Steve Pemberton, ex-foster child who defied the odds, ponders run for US Senate
Steve Pemberton has traveled a remarkable and unlikely path, from unwanted foster child cast aside by multiple families to the C-suite of major corporations.
Along the way he wrote a moving memoir — “A Chance in the World” — that became a feature film in 2017.
Now he is on the verge of attempting another major leap: to the US Senate.
Pemberton, 51, is laying the groundwork for a challenge to Senator Edward Markey. He has formed an exploratory committee and enlisted the services of A-list political consultants Doug Rubin and Wilnelia Rivera, and is likely to enter the Democratic field later this month, joining Boston labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan in challenging Markey.
A first-time candidate, Pemberton says he wants to run because he sees this as a perilous time for the country.
“We’re at the crossroads of what kind of society we are and what we’re going to become,” he said in an interview. “For me, it’s a natural continuation of my life mission — I’ve always been involved in matters of equality and access and opportunity for all. It’s taken me down a lot of different paths.”
Pemberton is currently the chief human resources officer for WorkHuman, a human resources software company. That follows similar posts at Monster.com and Walgreens.
If this were a race for most inspirational back story, Pemberton might be the unquestioned front-runner.
He is the product of a short-lived relationship between a gifted amateur boxer and his sometime girlfriend; his parents split for good when he was a toddler. Pemberton entered the state’s foster care system in his native New Bedford when he was just 3, beginning a harrowing and unstable journey.
“The truth is, by the time I entered foster care, when I was three, both of them were really gone already. My father never took responsibility or told anyone about me, and then I got lost in the gaps largely because of what I looked like.”
Rejected by his father’s African-American family and his mother’s Irish-Catholic family, he was virtually on his own.
The nadir of his isolation may have come the day, just after Christmas, that found him watching a social worker call family after family, seeking to find him a new home. Pemberton was a teenager by then, old enough to fully grasp what was going on.
“At 5 o’clock daylight had turned to dusk, dusk had turned to dark, and I could tell he had no answers,” he said. “He didn’t know what to do. When you go through a struggle like that, you recognize the struggle that others have immediately.”
He was saved by a local Outward Bound counselor who agreed to take him in for a week — which became a year, which became the rest of high school. Pemberton went on to Boston College — a guidance counselor had mentioned it offhand when he was in seventh grade, and it immediately cemented as a dream. He’s now a trustee.
Pemberton barely mentioned Markey when we talked. He said he wants to run because hope is running short in places like New Bedford, among people who don’t see their struggles reflected in today’s supposedly prosperous environment.
“When you get outside the bubble that Boston can be, and you spend time in places like where I’m from, you see an entirely different narrative,” he said. “You see people who feel locked out — not only locked out for themselves, but locked out for future generations, as well.”
Pemberton said he wants to address income inequality, and the host of ills that come with it, including inequities in health care. He said he plans to run as a staunch supporter of women’s equality, including the right to choose. He said he believes voters are hungry for leaders who connect with their struggles.
“The only way you get that is if you have people who have had to stand in those moments and figure out how they’re going to create a chance for themselves,” Pemberton said.
The title of his memoir was taken from a diary entry by one of his baby sitters, fortuitously shared with him while he was working on his memoir: “This little boy doesn’t have a chance in the world.”
When people tell him his campaign will be an uphill battle against better-known opponents, those words ring in his ears. “I put it under the heading of ‘Not a chance in the world,’ ” he said. “I’ve heard that before.”