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Jim Hennigan touted daughter Maura’s mayoral campaign to senior citizens in Franklin Park.
Jim Hennigan touted daughter Maura’s mayoral campaign to senior citizens in Franklin Park. (Globe Staff Photo / Pat Greenhouse)

In Hennigan's run, father sees clan destiny

Old campaigner hits the trail anew

The politicians are making their rounds at an evening barbecue on the lawn of Curry College in Milton, weaving their way among hundreds of activists to the jangle of a bluegrass band. There is the host, a tanned congressman; a half-dozen eager Boston City Council candidates; and an old man who wears no campaign button, just a name tag: Jim Hennigan.

His broad frame is bent with age. His brown eyes glitter as he shuffles from table to table, gripping hands as he goes. He spots a union worker he recognizes and tells him that on Election Day, voters across the city will turn out in force to elect his daughter.

''The most important thing in politics is for one generation to say to the next, 'Come on, I'll show you how to do it,' " he says with a slow smile. He leans in. ''Maura is going to be mayor."

That's not something many Bostonians are saying these days. Maura Hennigan has less money in the bank than most district councilors, and she hasn't found an issue to grab the public's attention.

But to Jim Hennigan, 78, victory is not a long shot. It is an inevitability, a righting of old wrongs, the fulfillment of his family's political destiny. Though he invokes names like Kennedy and Hynes when speaking about his own family's public service, the highest office a Hennigan ever held was state senator -- and that was 40 years ago.

He can imagine it so clearly: The headlines across every Boston paper screaming his daughter's victory -- a victory that eluded him 46 years ago in his own bid to be mayor. Her swearing-in ceremony, just four days before his 55th wedding anniversary.

Most of all, he imagines his daughter healing the Boston school system, 34 years after the School Committee he chaired voted 3-to-2 -- over his protests -- to renege on its commitment to begin desegregating the schools. That vote helped set off a series of events that led to Morgan v. Hennigan, the lawsuit that brought court-ordered busing and years of racial strife.

''With Maura Hennigan as mayor, it'll be a new beginning for the Boston schools," he tells a grandmother he meets at the barbecue. ''Here we come, up we go for everybody."

He is up before sunrise to read the papers. By 6:30 a.m. on one recent day, he was greeting voters at a Dunkin' Donuts, talking up his daughter's campaign. Then he headed to her Jamaica Plain headquarters, where he answered the phone, folded mailers, and drove to greet voters at an event for seniors in Franklin Park. Often, he calls old political friends he's given money to over the last 55 years, asking for contributions. He usually takes a break in the afternoons, and then is back at it into the evenings.

''I show up anywhere and everywhere," he said.

Since his daughter decided to run for mayor, her campaign has been the focus of his life, he said, and his enthusiasm for the work is evident when he talks about it. Rehashing the decision to hire an out-of-towner, Mitch Kates, as his daughter's campaign manager, he made a slip.

''This was the best decision I made in the whole campaign," he said, before stopping and correcting himself. ''I didn't make it, Maura did."

Though his daughter is borrowing against her house to finance her run against a popular incumbent with a $1 million war chest, Hennigan insists the odds are on her side. ''The elements" are all there, he says: She has the experience, 24 years on the council. She has campaigned in every part of the city. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been in office too long. And she's a Hennigan, the beneficiary of the good will generated by decades of her family's public service.

''The glue of politics is friendship," he said. ''That's better than all the money that Menino can raise."

At his Jamaica Plain home earlier this month, he showed a visitor into the gumwood-trimmed dining room. He had laid out hundreds of pictures and clippings on the long wooden table, the kitchen countertops, the family room coffee table. A photo of the Massachusetts delegation to the 1956 Democratic National Convention. A Christmas card from James Michael Curley. A tattered portrait of his young family the year he ran for mayor.

''That," he said, ''is the history of four generations."

The son of a state senator from Jamaica Plain and the great-grand nephew of a member of Boston Common Council, Hennigan had what appeared to be a promising start to his political career.

Trained in law and finance, he was elected state representative at age 25, and then to the state Senate two years later. Brimming with confidence, he jumped into the mayor's race in 1959.

''I prepared to be mayor," he said. ''I studied to be mayor."

But that September, he placed fourth in the five-way preliminary fight. He is certain his daughter's fate will be different.

''I ran in my senatorial district," he said. ''I had never run across the city. Maura's been across the city many times."

Hennigan kept his Senate seat for another five years. Then, after a failed bid for attorney general, was elected to the five-member School Committee, which veered out of his control in those critical hours of 1971. Over the next 15 years, he practiced law and served as Suffolk County Register of Probate, losing races for Congress, secretary of state, and state Senate along the way. Since then, he says, he has been helping with the insurance company his son now runs and assisting campaigns ''behind the scenes."

In his daughter's race, he has moved from a backstage role to a very visible one. If it is unusual for a father to be so involved, Maura Hennigan embraces it. She says she thrives on his support, cherishes his advice, looks to his sense of history for perspective.

''I am so lucky," she says.

Her father's devotion has also lent a sense of urgency to her quest, she acknowledges.

''I want to win this race because of everything I believe in, and I just want people to have the best city they can," she said. ''But on a personal level, I want to win this so bad so that my dad will be proud."

Her father says he is already proud of her -- and will be no matter what the outcome. He also has a memory, of the night he won his first Senate race, and a dream.

''I'll never forget my father saying to me that evening, 'Jim, I know how pleased and happy you are. But you have no idea, when I go into town tomorrow. . .' "

Hennigan's voice trembled and trailed off. ''That was the most satisfying night of my public life."

A bit later, he smiled, imagining this year's election day. ''I'll know then how he felt," he said.

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