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‘I was called to be the DA’: Teenage wish propelled Kevin Hayden to attain dream job

“I consider myself progressive. That’s why I cringe when people say I’m going to turn the clock backward, that I’m going to change it back to traditional prosecution,” said District Attorney Kevin Hayden. “I’ve never been that, so I’m not sure why people think I’m going to be that now.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

This is the first of two profiles of the candidates for Suffolk district attorney.

Kevin Hayden was seeking to fulfill a dream when he dusted off his resume last year and wrote to Governor Charlie Baker asking to be considered as the interim district attorney for Suffolk County.

Same thing 25 years ago, when Hayden was fresh out of law school and looking for his first job. The only resume he submitted was to the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office.

He got the job both times, realizing a Black Newton teenager’s wish to become a prosecutor who could create change near home through intervention, prevention, and community collaboration.


“It was definitely a calling,” Hayden, 54, who served as a Suffolk assistant district attorney from 1997 to 2008, said in a recent interview. “And it was place specific.”

Now that he’s back in the DA’s office — after a stint in private practice and eight years as chairman of the Sex Offender Registry Board — Hayden would like to stick around. In February, the lifelong Democrat announced his candidacy for a full term as DA, putting him on the campaign trail for the first time — a fit that Hayden admits is not a natural, or comfortable, one.

His opponent in the September Democratic primary, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, brings political experience and more clout to the race. He is the son of Felix D. Arroyo, the city’s first Latino councilor. The younger Arroyo, a 34-year-old former public defender with a reputation as a police reform stalwart, quickly scored endorsements from such progressive champions as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, and Mayor Michelle Wu.

Hayden’s has garnered a list of endorsements as well, largely from politicians and groups with local, rather than national, profiles: US Representative Stephen Lynch, state Senator Will Brownsberger, Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, and Boston City Councilor at Large Erin Murphy; and from the Dorchester Democratic Committee Ward 15 and Local 223 Laborers’ International Union of North America, New England Region.


“I think part of me had hoped that maybe I’d get a little more time and space to prove myself and show who I am before they would make their decisions,” Hayden said of Arroyo’s heavy-hitter supporters. “But that’s their prerogative.”

While Hayden’s predecessor, Rachael Rollins, is now the US attorney for Massachusetts, her shadow looms large in the September Democratic primary. Arroyo has pledged to continue Rollins’s reformist agenda, which included de-emphasizing the prosecution of certain minor crimes, and has sought to portray Hayden as lacking progressive credentials.

Hayden says nothing could be further from the truth.

“I consider myself progressive. That’s why I cringe when people say I’m going to turn the clock backward, that I’m going to change it back to traditional prosecution,” he said. “I’ve never been that, so I’m not sure why people think I’m going to be that now.”

Erin O’Brien, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Suffolk County voters don’t know Hayden as well as Arroyo, so they look for “quick clues.”

“And the quick clues here are Baker selected Hayden, and Arroyo comes from a political family and was endorsed by Michelle Wu,” O’Brien said. “That’s the frame this race is under, and if that frame remains, Arroyo will win.’'


A man of measured tone, judgment, and action, Hayden said he’s always striving for balance.

“On a scale of political beliefs, I think being too far right and from a sort of Republican conservative standpoint is a dangerous place to be, and I think being too far left and too liberal can be equally as dangerous,” he said. “I still consider myself very much on the left end of the spectrum, but I don’t know if I’m all the way to the left.”

In a 90-minute interview in his downtown Boston office, Hayden conceded that he has his work cut out for him.

“I’m not a politician,” he said. “But I know, within my heart and my spirit, that I was called to be the DA. I was called to lead; it’s what I do well, it’s where I’m comfortable.”

Hayden said he applauds Rollins for changing “the conversation to enlarge the scope and the territory of what it really means to tackle and address criminal legal reform” and adds that his office hasn’t rolled back any of her policies.

As district attorney, Hayden has made guns his hallmark issue. In March, he assigned two prosecutors to fast-track nonfatal shootings and other gun crimes to a grand jury for quicker indictments. In early May, in the first initiative of its kind in New England, he announced that two ATF agents and two Boston police detectives would join the DA’s Crime Strategies Bureau to focus on prosecuting gun traffickers.


“There’s a problem, plain and simple. There’s too many guns on our streets right now,” Hayden said. “Guns can drive cycles of violence real quick. It’s a lot easier to pull a trigger from 15 feet away than it is to stab somebody, it just is.”

Suffolk first Black DA, Ralph C. Martin II, recognized Hayden’s ambitions and motivations when he hired him as an assistant district attorney in 1997.

“He wanted to become a prosecutor because it was a way to impact communities,” Martin said. “He felt that that was a role where you could really have an influence on the safety and security of communities.”

Hayden also had a wisdom beyond his years, Martin said.

“He had a really broad view of what the responsibilities were, not just to convict people of crimes” he said. “He had a sense of balance and a sense of fairness that was very mature.”

During his 11 years as an assistant DA, Hayden’s work focused on juveniles and gangs, and he later led the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative. He next worked as a defense lawyer in private practice until 2015, when he was named to lead the Sex Offender Registry Board, which evaluates and classifies convicted offenders for possible release and then monitors them.

Andrea Cabral has known Hayden since they were prosecutors together in the late ‘90s. She went on to be the state public safety secretary and recommended Hayden as interim chair of the sex offender board.


“Kevin has one of the most unerring moral compasses of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Cabral said. “His fundamental decency is a rare quality. He has a really strong sense of himself and who he is, why he makes the decisions that he makes, how he reasons.”

Hayden, a man of deep faith, has worshiped at Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan for the last 25 years. He says God and prayer guide him, and marriage and fatherhood nurture him.

Hayden met his wife, Michelle Hayden, at the church and the couple marked their 19th wedding anniversary on May 24. They have two sons, 13 and 15, and live in Roslindale.

“I do a lot of things but being a dad is probably the most important thing I do. And I got two incredible boys, make me proud every day,” Hayden said, his eyes welling with tears.

During his off hours, Hayden has spent the better part of the last decade coaching Brookline Boys Youth Lacrosse, where his sons play.

The Rev. Ray Hammond, of Bethel AME in Jamaica Plain, said Hayden may be soft-spoken and reserved but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something powerful to say.

“He’s not demonstrative, but when he speaks what you hear is substantive, and you have the sense that this person both believes and is going to stand behind what they say,” Hammond said.

Hayden, the second youngest of four siblings, grew up in Newton, a predominantly white suburb of Boston. When his parents divorced when he was about 10, his father, the local go-to when it came to Black history, moved to Dudley Square in Roxbury, now Nubian Square.

And so Hayden has long straddled worlds both white and Black.

Hayden was one of five African-American students in his 1986 graduating class at Noble and Greenough School, a prestigious prep school in Dedham where he played lacrosse. At Dartmouth College, he majored in English and pledged with Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically Black fraternity to which his father also belonged.

Hayden briefly worked on Wall Street for a public finance law firm before earning a law degree from Boston University.

To know and understand Hayden is to know his late father, Robert “Bob” Hayden Jr. A former middle school teacher and Boston NAACP president, Bob Hayden kept the Black experience in perspective for his children and the community at large.

According to his obituary, Bob Hayden was instrumental in the founding of the Boston METCO program and served as its executive director from 1970 to 1973. In the ‘80s, he served as an assistant superintendent in the Boston Public School System and also authored books used nationally in school curriculums about African-American contributions to science, technology, and medicine.

He died Jan. 23 at age 84 on Martha’s Vineyard, where he had retired in 1992.

Hayden’s mother, Charlene, a devout Catholic, was a trailblazer in her own right as a Black woman employed as a computer engineer, coding and programming for GTE Government Systems, Hayden said.

His parents were his role models.

“They said, ‘If you want to succeed in a world where you’re one of the few Black people, you’re going to have to work harder than everybody else,” Hayden said. “And that’s what I did. That’s what I believed.”

Tonya Alanez can be reached at Follow her @talanez.