Four years past her first cancer diagnosis and three decades into her tenure as a consummate Democratic Party activist, MarDee Xifaras directed Al Gore’s campaign operations in Pennsylvania, one of the 2000 presidential election’s key battleground states.
Taking time off from her New Bedford law practice, she relocated temporarily to Philadelphia and put in 12- to 15-hour days. A phone constantly at her ear, she strategized, solved problems, and mentored young volunteers as staffers vied for her attention seemingly every second.
“I function best when I’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” she told the New Bedford Standard-Times on one typically hectic day.
Mrs. Xifaras, whose nearly 50 years of political activism took her from Southeastern Massachusetts to points across the country, died in her Marion home Tuesday. She was 74 and had traveled to Texas last year to knock on doors for Beto O’Rourke’s US Senate campaign, not long after her latest recurrence of cancer, which was first diagnosed in 1996.
“MarDee was a force of nature,” said Michael S. Dukakis, whom Mrs. Xifaras had served as a special policy assistant when he was governor. “And she was a natural leader.”
His runs for office were among the many presidential, gubernatorial, US Senate, and US House campaigns she had worked on since 1970.
“You were part of the best team of organizers and volunteers on the planet,” former president Barack Obama wrote to Mrs. Xifaras in late September, after hearing she was ill. Thanking her for working on his presidential campaigns, he added: “I am forever grateful.”
Paul Kirk, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said that “wherever she went, even in her own neighborhood, she was an ambassador for the best values of the Democratic Party. She had that natural charisma and sense of leadership that drew people to her.”
With an uncommon mastery of doing many things at once, Mrs. Xifaras built a resume that could fill many resumes.
She had a master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MBA from what was then Southeastern Massachusetts University.
As a political activist raising three children age 5 and younger, she commuted to the Boston University School of Law – a roundtrip that could take four hours in bad traffic.
“She has been able to blend the importance of family responsibilities and the personal development which women should have,” her husband, retired Superior Court judge John Xifaras, told the Globe in 1982.
Along with running a private law practice, and later serving as a partner in the firm Lang, Xifaras & Bullard, she had been a special assistant district attorney in Bristol County and the top regional staffer for then-US Representative Gerry Studds.
His first congressional campaign, in 1970, first drew her to Southeastern Massachusetts. She worked on his campaign again in 1972, when he first won the seat he would hold for 24 years.
Though Mrs. Xifaras served on the Democratic State Committee for 48 years and was either a delegate or super delegate to the Democratic National Convention for 30 years, no campaign task was too large or too small.
Along with directing Gore’s Pennsylvania efforts, her high-profile jobs included helping lead John Kerry’s Ohio operation in 2004 and serving as delegate organizer when Senator Edward M. Kennedy ran for president in 1980.
“She had an unbelievable sense of people and was friendly but tough, strategic but creative. She was really one of the best people I’ve met in politics – and in life,” Kerry said.
“A whole bunch of people in our state, in New Hampshire, in Ohio, and in other places learned their politics from MarDee Xifaras,” he added.
Last year, while being treated for breast cancer that metastasized, “she said, ‘I want to get back involved,’ ” her daughter Dena of Mattapoisett recalled.
So Mrs. Xifaras traveled to Texas to work on O’Rourke’s campaign, knocking on doors and buying pizza for other volunteers. She never shied from less-heralded duties.
“I seriously enjoy working behind the scenes,” Mrs. Xifaras told the Standard-Times in 2000.
Margaret Dexter Strahorn was born in 1945 in Rapid City, S.D., and grew up in Winnetka, Ill. She was the youngest of three children born to Charles Strahorn, a banker, and Evelyn Lou Meaghan, who stayed home to raise the children. Mrs. Xifaras also had a half-sister from her father’s first marriage.
After graduating from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Mrs. Xifaras received a bachelor’s degree in 1967 from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the teaching of social studies.
She spent the next two years in Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, teaching young women to be teachers.
Returning to the United States, she landed a fellowship at the Fletcher School. Troubled by the Vietnam War and the nation’s politics, she took a leave of absence and worked on the first Studds congressional campaign.
During those efforts she met John M. Xifaras, a lawyer who later became a judge. They married in 1970.
Mrs. Xifaras also was active with the state Bar Association and Massachusetts Bar Foundation, and had been a member of the state Board of Bar Overseers. She balanced political campaigns with community work in and around New Bedford, where she practiced law for decades.
She had chaired the board of the Southern New England School of Law and was a key force behind persuading state officials to create a law school within the University of Massachusetts system. The University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth is a successor to SNESL.
Mrs. Xifaras, who had served as a UMass trustee, considered the establishment of that school as her greatest public accomplishment.
“Simply put, we would not have a public law school in Massachusetts without MarDee X, and we owe her a debt of gratitude for her longstanding commitment to world-class public education in the Commonwealth,” University of Massachusetts president Marty Meehan said in a statement.
In addition to her husband, John, and daughter, Dena, Mrs. Xifaras leaves a son, Michael of Tallahassee; another daughter, Juliet of Mattapoisett; two brothers, John Strahorn of Forest Hills, Md., and Jim Strahorn of Palo Alto, Calif.; and six grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate her life at 2 p.m. Sunday at the University of Massachusetts Law School in Dartmouth.
Along with her work for others, Mrs. Xifaras “was straight-up fun and the person you wanted to spend time with,” said her daughter Dena, who was inspired by her mother’s public service work to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector.
“She was this super mom. Little did we know as kids that she was a rock star activist and excellent legal mind as well,” Dena said. “And she somehow managed to masterfully balance it all.”
Mrs. Xifaras brought a balance and personal approach to politics, too.
“She was so kind,” said former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who recalled how Mrs. Xifaras had introduced him to people within the party when he was a first-time candidate.
Along with her be-everywhere, do-everything approach to campaigns, she paid close attention to make sure candidates remembered such basics as not missing meals and checking in regularly with their families.
“I remember she had this way of cupping my face in her two warm hands and looking me right in the eye and kind of sizing me up and saying, ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’ She did that when I was a candidate,” Patrick recalled. “She did that when I was governor, too.”