Massachusetts Governor’s Councilor
Former Mayor Says Making an Impact Recharges Her Batteries
As she talked about her lengthy career in public service and her philosophy about such work, Mary Hurley summoned a 30-year-old memory that certainly speaks volumes about why she’s a Woman of Impact.
Then mayor of Springfield — the first (and still only) woman to sit in the corner office — she was eating dinner at the kitchen table with her husband, Michael (now deceased), when the phone rang.
Michael picked up the call and encountered a very frustrated man on the line complaining that his trash didn’t get picked up. After assuring the caller he would pass the message along to his wife, he looked at her and said, “if a Chrysler breaks down, do they call Lee Iacocca?”
Mary recalls telling him, and she’s paraphrasing, that maybe they don’t call the CEO of Chrysler when their car won’t start, but they do call the CEO of the city when their trash is still sitting on the curb.
“I told him it’s a 24/7 job,” Hurley recalled, adding that, throughout her long career, she’s made it a point to know not just the formal job description for the various positions she’s held, but everything that goes into each job, right down to making sure the trash gets picked up.
That goes for her stint as mayor, her lengthy career on the bench as a District Court judge, her time on the City Council before becoming mayor, her tenure in the city’s Law Department before running for City Council, and her current work on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, which she was elected to in 2017 after “coming out of retirement,” as she put it.
It was a short retirement, and not retirement as most know it — she left the bench in 2014 only to again practice law (she’s of counsel to the firm Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley) — because she decided she certainly wasn’t through serving people in the four western counties of Massachusetts and being a strong advocate for this region.
“It’s the impact you can have, often that you don’t even know about, that’s so important for people.”
Indeed, since being elected to the Governor’s Council for the Eighth District, she has worked tirelessly to not only fill vacancies on the bench — a problem she recognized while serving as a justice — but push for geographical equity in the Bay State concerning the appointment of judges and clerks. And she’s helped achieve progress in both areas.
“When I started in this judgeship, we had 28 judges out here in the District Court in this region, and when I left, we had 19; you try running a business when a third of your workforce is gone,” she said, adding that, since taking office, these numbers have improved considerably.
Looking back on her career, and ahead — she’s planning to seek re-election to the Governor’s Council — Hurley said she’s driven by a desire to help people, usually at a difficult time in their life, and use her knowledge and skills to make an impact. Succeeding in that quest has provided lasting rewards, as another story, this one from just a few years ago, makes clear.
“I was getting a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, and the girl who was waiting on me said, ‘you were my judge; you turned my life around,’” Hurley recalled. “It’s the impact you can have, often that you don’t even know about, that’s so important for people. It gives you a really long-lasting, good feeling. It’s like verification that you actually made a difference.”
There are a great many people who can say the same thing as that young woman in the coffee shop, people who can say that Hurley helped turn their lives around. And that’s why she’s a Woman of Impact.
Making Her Case
Looking back on her life and her career, Hurley said there were a few pivotal moments that positioned her to be able to make a difference in so many lives.
The first occurred at Elms College, where she was training to be a teacher, but, after some experience in the classroom practice teaching, she decided this wasn’t the route she was destined to take.
“I knew after practicing teaching that the one thing I didn’t want to do was teach school,” she said with a laugh, adding that, while she gives credit to all who do this extremely difficult job, it simply wasn’t for her.
Instead, she decided to enroll in law school with the goal of following in her father’s footsteps as a criminal lawyer. She got accepted into Boston College, but chose to go to Western New England University so she could take classes at night and work at her father’s office in Springfield during the day.
“That first year … I knew I loved it,” she said. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
The second ‘moment,’ if you will, involved an internship she landed during law school in Springfield’s Law Department, an opportunity that put her on a path to a career in both the law and public service.
“My summer internship at the city Law Department was key to exposing me to the political side of things up close,” said Hurley, who would later serve as assistant city solicitor. “If I didn’t have that experience, my life would have been totally different.”
Wanting to make an even deeper impact in the community, and with a little encouragement from former City Solicitor Frank Antonucci, Hurley ran for City Council. After coming up short in two bids, one to now-U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, she eventually served two terms on the council, an experience that only fueled her passion for serving the city she grew up in.
Indeed, when Neal, after becoming mayor, decided to run for Congress in 1988, Hurley triumphed in a special election to become the city’s first woman CEO.
But her mettle, and her ability to work with others to solve hard problems, was tested immediately, as she assumed the corner office during what became very difficult times for the city financially.
“I walked in the door, and [Massachusetts Gov. Michael] Dukakis was running for president,” she recalled, referring to the 1988 election eventually won by George H.W. Bush. “So all the financial problems in the state got swept under the rug. I had to lay off 850 people the first six weeks I was in office.”
The financial situation was so dire that Hurley convinced voters to override Proposition 2½ and raise their taxes by about $9.2 million — to this day, she is still the only mayor of a large metropolitan city to do this.
The override and the massive layoffs were just some of the steps Hurley took to lead the city back to financial stability, and, looking back, she counts this among her most significant — and rewarding — accomplishments.
“Springfield has always been my home,” she told BusinessWest. “I was proud to be able to get us through a serious financial crisis without having to close the schools, without having to go into bankruptcy, and coming up with some changes in the law that required a balanced budget and fiscal accountability.”
Court of Opinion
After serving two terms as mayor, Hurley decided to go back into private practice for a short time in 1991, becoming a principal of the firm Cooley Shrair, before she was encouraged to apply for a judgeship. She was sworn in as a District Court judge on Sept. 29, 1995 and served until July 4, 2014, when she ‘retired.’
But, as noted, it was not a typical retirement, and it didn’t last very long.
“My whole life has been public service and the law, and I enjoy what I do.”
“For the first six months after I retired, I didn’t do anything,” she recalled. “There was a prohibition against me practicing law because I was a judge, so I bought a place in Florida. I was going to retire, play golf, and that was going to be it. But I just got caught up in the whole political scene again, and here I am.”
By that, she was referring to her decision to run for the Governor’s Council, a return to public service sparked by her concern about how understaffed the courts were with judges. She decided to run for the council in an effort to do something about it.
She recalls putting 30,000 miles on her car while campaigning hard in all four western counties during that 2016 election, introducing herself to people unfamiliar with her record in Springfield or on the bench. She eventually triumphed, earning 60% of the vote.
In her first year in office, she worked with the Baker administration to fill a number of vacancies: six new District Court judges, three Superior Court judges, three Probate Court judges, two Juvenile Court judges, and clerks in Orange and Chicopee. Of the new judges appointed, nine are women, a development she’s very proud of.
“I want to continue to keep the courts supplied with good personnel because I truly believe, ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’” she said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “My whole life has been public service and the law, and I enjoy what I do.”
She told BusinessWest that what’s important is not just filling vacancies, but filling them with the right people, which is a huge part of her work on the Governor’s Council.
She said the judicial nomination process is a lengthy one, with the council reviewing applications and interviewing candidates and ultimately making recommendations to the governor.
For each nominee, Hurley reads a 40-page application, interviews the candidates, and vets each person thoroughly to determine if they are right for the bench. And she uses her years of experience in public service to help guide her as she goes about such difficult and important work.
“I’m very interested and concerned about temperament, their character, what kind of involvement they’ve had in their local community, and who they have for references,” she said, adding that their experience, knowledge of the law, and what kind of judgeship the individual is seeking are all factors as well. “It’s also important to me to look at how they treat people in the courthouse. How do they treat the court officers? How do they treat their clients and the other lawyers that are on the other side of cases?”
Hurley said she plans to run for the Governor’s Council again in 2020 because, well, she’s a “glutton for punishment.”
That’s one way to describe nearly four decades of public service. She has many others, as well.
Indeed, she describes such work, as tedious as it can sometimes be, as immensely rewarding. For proof, she retells stories like the one involving the waitress in the coffee shop and her husband taking that phone call back when she was mayor.
Such seemingly small moments, she said, have a big impact and get her through the hardest of times. As a judge, it was a parent coming up to her and saying, ‘thank you for saving my child’s life.’ As mayor, it was someone thanking her for doing a great job.
“I could walk into an elevator frustrated as hell; there’s all kinds of stuff going on in the city, and you’re the mayor, and there’s a budget crisis, or it’s this or it’s that,” she said. “Then, someone walks into the elevator and says, ‘thanks for the job you’re doing.’ It gives you that little charge. It literally recharges my batteries.
“I never planned to do any of these things, but it just all fell into place,” she went on, adding that having family and friends by her side got her through the ups and the downs over the years. “You’re not here by yourself; your family, your friends, they all affect how you do things, what you’re able to do, and what motivates you to do the best you can.”
Hurley has been doing the best she can throughout her lengthy career, and success at each stop, in the many ways it can be measured, has certainly made her a Woman of Impact.
Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]