Legendary campaign footsoldier heading to the House

Westborough’s Kate Donaghue will be a first-term rep – with decades of political experience

WHEN THE LEGISLATURE reconvenes in January, the 160-member House of Representatives will include 21 first-term lawmakers. One of them, however, will stand out from the crowd when it comes to the amount of time spent in the trenches as a political activist before making the jump to elected office. Kate Donaghue, a 68-year-old Democrat from Westborough, will be among the new state reps, but she is hardly a new face on the political scene. Donaghue has spent more than 40 years as a committed footsoldier for countless Democratic candidates.

Her devotion to daily canvassing for candidates without interruption is so legendary that the Boston Globe once called her the “Cal Ripken of Democratic door-knocking.”

After decades of work for other candidates, Donaghue put her name on the ballot for the first time this year as a candidate for public office when redistricting led to an open House seat representing her hometown of Westborough and surrounding communities.

She’ll arrive at the State House with the unusual background of a first-term lawmaker who has deep ties across the state, which include going door to door on behalf of some of her new colleagues.

“I sometimes joke that some people have lists of bird species they’ve seen. I keep a list of towns in Massachusetts where I’ve knocked on doors,” Donaghue said on The Codcast. “I’ve knocked on doors from Pittsfield for [state Rep.] Tricia Farley-Bouvier to the Cape for [state Rep.] Dylan Fernandes to Haverhill for [state Rep.] Andy Vargas.”

And Donaghue, a retired software developer, has not limited her knack for door-knocking to Massachusetts. She’s attended six Democratic National Conventions, and while there has squeezed in some canvassing for candidates from Philadelphia to Denver.

Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, says Donaghue has been a singular, often unsung force in state politics. “She has probably been one of the all-time best volunteer workers in the state,” he said. “It’s rare and they are few and far between when it comes to those who not only commit to doing the work, but do the work, and Kate has led the way.”

Growing up in Quincy, Donaghue tagged along as a child with her father, who was active in the local Democratic city committee, as he went door to door for candidates. Her campaign credits date back to 1981, when she started working on Michael Dukakis’s successful comeback campaign after losing the governor’s office four years earlier.

“It’s one of the most effective ways for a volunteer to elect people who share their values,” she says of her penchant for relentless door-to-door canvassing. Donaghue has even committed her tactics to paper, authoring a 60-point primer on effective canvassing. (She says there is also a side benefit to politicking on your feet: “I do it for the exercise. I lost more than 25 pounds during this campaign.”)

She put the same dogged effort into her own campaign that she has displayed in those for countless candidates over the years. From the time nomination papers were made available in February until Election Day earlier this month, Donaghue said, “I knocked on doors every single day except for six. I knocked on doors on Mother’s Day, I knocked on doors on Father’s Day, I knocked on doors on 4th of July and Memorial Day. But I did take Easter Sunday off, not so much because I wanted to, but out of respect for the voters.” 

Donaghue was unopposed in the Democratic primary and went on to defeat her Republican opponent in the general election by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Donaghue has soldiered on with an idealism that politics can make a difference amid devastating losses. Her husband, Kimball Simpson, died last December at 78. That followed the death of her son, Brian, at age 32, to an opioid overdose in 2018.

Donaghue has become an outspoken advocate for more services dealing with the opioid crisis, and serves on a Family Advisory Council formed by Attorney General Maura Healey to address the issue. She says the opioid crisis, climate change, and public education will be her top priority issues to work on in office.

“There’s so much stigma [around addiction issues ] that I was reluctant to talk about it at first,” Donaghue said. She said an article she read that captures that stigma summarized it by saying “something like, ‘nobody brings you casseroles when your child is an addict.’”

She credits Roger Lau – another legendary behind-the-scenes Democratic operative, who ran Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign – with encouraging her to use her activist skills and platform to speak out on the issue. “Roger said to me, ‘Kate, you have a voice, use it,’” she said.