In the staid, familiar world of lawyers and politicians, Quincy city councilor Kirsten Hughes has one of the glitzier profiles: She moonlights as an actress and singer, best known in her hometown for her longstanding singing gig at the Common Market Café. For a year, she played The Little Mermaid at Walt Disney World.
This week, she took on one of the least glamorous roles in the state, as chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. As such, she will be expected to inspire a party deeply divided over its leadership and deflated by its recent losses. She will be asked to rally the troops without a standard-bearer, now that the GOP’s prized former senator — Scott Brown, who backed her for chairwoman — has bowed out of contention for another Senate campaign.
And she will juggle that role while running for reelection to the Quincy City Council and handling her newborn son, born just six weeks ago.
Those who know Hughes say that that is the way she works.
“She’s one of those folks who really doesn’t like idle time,” said state party spokesman Tim Buckley, who said Hughes has routinely worked three jobs since she was 16 years old.
“She’s tireless; she’s just a little bundle of energy,” said Janet Fogarty Kelley, a state committeewoman from Scituate who worked with Hughes raising money for Brown’s campaign against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. “She’s a little dynamo.”
The diminutive Hughes is a big personality who always manages to stand out in a crowd.
At last year’s St. Patrick’s Day roast in Quincy, she was boorishly introduced by a local politician as the attractive new councilor who was getting cable viewers to tune in to City Council meetings. Hughes then took the microphone and belted out “Danny Boy.” City Clerk Joseph Shea turned to the other councilors and warned them that he would never let them sing again.
Shea is among those who considers Hughes to be tougher and smarter than expected.
“She has great presence,” he said. “She’s not a slouch. I don’t know whether she learned that in singing school or law school, but she thinks before she talks.”
The 35-year-old Hughes is one of 14 children, the daughter of a Quincy schoolteacher and a father who was a human resources executive.
In an interview Wednesday, Hughes said she is a lifelong Republican, raised in the Democratic stronghold of Quincy, by working-class, Irish Catholic parents who were decidedly not Republicans.
“My parents worked and sacrificed to put my brothers and I through Catholic school, and always taught us hard work would be rewarded,” Hughes said. “I always found the Republican Party has been the party of the working people, allowing folks to grow, while being fiscally conservative. Those things really were tenets throughout my life, and I was attracted to the Republican Party because of that.”
Her aunts, who doted on her, fostered her quirky interests, she said: Writing a letter to President Reagan. Attending a presidential inauguration.
“I don’t know what 10- or 11-year-old does these things, but I went to the 1988 inauguration because I wanted to go,” she said. “It’s something I always felt very strongly about.”
Hughes sang professionally in New York and for the Walt Disney Co. before graduating in 2003 from New York University with a degree in theater arts, according to her profile on the Quincy City Council homepage.
She earned her law degree from New England School of Law in 2008, worked for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, and married her husband, a software engineer, in 2010. She worked for the Massachusetts Republican Party in 2010, running the state convention and serving as field director, as the party made substantial, if short-lived, gains in the Legislature. Then she worked as a deputy finance chairwoman for Brown’s reelection campaign.
Her victory as a Republican city councilor in a Democratic community drew notice from Republicans statewide, who saw her making inroads in a place where they are not supposed to win.
“She’s from an urban area; she’s been elected to a local office,” said former Senate minority leader and congressional candidate Richard Tisei. “She knows a lot of people within the party, not just the bigwigs, but people on the ground level. She’s somebody that will do a good job.”
“She’s a younger demographic, which I think is good, but wise beyond her years,” said Ann Murphy, a Republican who also worked on Brown’s campaign. “And she has experience that belies her age. I think she’s what the party needs.”
But Hughes’s unusual profile also brought her added skepticism as she entered the race for state party chairwoman.
As a candidate, she was questioned in an online forum for wanting the job having recently given birth. One Republican questioned why they should give the position to someone who did not need it and had a newborn at home; another pointed out that a previous female chairwoman, Jennifer Nassour, cited her third pregnancy as her reason for stepping down from the post.
“It’s unfortunate that some people feel like they need to weigh in on those issues . . . because I’ve been a lifelong Republican and I reflect what’s really going on with Republican women,” Hughes said. “It’s about continuing the work that I’ve been doing over the past several years.”
As she contends with such criticism, she must also face the challenge of uniting a party torn over its direction. Nearly half the members of the GOP State Committee voted against Hughes for chairwoman. Some of those who backed her only did so at Brown’s urging.
But even those who spearheaded the campaign of her rival for chairman, said the party must now come together.
“The party has to coalesce and unite around Kirsten; she won fair and square,” said state Representative Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican who ran the campaign for Rick Green, Hughes’s rival for chairman.
They now face an immediate daunting task, of finding someone besides Brown to run for the special election to US Senate.
“It would be, I guess, Kirsten’s responsibility to make sure we find someone to fill his big shoes,” said Fattman.