BOSTON — When Juliette Kayyem graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995, she landed a dream job working as a civil rights attorney in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Her boss was a young attorney and fellow Massachusetts resident serving as Clinton’s assistant attorney general for civil rights – Deval Patrick.
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Years later, Kayyem would again find herself working for Patrick. By then, the fellow Democrat had been elected governor of Massachusetts, and he tapped Kayyem to serve as his Homeland Security adviser.
As she runs to succeed Patrick in the governor’s office, Kayyem is trying to carve out her own political niche, pointing to twin legacies as a lawyer championing civil rights causes and as a public security official. Kayyem also served as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama.
Kayyem, 44, isn’t shy about pushing back against forces in her own party that she sees as trying to narrow the field of contenders prematurely – including EMILY’s List, a fundraising group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. The group has endorsed fellow gubernatorial hopeful, Attorney General Martha Coakley.
“I’ve pushed back on the women’s groups who have been very, very nervous about me being in the race. I’ve said to them: `Your strategy of one woman at a time has gotten you one Democratic governor in all the United States,”‘ Kayyem said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I am not the attorney general’s problem at this stage. I am running my own race irrespective of gender, and I’ll lose if I think women should vote for me because I’m a woman.”
Kayyem faces a series of hurdles, from increasing her name recognition to raising the millions needed to mount a statewide campaign.
But she’s spent much of the year trying to clear her most immediate challenge – rounding up the delegates needed to land a spot on the Democratic primary ballot.
The party requires that candidates for statewide office win the backing of at least 15 percent of delegates to the June 14 convention in Worcester.
Securing those delegates has been Kayyem’s top priority. Part of her strategy has been to try to expand the number of delegates – many of whom are expected to back party veterans Coakley and state Treasurer Steven Grossman, also running for governor.
Despite the challenges, Kayyem said, she decided to enter the race.
“Sometimes you just have to jump because you cannot know how everything unfolds until you get in,” she said. “Will people support you? Will they give you money? Will they be excited about your campaign?”
The campaign hasn’t been a cakewalk. She recently had to loan her campaign $200,000 and has struggled to explain her position on the question of whether to decriminalize other drugs besides marijuana.
On other issues, she’s been clearer.
She is opposed to repealing the state’s casino law and backs the recent 3-cent hike in the state’s gas tax and the decision to automatically link future increases to the rate of inflation.
She also supports proposals to raise the state’s minimum wage and to mandate earned sick time for workers.
Kayyem said she also welcomes talk about taxes. She faults Republicans for suggesting that “any tax on industry somehow curbs innovation.”
“The notion that the other party can talk about taxes only as relief for the private sector rather than as tools to support what the private sector is dependent on – any rational person knows that’s not how the world works,” she said.
Kayyem, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles before moving to Massachusetts to attend Harvard College. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and three children.