Speaking before some 200 supporters Monday night at the formal launch of her campaign to succeed U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, state Sen. Karen Spilka cast herself as a purpose-driven candidate who has drawn strength from a difficult childhood.
In a crowded field of like-minded Democrats, she also sought to distinguish herself as a politician of accomplishment.
"The other candidates are good people — they're friends of mine," Spilka said, standing on a chair outside her new campaign headquarters in a faded strip mall. "And we all largely agree on the important issues — on women's health, on assault weapons, protecting our environment, on marriage equality...But this race will be about who can deliver results."
Spilka is one of at least five Democrats vying to replace Markey, who won a promotion to the U.S. Senate in a special election last week.
State Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) formally announced his own bid at the foot of the State House steps last week. Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat, used a Web video Monday morning to declare his candidacy.
State Sens. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont) and Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) are also in the running.
The race was quiet during the Senate contest, with candidates wary of distracting attention from Markey — or seeming too presumptuous about him winning.
But the campaigns were working behind the scenes to raise money, line up staff and develop messages.
Those messages began to spill into public view right after Markey's victory in the Senate race last week.
Sciortino, in his formal announcement, worked to stake out ground as the true liberal in the race. And on Monday, Brownsberger called for an enhanced "People's Pledge" designed to limit the influence of special interest money on the race.
In his Web video, Koutoujian emphasized his deep roots in the Congressional district. "I'm just a kid from Waltham," he said.
Clark, who has won early support from prominent women's activists, is expected to make women's health and family issues a central concern.
Spilka, at her announcement, spoke of a difficult home life in Yonkers, N.Y. "My father was a strong man — he was a World War II veteran and he was a builder," she said. "But he was also a man who struggled intensely with mental illness. And that was a condition that affected my whole family."
Spilka said her mother, a social worker, tried to hold the household together. But the children, she said, never knew what to expect from their father — at times, he'd come home "happy," at times "very angry."
She said her father, though, taught her some "bittersweet" lessons about empathy, diplomacy and tenacity that she's used throughout her professional life — and that she pledged to employ amid the dysfunction of Washington, D.C.
Spilka's career in public life began with a run for the Ashland School Committee and a push for more equitable state funding for the town's schools.
She served in the state's House of Representatives from 2001 to 2004, before winning a seat in the state Senate.
Spilka is best known, perhaps, for legislation overhauling the state's Children In Need of Services (CHINS) system, which provides troubled children with access to mental health and substance abuse services through the juvenile justice system.
Spilka's bill, signed last year, seeks to pull children out of the court system — providing care through a network of local family programs and avoiding the taint of a criminal record.
She also pressed for passage of "Jenny's Law," named after constituent Jenny Crowley of Ashland.
Crowley and her husband purchased life insurance after the birth of their child. She was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly thereafter. And when she died, the insurance company denied her husband's claim, arguing that she must have been ill when she purchased the coverage.
The legislation shifts the burden of proof in those kinds of cases — requiring insurers to demonstrate that consumers were ill when they bought coverage.
Spilka has also worked to cultivate employees of the high tech firms in her district, which winds through the suburbs west of Boston. And she made a nod to tech issues in her announcement Monday — pledging to protect consumers' privacy online and focusing on the importance of a strengthened power grid.
Spilka's campaign manager Eric Hyers said her forthcoming second quarter fundraising report will show substantial donations from the technology, life sciences and biotech industries.
Spilka also has the backing of the Central Massachusetts AFL-CIO, one of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO's 10 regional councils.
The Central Massachusetts council, whose territory includes Spilka's Senate district, cannot endorse a candidate on its own. But it has formally recommended that the statewide union back the state senator, who is a labor lawyer.
If Spilka wins some support from local unions, though, the larger labor movement is expected to splinter in the race.
Spilka's greatest strength, then, may be geography. The Massachusetts Fifth Congressional District bends from Winthrop, through the suburbs north of Boston, to the western suburbs around Framingham.
Spilka is the only Democratic candidate, so far, in the western part of the district. The other four Democrats are all north of Boston.
This program aired on July 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.