fb-pixel Skip to main content
Shirley Leung

The true value of a new start

“If I could just walk in the door and just be able to work, it’s all I really wanted at that point,” said Khalid Abdur-Rahman, on how CORI reform affected him.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Globe

If there is one piece of advice Charlie Baker should take from Deval Patrick, it is this: Being governor is about creating policy that touches people.

It’s what Patrick — and perhaps his predecessors — came to learn after leading our state, a path Baker starts out on Thursday as the 72d governor of our Commonwealth.

That object lesson recently brought tears to Patrick’s eyes, in the final weeks of his second term. It had to do with reforming the state’s criminal record system, known as CORI, which he signed into law four years ago to limit employers’ access to job applicants’ criminal records. The idea was to give convicts a better chance to make an honest living.


A few weeks later, at a ceremonial signing in Worcester, a reform advocate walked up to Patrick with cellphone in hand. He asked if the governor would take a call from his friend. Patrick took the phone and heard: “I want you to know this bill is going to make a difference in my life. “

The governor never thought about the conversation again — until last November.

On a trip to Springfield, Patrick and his team stopped for lunch at Luxe Burger Bar, a 180-seat restaurant. The executive chef walked up and asked whether the governor remembered taking a call when he signed the CORI bill. He did.

“Well, I was the other guy on the phone,” the chef said. “I was in jail.”

* * *

Khalid Abdur-Rahman wasn’t supposed to succeed in life.

His mother was 14 when she had him, and shortly afterward, his father took off to Puerto Rico.

He was raised by a single mother, then his grandmother, and later bounced through foster homes. He dropped out of school. At 14, he got a girl pregnant. He joined a gang and started selling drugs.


“I don’t like the term that I’m a product of my environment,” Abdur-Rahman, 36, told me last week, sitting inside Luxe Burger before the lunch rush. “But a lot of my actions were a product of my environment.”

He is not proud of his old life, and often looked away when he recalled past transgressions. Other times, the tears would sneak up on him.

Abdur-Rahman got into trouble enough — attempted murder, armed robbery, assault and battery, drug trafficking — that he landed in prison three times, serving a total of a dozen years.

It is a life of crime documented in the courts — and until CORI reform, his past would always haunt him. Employers could ask prospective hires on job applications if they had been convicted of a crime. The best that Abdur-Rahman could hope for was a job paying minimum wage.

At a halfway house in Worcester in 2005, he met Steve O’Neill, who was helping to launch a nonprofit in Worcester called Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, or EPOCA.

Its first goal would be to help push through CORI reform.

That message resonated with Abdur-Rahman. CORI reform could be a lifeline — not only to a job, but a future.

“If I could just walk in the door and just be able to work, it’s all I really wanted at that point,” he said. “Just work and take care of my family.”

He became a tireless volunteer for EPOCA, serving on its board and meeting with legislators about fixing the CORI system. Under the reform, employers could no longer ask about a criminal record on job applications, and most felonies could be sealed 10 years after the person’s release.


A fresh start seemed possible until Abdur-Rahman lost his job at a Worcester sheet metal factory. He went back to his old ways of dealing crack cocaine.

“I made the decision to do what I had to do to survive,” he said.

He got caught and was sent back to prison in 2006.

Governor Patrick and Khalid Abdur-Rahman met in November at Luxe Burger Bar in Springfield.Khalid Abdur-Rahman

During this time, Abdur-Rahman kept in touch with O’Neill and what was happening to CORI reform. It was always a tough sell, because no politician wants to appear soft on crime. The state Senate passed a version of the bill in late 2009, and after much wrangling, the House approved a version in spring 2010. In August, Patrick signed the sweeping legislation into law.

O’Neill, one of the founders of EPOCA, credited Patrick with taking a firm position on the issue.

That summer, legalized gambling consumed everyone’s attention on Beacon Hill, and O’Neill recalled that Patrick made clear that he would not sign a casino bill unless CORI reform got done.

“I was impressed that he was taking a stand for really the most vulnerable people in the state,” O’Neill said.

When CORI reform passed, Abdur-Rahman was sitting in a minimum-security center in Roslindale. He read the news and decided to call O’Neill to celebrate. Unbeknownst to him, O’Neill was at Worcester City Hall with the governor for a ceremonial signing of the law.


O’Neill decided the two should talk.

“This would give him some hope,” O’Neill said of his friend, and “I knew it would be moving for the governor.”

By the summer of 2011, Abdur-Rahman was a free man, walking out of prison with the confidence he could find work. His last incarceration had been the hardest.

“I lost a lot. I didn’t want to look back,” he said. “I’m better than this.”

Abdur-Rahman had been cooking since he was 17, but his checkered past prevented him from being considered for kitchen jobs. This time he found work as a line cook at several Boston-area restaurants.

He went home to Springfield, and when Luxe Burger opened its doors in 2013, Abdur-Rahman got hired as a sous chef. In June, he was promoted to executive chef.

He now oversees a staff of about 20 and draws an annual salary of about $50,000.

Ted Newcomer Jr., senior vice president of operations at Chow Fun Food Group, which owns Luxe Burger, said he didn’t know about Abdur-Rahman’s bad history until after he started working at the upscale burger restaurant. By then, Abdur-Rahman had proven to be a model employee and manager — hardworking, eager to learn, conscientious.

Would he have hired Abdur-Rahman had he known about his run-ins with the law?

“Who are we to judge somebody on their past? It’s all about who we are today,” Newcomer said.


Now Abdur-Rahman is the one looking beyond people’s pasts. Walk through his kitchen, and he points to staffers he has hired who made mistakes like him, but are getting a second chance.

“My most proudest moments,” he said, “are being able to open the door for other people.”

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.