When Tanisha Sullivan launched her campaign to be president of Boston’s NAACP chapter in early 2016, she never expected the political chaos that would surround her less than a year later, when Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House outraged civil rights advocates and spurred them to action.
Sullivan was among them. The 48-year-old Hyde Park resident said she was raised a fighter, never one to back down from a challenge — or more importantly, a call to serve. That tenacity has proved to be instrumental, she said, in her bid for secretary of state.
“There’s something incredibly powerful about the spirit of a person who wakes up every day knowing there’s a big problem in front of them, but believing they can find a solution and working at it,” she said in a recent interview. “I’ve always had that kind of spirit, where I’m going to do the thing that people think is impossible.”
In her first major speech as NAACP president, before a crowd of roughly 175,000 people at the Boston Women’s March in January 2017, Sullivan demanded a bold advancement of women’s rights that left no one behind. At the same event two years later, she implored the audience not to forget “the intersection and the weight of this country’s most constant and persistent foe: racism.”
“Equality and justice for women of color is a nonnegotiable,” she declared at the third annual march.
It is this commitment to inclusion that has fueled her career and driven her campaign to lead an office that oversees some of government’s most central civic services, such as elections and access to public records.
Sullivan isn’t seeking the position for the accolades. Rather, she wants to revitalize the office by boosting voter participation and education, restructuring fees for small businesses, and increasing the transparency and accessibility of public information.
In doing so, she is looking to unseat a 27-year incumbent, William Galvin, who has fended off past challenges with ease. He has the advantages of 66 percent name recognition, according to one recent poll, and a $2 million campaign war chest that dwarfs Sullivan’s limited resources: She had just over $160,000 at the start of August.
But with her campaign, Sullivan aims to position herself as a transformative newcomer able to pump life into a state office she says has grown stagnant by the dated policies of a nearly three-decade-long incumbent. If elected, she would become both the first woman and first person of color to serve in the third highest office in the state.
Throughout her career as a lawyer, president of the Boston NAACP, and former chief equity officer of Boston Public Schools, Sullivan said she’s both witnessed and practiced “the power of, as I describe it, proactive leadership.”
“Where we are [as a country] today is a reminder that the American democracy is young and fragile,” she said. “Many of the advancements that we’ve seen on the civil rights front, gender equity, and LGBTQ rights have happened within the last 50 years. We are not deeply rooted, and that means we cannot afford to be complacent.”
The secretary of state position, she explained, “became for me, almost a calling.”
Michael Curry, a Boston business leader and former Boston NAACP president, has known Sullivan for more than two decades and attributes her drive and commitment to economic equality to her mother.
“Thelma Sullivan, for many years in my growing up, was on the front lines of creating opportunities and awareness around Black businesses in Boston,” Curry said, pointing to the elder Sullivan’s creation of The Black Pages of New England, a Black business directory first released in 1990 and later reimagined by her daughter. “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, so [Tanisha] and I became fast friends.”
Sullivan’s father, Steven — who joined Boston Public Schools in 1974 to help the department safely enforce a federal desegregation order and later went on to head the John D. O’Bryant School — was just as notable an influence. Together, they raised Sullivan and her younger brother in a warm and bustling home in Brockton where the siblings were “always going, going, going,” Sullivan said.
Sundays meant church, which Sullivan credits for instilling her first love of public service: As early as 7 or 8 years old, she was her mother’s eager companion, stocking shelves at the food pantry or setting up for the soup kitchen.
Along the way, she honed a natural ability for singing, first in her church’s gospel choir and eventually at Fenway Park, where the then-teenager performed the national anthem at a Red Sox game after word of her vocal talents began to spread among players whose kids she babysat in high school.
As a student, she transitioned swiftly from Brockton Public School’s program for academically advanced students to the private Thayer Academy in Braintree, an opportunity for which her parents made financial sacrifices in order to provide her with greater academic stimulation, she said. To prove a skeptical guidance counselor wrong, Sullivan applied — and was accepted to — the University of Virginia and fell in love with the campus’ diversity on visiting day.
Sullivan remembers that, as a college freshman in the fall of 1992, she felt truly motivated to excel for the first time and quickly gravitated toward friends with an interest in student government. She served on the first-year judiciary committee and was later elected student body vice president and with each new opportunity felt her childhood passion for service sharpening into a love of advocacy.
Sabina Ewing, a college friend who served alongside Sullivan on the first-year council, jokes that Sullivan came to campus “somewhat of a fully-formed little person,” more mature than many of her peers.
“Certainly there’s been an evolution, but Tanisha was always a leader and someone who came in with strong values that I’ve seen remain consistent even while she’s gained more experience,” Ewing said.
After graduating with a degree in government in 1996, she returned home to Massachusetts and interned briefly at the State House before fulfilling a promise to her parents to attend law school at Boston College. Inspired by her mother’s legacy as a small-business owner, Sullivan pursued dual law and business degrees, a decision that served her well during her first summer clerkship in corporate law.
What might have seemed like flavorless paper shuffling to many fascinated Sullivan, whose first exposure to venture capital left her stunned at the sheer number of resources available to those with the right connections.
“I was introduced to this idea that there are people out there who will invest in someone else’s business to help them be successful, and I had watched my mom start three businesses, and there was nothing like that,” she said. “And I thought, maybe I need to become a corporate lawyer because what I see here, I know people who could benefit from that, and I want to learn and bring that back.”
So began a two-decade legal career focused on the then-emerging industry of biotechnology, culminating in a job as associate general counsel for Sanofi-Genzyme in Cambridge. Along the way, she volunteered regularly with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Economic Justice Project.
Most recently, Sullivan helped lead a coalition of US-based companies committed to advocating for racial justice-focused public policy following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. It was in this role, while advocating for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act before Congress, that Sullivan saw the potential to push voting reform forward as the next secretary of state.
Too often in critical moments of voting rights advocacy, she said, Galvin has been absent from the front lines.
“I’m doing all this work around voting rights in the state and I’m seeing the governor show up, I’m seeing the lieutenant governor show up, I’m seeing the AG show up, and I’m like, ‘Where is the secretary of state? Where is he?’” she said. “That’s what caught my attention.”
Galvin has aimed in debates to paint his challenger as idealistic and uninformed about the job, but Sullivan counters that the office’s ability to demand social and economic equity hasn’t been maximized. If elected, she said, she is the one with the game plan to activate the office to its full potential.
To encourage greater voter turnout, she wants to align state elections with the presidential election cycle, when research indicates voter participation is at its highest. And she sees a role for the secretary of state in shaping how cryptocurrency is regulated, as well as pressing the governor’s office to lower registration fees for local businesses.
The secretary of state, in addition to managing elections and access to public records, also oversees financial regulations and business registrations and serves as chair of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Last year, Amherst Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier brainstormed with Sullivan in the early stages of her campaign and said she was “awe-struck” at the potential of her platform to truly transform the office. What sets Sullivan apart, she said, is her ability to blend vision with action.
“Every time I see her speak, I’m always very aware of how ready she is for this role, and how ready the role is for her,” she said.
Above all, Sullivan believes that serving as secretary of state is about relationship-building, making the office available and accessible so residents can trust that the people sitting behind every desk are working for them.
So as her campaign nears its final days and the September primary election looms near, you can find Sullivan where she has long been, and promises to stay: at the park, church, or corner store, but always in community.