Hundreds of volunteers stuffed sweat socks, foot powder, snacks, and letters of encouragement into care packages destined for active servicemen and women and veterans to honor those lost on Sept. 11 and the war against terrorism waged in its wake.
Standing amid the swirl of activity on the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston was Steve Kerrigan, president of the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting military families of those who have been killed in action after 9/11. The group had organized this day of service.
On one of the country’s most somber days, Kerrigan, whose adult life has been steeped in politics, puts it aside to focus on the lives affected by the terrorists’ attack. “Remember, honor, and serve — today is a day when we set aside time to focus on that,” he said as a line formed down the block.
This year though, the anniversary of that nation-changing event came in a week when Kerrigan won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. While Kerrigan was not talking politics, it was clear that this is a man whose political connections reach across Massachusetts and beyond, connections that could be useful as he and his gubernatorial running mate, Attorney General Martha Coakley, work to win on Election Day.
Kerrigan spent more than a decade working for the late US senator Edward M. Kennedy in a variety of positions, including political director and state policy director.
He was head of the 2012 Democratic National Convention Committee and cochairman of Obama’s 2012 inaugural committee.
And on Thursday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston stood in the assembly line making a care package, as did Coakley and Governor Deval Patrick.
“I’ve known Steve for a long time. He works hard. His commitment to our fallen heroes and their families is extraordinary,” Coakley said after signing the guest book. “Steve’s committed to the values that I share of democracy and equality and opportunity.”
After Tuesday’s primary, the Coakley and Kerrigan teams began meeting right away, coordinating schedules, making phone calls and aligning their messages around issues such as regional economic development, education, and access to mental health services.
Kerrigan and Coakley will campaign together as well as separately, but always pushing the ticket.
By joining forces, there is now an opportunity for the ticket as a whole to benefit from their individual connections, advisers say. And while there might be overlap, Kerrigan’s reach extends to some places that Coakley’s does not.
“The good thing about Steve is he definitely brings his own base of support and donors,” said Doug Rubin, one of Coakley’s senior advisers.
Kerrigan grew up in Lancaster, where his parents, a school secretary and a lineman for the electric company, raised three children. He now lives there with his partner of about three years.
The way he tells it, politics has been a part of Kerrigan’s life since he was in kindergarten, some 37 years ago.
“On St. Patrick’s Day 1977, Jimmy Carter came to the town next to us,” Kerrigan, 42, has said from the campaign trail over the summer. “He stayed overnight at my mother’s bowling partner’s house.”
His mother kept him home from school, and they held a sign in front of the house that said “Welcome to Clinton, Mr. President” and walked to Town Hall, where he said they shook Carter’s hand.
“Every 5-year-old gets to meet the president was my thought,” Kerrigan quipped.
Kerrigan, an openly gay man, went to a Catholic high school and planned to join a religious order once he graduated from the University of Maryland.
Interested in social justice, Kerrigan said he figured he would intern on Capitol Hill to get any political hankerings “out of my system” before entering the order. That was 1990.
“And here I am,” he joked.
Laughs typically accompany a conversation with Kerrigan, be it a conversation about crisscrossing the Commonwealth campaigning or a debate over Dunkin’ Donuts versus Starbucks or the fact that “three woman and a gay guy won” Democratic primary slots on Tuesday.
“I think my partner probably found it funny that anyone found me funny,” Kerrigan said recently. “I’m a product of my upbringing up, [and] nothing compared to my father. He’s the one you want to sit next to at a dinner party.”
Despite the laughs, Kerrigan said, “the issues are incredibly serious.”
Friends say his empathetic leadership style and personal and professional connections will make him an asset to the ticket over the next eight weeks.
Kerrigan and former Boston city councilor Rob Consalvo started interning in Kennedy’s office on the same day in 1990, worked there as staff members, and have remained friends.
He is the “full package,” said Consalvo. Kerrigan has been a Lancaster selectman, worked in state and national politics, and managed millions of dollars and hundreds of people while planning one national convention and two presidential inaugurations.
“How many people has Steve met over the last 24 years that I’ve known him? Families across the Commonwealth to veterans and their families to labor leaders,” Consalvo said. “He was constituent outreach director. That says it all.”
Tom Crohan, vice president of the military nonprofit who also worked with Kerrigan in Kennedy’s office, remembers addressing constituents’ needs at one of the country’s most trying times.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, they called police departments trying to find the next-of-kin for local victims felled in the terrorist attacks. Then they called 411 and combed through phone books searching for numbers, so Kennedy could call the families and offer support.
“It was [Kennedy’s] leadership that really wanted to make sure these families were looked after, but he entrusted that work with Steve,” Crohan said Thursday
“It’s just an ability to kind of understand — and not sympathize but really understand — the need,” he said.