-person Massachusetts Senate, and Allison-Ampe said she is glad Friedman will increase that proportion.
“I have two daughters. I really like seeing more women in leadership positions,” she said. “I think it’s easier to believe that you can do things if you can see people who look like you doing them.”
Friedman said she’ll spend her first few months as senator putting together her staff, pushing the bills she helped author under Donnelly’s name through the Legislature, and learning more about health care.
The victory, though, is bittersweet. After the primary, with the seat all but secured and with more time to reflect, Friedman said she had felt Donnelly’s absence even more poignantly.
“As it gets closer, I think I feel there’s a kind of ‘Wow, is this really happening?’ feeling. And I also feel his loss more,” she said. “I really feel like something major is missing, and it’s him.”Claire Parker can be reached at email@example.com.