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She’s the iron woman of Massachusetts’ political canvassers

Kate Donaghue sorted campaign literature before she went out to knock on doors.
Kate Donaghue sorted campaign literature before she went out to knock on doors.(Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

WESTBOROUGH — Clipboard on the floor, Kate Donaghue guided her Honda toward a cul-de-sac near the headwaters of the Assabet River, preparing for her second door-to-door canvass of the day. "I tell people, canvassing is an exercise in democracy with an emphasis on exercise," she said.

She grabbed her voter list and a neighborhood map scattered with dots and approached a spacious Colonial. She rang the bell, as she has 25,000 times, by her estimate, over the past decade.

"Hi there. My name's Kate, and I'm a volunteer with the Democratic party."

But she's no ordinary volunteer. Donaghue is a fast-talking, quick-walking spark plug with salt-and-pepper hair. She is the Cal Ripken of Democratic door-knocking; two years ago, she canvassed 45 consecutive days for Elizabeth Warren. Last year she went door to door 53 straight days for Ed Markey — all 53 days between his campaign's release of post-primary canvassing lists and the special Senate election.

A semiretired software engineer, Donaghue, 59, squeezes in door-knocking at lunch when she works and goes out hours at a time when she doesn't. While in Houston recently visiting her son, she found herself with some free time; instead of resting or visiting a museum, she called the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign and went door-knocking in Texas. When the Martha Coakley campaign put up a wall of "spirit animals" to recognize key people, Donaghue got a woodpecker, because of all her knocking. Dozens of friends are expected to canvass in her honor Sunday for her 60th birthday, with Governor Deval Patrick slated to appear.

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"She's a force of nature," said John E. Walsh, the former state party chairman, who now runs Patrick's political action committee. "Nobody really does it quite as well, as hard, or as effectively as she does."

This outing in Westborough, where she lives, didn't begin with a victory. A 60-something man cut her off with a tight smile and a wave, identifying himself as a Charlie Baker supporter.

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"OK, thank you," Donaghue said. But she found a bright side. He did not beat around the bush. For her, canvassing is all about maximizing time until election day. "See how polite he was?" she said, walking across his lawn to the next house; she considers sidewalks an unnecessary delay, unless a lawn is freshly planted.

Donaghue is never quite content with her pace. In late August, she turned to Facebook to crowd-source ideas for canvassing faster. A friend offered a Razor scooter.

It worked for a day. Then she hit a pothole in Worcester, sprawling her on the pavement and spraining her left wrist and shoulder. She tripped a week later while concentrating too hard on protecting her injured arm. This time, she fractured her right wrist.

No more scooters, she says her husband told her.

Every Democrat seeking statewide office had signed Donaghue's cast, and she found it made a great conversation piece door-to-door. Plus, she could quote her favorite saying about rough-and-tumble campaigning, "politics ain't beanbag."

Canvasser Kate Donaghue led a training session for volunteers at attorney general hopeful Maura Healey’s Charlestown headquarters. Democratic candidates have signed the cast Donaghue wears for the wrist she broke while canvassing.
Canvasser Kate Donaghue led a training session for volunteers at attorney general hopeful Maura Healey’s Charlestown headquarters. Democratic candidates have signed the cast Donaghue wears for the wrist she broke while canvassing.(Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

She has not always been this devoted. Raised in a politically active Quincy household, she sometimes went out with her father during election season, for what they called "delivering circulars" back then.

She put aside electoral politics in her 20s. But after Governor Michael Dukakis got upset in 1978 by a conservative primary opponent, Donaghue felt pangs of regret, committing to help Dukakis in '82.

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"We did a lot more phone calls back then," she said. "The thinking was you could reach so many more people."

Howard Dean's 2003-04 presidential campaign helped bring neighborhood canvassing back to the fore. Door-knocking for Dean in the fresh air, Donaghue felt exhilarated. When her company closed its local office and she began working from home, the canvass became a substitute for cubicle conversation. Soon she found herself craving canvassing after stressful days. And with a municipal or special election almost always going on, she was rarely at a loss for locations.

Donaghue rang another doorbell, no answer, rang again and started writing. "Sorry I missed you. Kate," she signed a flier for attorney general candidate Maura Healey, before tucking a set of brochures into a screen door. "I'm a big believer in leaving a sorry-I-missed-you note," she said. "Everyone knows someone named Kate."

She walked out onto busy Fisher Street, ducking a low-hanging branch. "Canvassing is like orienteering — treasure-hunting," she said.

She pointed out a house where a voter told her he once dated Auditor Suzanne Bump, another where she had been offered a hot drink on a cold day. She straightened tipped-over flower pots and kept an eye out for stray newspapers to carry toward doors, without breaking stride.

A man in a BC sweat shirt answered at a Colonial painted an autumnal red. "Oh, hi! Kate!" he said, recognizing her before she said anything. They met once at a town forum, but really he knew her from the day she showed up collecting signatures for Markey in a snowstorm, hands raw and papers damp; Donaghue figured more people would be home.

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"Have you had a chance to make a decision?" she asked.

"Oh yes, we're voting for Martha," said the man, George Jedras.

"Wonderful," she said. "Both of you? And the whole Democratic ticket? Oh that's great. And would you like to get involved in the campaign?"

"Not right now," he said. "My son's going through college applications."

Donaghue spotted an opening.

"Does he have a lot of extracurricular activities?" she asked. "We've got a program for high school students . . . we're calling it our get-out-the-vote internship program."

She went on, keeping eye contact, talking, until Jedras agreed to volunteer his son. Donaghue beamed. When Jedras went to shake her hand, she flashed the cast. "Canvassing injury," she said.

An extra spring in her step, she walked toward a farm-style house with a screened-in porch. She went inside to buzz, then retreated outside. "You don't want to violate their personal space," Donaghue said, glancing down at her list so she could greet the homeowner by name. A woman emerged clutching a spatula, and a barking dog followed, encircling Donaghue.

"He's very gentle, just loud," the woman said.

Donaghue started her spiel. "Just out here talking to people, enjoying this gorgeous day," she said.

The woman apologized; she had not had time to follow the election.

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"Well, I'm supporting Martha," Donaghue offered, "because when I was young, I was able to go to UMass and WPI—"

"I went to UMass, too!" the woman said.

Donaghue nodded, looking her in the eyes. "Back then you could work summers and graduate with little or no debt, but nowadays you can't. If Martha gets elected, one of her priorities would be to make sure that education is affordable for all," she said. "Are there any particular priorities that you'll be looking at as you make your decision?"

"I'm a teacher, and I have two boys in college," the woman said. "Education is key."

They kept talking. Donaghue mentioned US Representative Jim McGovern; the woman brightened. "Jim is very strongly supporting Martha," Donaghue added. "Can I mark you as a supporter."

The woman agreed. "Wonderful," Donaghue said. "Thank you so much."

The screen door closed. Donaghue marked the result on her clipboard. "That's how we do it," she said. "One voter at a time."


Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.