A resilient Maura Hennigan made history Jan. 3 when state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Rouse swore in the Jamaica Plain resident as Suffolk County Clerk of Court, Criminal Division, during a ceremony in the landmark Fanueil Hall downtown Boston.
“This is a historic moment,” Rouse told the packed room moments before as she introduced Hennigan. “Since 1860, when we first began electing clerks, only eight persons have held this office, all men. Maura is the ninth and the first woman.
“This is not the only time she’s broken down that barrier,” Rouse went on to point out. “As a Boston city councilor for 24 years, Maura was the first woman to chair the council’s Ways and Means Committee.”
During her inaugural speech, Hennigan reminded her supporters that she also was the first woman in a family steeped in public service to go into politics. She said she began that journey “as a young girl, talking about politics and campaigns. My parents always instilled in us that politics was a noble profession.” She cited Robert Frost’s poem in adding that she “tends to take the road less traveled.”
Hennigan then vowed to develop in her new position a “proactive program to work with young people… and strengthen families.” As part of that effort she said her office would set up a blog site “to demystify the system by helping people get information and find resources.”
“She’s earned it based on 25 years of performance,” said her father, James Hennigan, a long time fixture in Massachusetts politics. “When I see Maura, I think of my father [James Sr., a former state senator who was first elected state representative in 1930]. I see a lot of Dad’s qualities in her.”
He paused just before the ceremony as though savoring the moment, then continued. “When I was elected to the [state] Senate my father said to me, ‘You have no idea how proud I feel.’ Today I know how he felt, and it’s something I treasure.”
The Hennigan legacy began in 1899 when Maura’s great uncle, James O’Sullivan Hennigan, was elected to the current City Council’s predecessor, the old Boston Common Council. The Hennigan Elementary School is named after her grandfather, who was born on the site.
“I’m very proud of our family’s history,” Maura said during an interview later that week, “especially the respect the family has enjoyed over so many decades. The public’s confidence in our family has allowed me to vote my conscience while in office. I know it’s important for me to do a good job and never bring a shadow over our family’s long tradition of public service.”
Hennigan, 55, grew up in JP with her two siblings, James III and Helen, attended Mt. St. Joseph School, then graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in nutrition. After teaching for seven years in the Boston Public School system, she lost her job following Proposition Two-and-a-Half’s implementation in the early 1980s.
In 1982 she ran for the City Council, then a nine-member citywide elected body, and won her first time out.
“I really agonized over that decision to run,” she admitted. “It was scary going into politics. Everyone thought my brother (who now runs the family insurance business) would be the first one to do it. Back then my dad’s friends even told me to wait, saying ‘It’s not your time, yet.’
“But I’ve always had a strong personality and wanted to fulfill the expectations of the oldest child of the family. And although my mother Marjorie was a traditional mom, I felt I had her support and that of my family.”
Hennigan said as clerk she has two responsibilities: administration and outreach.
“We keep all the records of criminal cases from the grand jury all the way to the final decision. And I assign assistant clerks and am in charge of maintaining information for attorneys and the public.”
In addition to the Suffolk Superior Court Criminal Justice blog, Hennigan said she will have a weekly TV show Wednesdays on BNN (Channel 9) from 1:30 to 2 p.m. starting Feb. 7, “to showcase our services and local people who are doing positive things for the community.”
Dealing with the upswing in crime will be one her greatest challenges, she said. “Many people are frustrated and think there’s nothing they can do. I know a lot of wonderful organizations doing good work that need more exposure.”
She promised she would also use “the power of the soapbox” to advocate for grants and job training. “Everyone loses when people with limited options go back to crime. I’ve got 24 years of experience as a city councilor lobbying the legislature, and I want people to know I’ll always be there for them on any issue.”
Not long ago many people wondered if Hennigan had hit the end of her road less traveled following her decision to leave the City Council and run against incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino in 2004. She lost badly, but stressed the race demonstrated her commitment, and it translated into support when she ran last year for clerk. She handily won the citywide primary, garnering a huge percent of the JP vote, and ran unopposed in the final.
“A lot of major breakthroughs come out of defeats,” she maintained. “And, if I feel like I can do a better job, I have to stand up and try. You can’t win if you don’t run. I put my personal assets on the line, but the votes weren’t there. But that race showed me I have a lot of support out there.
“You know, as a kid I realized there’s a lot of pressure to conform. It’s difficult not to go along with everybody else. But my whole life my family taught me it’s heroic to stand up. People need to know they can steer their own course. It’s not always easy, but when you do the right thing you have to celebrate it. The people who stood by me had a lot of courage, and I’m very grateful.”
Asked if she plans to duplicate the longevity of her eight predecessors, who averaged nearly 20 years each in office, Hennigan said, “I have no idea. I’m just enjoying today. But I will say my grandmothers lived to 96 and 89, so there’s a lot of time left.”