Nora Blake was desperate. Her autistic son had just been assigned to a third new school in three years. He would spend two hours a day commuting from Charlestown to an unfamiliar school in Brighton. This was not what she expected, living in Boston. She was ready to move.
“I was driving to work, just in tears, pulled out my cellphone and just called him,” said Blake. “Him” was John R. Connolly, then a city councilor who had been helpful on a neighborhood issue. He reassured her. He knew a mother of an autistic son at the school so he put Blake in touch. The women became friends. The school proved a good fit.
Four years later, when Connolly announced his candidacy for mayor, Blake was eager to volunteer, campaigning for him with an enthusiasm that borders on devotion. She credits Connolly for her decision to stay in Boston and thinks he will be a mayor who can persuade other wavering families to do the same.
“I’m trying to knock on every door in Charlestown to make sure everybody hears about him,” she said. “I really believe in him. He really cares about the kids, and I mean all kids.”
Every campaign relies on an army of foot soldiers to rally the troops for its candidate. For the Connolly campaign, that field features a contingent of dedicated moms. The campaign estimates it has about 200 mothers working as volunteers — knocking on doors, making phone calls, doing whatever they can fit between day care drop-offs and car pool pickups to help their candidate win.
Though not as obviously potent as the union bloc supporting Connolly’s rival for mayor, state Representative Martin J. Walsh, many Boston public school parents who honed their skills as forceful advocates for their children are bringing that passion to Connolly’s campaign for mayor.
“John has been extremely wise to identify and cultivate BPS moms, because they are just fiercely devoted to this campaign because we all know how important it is,” said Mary Tamer, a member of the Boston School Committee and a Connolly volunteer. “These are very bright, politically savvy women. They are a force.”
Known for their networking and multitasking skills, the mothers are prized by Connolly campaign aides who say that, even if it is just for an hour or two a week, the mothers give it their all. The campaign has taken steps to accommodate their hectic schedules, welcoming children at rallies and even setting up impromptu baby-sitting so parents can work the phones. There are dads volunteering, too, but it’s the sea of mothers who are the most conspicuous.
“The thing with moms is they’re instinctive organizers,” said John Walsh, the outgoing chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “They are relentless in pursuing what needs to be done, and they’re passionate about what’s important to them and their family.”
For many of these parents, the commitment is also personal: School schedules and bus routes dictate their daily agendas, while their confidence in the schools determines whether or not they will remain city dwellers. Unlike other voters, whose political support can be steered by a variety of quality-of-life concerns, parents often view the city almost entirely through the lens of its schools. Connolly has tailored his campaign to voters just like them, proclaiming that the city’s fortunes in all areas will rise or fall on the quality of the schools.
Long before he was running for mayor, Connolly was cultivating parents as a constituency. A former teacher, Connolly has made education his focus since his first unsuccessful run for City Council in 2005 and his subsequent win two years later.
He homed in on frustration with Boston’s school assignment policy — a Byzantine lottery system that gives parents choices but leaves many disappointed and results in many students being bused across the city.
Last year, even as the School Department planned to overhaul the assignment system, Connolly criticized the plans as insufficient, proposed an alternative, and held his own hearings on the subject as chair of the City Council’s education committee.
Some of those now supporting Connolly met him during that series of school and council meetings. Kristin Dearden of South Boston was surprised to pick up the phone one day this spring and hear Connolly on the line. Now running for mayor, he asked her if he could pick her brain over a cup of coffee.
“It wasn’t a stereotypical political talk,” she said. “He wasn’t yessing me, being condescending. He thought about my questions and concerns and had some answers and didn’t have all the answers and was willing to admit that.”
Mary Churchill first met Connolly at her house, after agreeing to host a Roxbury parent meeting on school choice. There, before a diverse crowd, Connolly told the parents of his own experience with the student assignment system. The West Roxbury father sent his daughter, Clare, to the Trotter School, which at the time was an underperforming school in Dorchester. That personal investment meant a lot to her neighbors in Roxbury, Churchill said, some of whom had given up on the Boston schools.
“For me, it built my trust in him,” said Churchill. “If you put your own child in the system then I think that goes a long way.”
For Kristin Macchi of Jamaica Plain, the connection with Connolly came years earlier when he used her autistic son’s school assignment story as an example in a hearing about special education placement.
Then, Connolly expressed interest in learning more about autism and asked to visit her mothers support group, which meets at a local restaurant for a much-needed glass of wine.
The group typically hosts a holiday party. A few years ago, when the event lost its sponsor, Connolly helped the group find a hall. And when the women took their kids to play ball at Fenway Park, through a CVS Caremark All Kids program for children with disabilities, Connolly served as the children’s coach.
It was Macchi whom Connolly later connected with Nora Blake, the Charlestown mom who came close to leaving Boston.
Attention like that is not soon forgotten. Macchi now canvasses for Connolly on weekends, mostly in her neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and works phone banks when she can.
A blogger, Macchi also works her networks of friends and contacts on social media, making sure they don’t miss any campaign news.
Modern mothers’ networks can be valuable to a campaign, not just for their commitment as volunteers, but for their access to and influence on other parents of school-aged children. But some moms say they do not want to strain existing relationships by making too hard a political sell.
“As a South Bostonian, it’s so difficult. There’s some pressure to back Marty Walsh,” said Kristin Dearden, the Connolly volunteer and mother of three.
“He has family in South Boston, people that I’ve known for years and years and years, a lot of my husband’s friends. It’s kind of hard to invite people in your circle because people are split.”
So Dearden makes her loyalties visibly known, without much pressure. She cohosted a rally for Connolly, walked him around the South Boston Street Festival and the Pop Warner rally.
She cannot be sure whether all that leg work will make a difference on Nov. 5, but she hopes her influence among parents counts for something.
Consider it an urban mom’s seal of approval.
“I think people know how committed I am to my children,” she said. “I coach soccer, I’m class mother, involved with PTAs. I think that relates well to why I chose him.”