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An Improbable Trajectory

Jeffrey Sanchez’s trajectory took him from the streets of Mission Hill to the MA State House.

Sánchez chose to make a difference. He became the mayor’s eyes and ears in the Hispanic communities as part of Menino’s sweeping effort to improve Boston.

It was a postcard perfect Friday morning in spring at Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery, and the sun poured down through the sunroof of his SUV as Jeffrey Sánchez spoke by phone with a curious stranger, sharing the details of an unlikely life ascent perhaps better-suited as a Hollywood script.

He flipped back through the calendar pages of his mind’s eye and started slowly.

“My father was a World War II vet and dock manager at a textile company, and my mom grew up in the tobacco fields in Puerto Rico,” he began.

Sánchez has seen plenty in his 50-something years since those days. He still remembers the rancid stench, the rats and roaches, the burned-out cars and trash-filled streets of 1970s Mission Hill in the pre- and post-busing era of Boston, where he moved with his family at age 4 from Washington Heights, NYC. He can still hear the drop of each boot from the marching riot police on Smith Street.

“It sticks with you,” he said.

He sold 4 a.m. Boston Globes on street corners and on a cart in the LMA hospitals as one of the last of Bob White’s newspaper boys at age 10. He was among many with brown or black skin wrestled into the back of cop cars during the aftermath of the Charles Stuart murders in late 1989.

“I tried to stay out of trouble, but I did stupid stuff, too,” he said. “It was easy to fall into those things.”

So now, as he reflected on a career that has since put him at the right hand of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, on the front lines in the fight for affordable health care in Massachusetts, in charge of a $42 billion state budget, before the best and brightest students in the world as a Harvard lecturer, on the 2018 list of the 100 Most Influential Bostonians in Boston magazine, and a speed-dial away from one of Boston’s most prominent philanthropists, he marveled at the improbability of it all.

“A kid like me doesn’t get –” he said, and then paused, collecting his thoughts. “A kid like me doesn’t have this trajectory, you know what I mean?”

That trajectory, Sánchez acknowledges, is a product of a lifetime of those and more hardscrabble experiences, a bit of good fortune, and undoubtedly a stream of good people helping to light the way.

And if his mother – the fighter, the neighborhood organizer, the woman who most men of power saw as an impatient, tall, red-lipsticked, red-heeled, proud Puerto Rican, and who Sánchez calls “my guiding light” – is first on that list of critical influences, not too far down from her you’ll find that Boston philanthropist.

“You know, Jerry Rappaport has not let me go since the day he met me,” he said. “I get emotional talking about the guy because, you know, I’m a Puerto Rican kid from the projects, and I’ve got this incredibly accomplished friend. But it’s not like that. When he calls, he calls me man to man.

“I love the guy to death, and I know he loves me to death.”

Since 2019, Sánchez has been a senior advisor at Rasky Partners, one of the largest and most respected independent public relations and public affairs firms in the United States. Prior to that, he was a 16-year member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, chairing the Committee on Public Health, Committee on Health Care Finance, and Ways and Means Committee as part of that service.

It was in in the middle of his State House career that his life intersected with that of Jerry Rappaport, as Sánchez became a Rappaport Urban Scholar in 2010, writing his financial ticket to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program.

It was a full-circle moment for a man who three decades prior, as a pre-teen playing around with his friends, had regularly been chased off the hallowed grounds of Harvard Medical School quad – even handcuffed once or twice. The HKS education grabbed hold of what had been a promising if unpolished raw talent and gave it a new shine.

“I had the fundamental knowledge, but what I didn’t have was the technical,” Sánchez said. “What Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport did for me was to help me realize my own capacity, fight my own insecurities, and realize that I could do something bigger.

“The cost of that education is probably a drop in the bucket for them, but it made a real difference for me, man.”

Making a difference is something with which Sánchez is intimately familiar, having watched his mother back down to no one in her various battles on behalf of the underdog. She struggled to get her young daughter, Jeffrey’s sister, the care she deserved at Children’s Hospital even after the family was directed to City Hospital, which couldn’t provide the same services.

She fought the Boston Housing Authority to give minorities access to apartments that were refused to them. She organized groups of women to come join her and clean up the neighborhood at a time when the local and federal government wanted to walk away from caring for public housing.

“Seeing her take these entities on and get active in the community, that’s where I saw how someone could make an impact in the public realm,” he said.

Meanwhile, the young Sánchez was also heavily involved at the Mission Church, which would later gain national prominence as the site of President Obama’s eulogy for Ted Kennedy, helping to set up and clean before and after services as a 10-, 11- and 12-year-old. He had the key to this castle on the hill – “my playground,” he called it – with access to all of its chambers, rafters, tunnels, steeples and bells.

“It was my sanctuary from all the drama that was going on,” he said. “It was like I had my own place, and nobody ever messed with me.”

But in October 1989, the drama became too much. When Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife and fabricated a story of a black gunman being the assailant, it turned Boston on its head. “It gave everybody and their mother full rein to go after anybody my skin color or darker,” Sánchez said. “I needed to get the hell out.”

With $1,000 in his pockets and 20 years old, he headed west.

For five years, he toiled in Southern California and Tijuana. He worked odd jobs, lived in a $3-a-night youth hostel in Tijuana, and enrolled at San Diego City College and three other community colleges before landing a job as a residential counselor and case manager at a San Diego shelter for homeless kids, The Storefront.

He worked in the finance industry during this time as well, as an investment banker and financial management advisor, and when he was subsequently recruited by two mutual fund companies in Boston, word got out that he was coming back east.

Mayor Tom Menino was interested in meeting him to discuss the possibility of Sánchez serving as his liaison to Boston’s Hispanic community.

“I’ve already got a job,” Sánchez told the mayor. Which is when things got a little spicy, as he remembers it.

“I had the knowledge, but what I didn’t have was the pedigree. What Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport did for me was to help me realize my own capacity, fight my own insecurities, and realize that I could do something bigger.”

Jeffrey Sanchez, 2010 Rappaport Urban Scholar

“He said, ‘What are you doing wasting my time?’ and he pretty much threw me out of his office,” Sánchez said. “He said, ‘You could take that job and make money, or you could work for me and clean up that shithole you grew up in and help me deal with your people.’ He told me that other job was always going to be there, but this was a way I could make a difference.”

So Sánchez chose to make a difference. He became the mayor’s eyes and ears in the Hispanic communities as part of Menino’s sweeping effort to improve Boston. “The city was a mess, and he wanted to clean it up,” Sánchez said. “And that’s what we did.”

For five years he worked for the mayor – first as Liaison to the Hispanic Community, then as a Senior Policy Advisor and the 2000 Census Director.

Prior to the millennium, Boston had an unfortunate tradition of being forced to defend lawsuits for undercounting minority populations during the census, and it remains a point of pride for Sánchez that, in large part because of his work, the 2000 count was not legally contested along racial lines.

“That’s a claim to fame that I feel proud of,” he said.

After his work with the mayor, and another year working with Boston Superintendent of Schools Tom Payzant on a far-reaching community engagement plan – some aspects of which are still in place today – Sánchez’s phone began ringing again. State Rep. Kevin Fitzgerald, who for 25 years had served Mission Hill and the 15th Suffolk district in the Massachusetts State House, was moving on, and those who knew Sánchez urged him to step up.

“That’s when it started for me in terms of my real public career.”

He won Fitzgerald’s seat in 2003, and immediately called on 30-plus years of life experience. His mother’s health care fights, his work with at-risk populations in the San Diego shelter, his foray into the world of finance, his communication skills as a community liaison – they would all serve as allies in a 15-year legislative career focused on, as Sánchez would say, “living what I learned from my mother, and serving the underserved and underrepresented communities.”

The gift of the Rappaport Urban Scholarship and the Kennedy School education that it provided allowed for an even larger platform. Already armed with a bachelor of arts degree from UMass-Boston, it was shortly after his 2009 appointment to the Committee on Public Health that Sánchez was named by Rappaport as an awardee.

It was about that time that Sánchez was helping to write the Affordable Care Act Reconciliation Law, as well as numerous provisions relating to access, quality and affordability in Massachusetts, and the Kennedy School courses were serving to bolster his confidence and expertise.

“It all converged,” he said. “I got to help write pieces of the universal coverage law, and I used the Rappaport scholarship and those classes to help think about what’s important, then bring it into the State House and advocate for it. Little did any of us know that it would serve as the framework for Obama’s Affordable Care Act.”

He continued as a rising star in the State House, utilizing his Rappaport-infused savvy while chairing the Committee on Health Care Finance and later the Ways and Means Committee, where he was the primary budget writer and negotiator for the Speaker of the House and members of the House of Representatives.

“That was when my Harvard education and my street smarts paid off,” Sánchez said. “I was able to manage a $42 billion budget and essentially review every piece of legislation that hit the docket for that session.

“So when I think about what the Rappaports have done for me, it’s a lot.”

He’s been active on a national level as well since his 2011 graduation from the Kennedy School, having served as a board member of the Regional Health Equality Council, a member of the Task Force on Federal Health Reform Implementation, a board member of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, a member of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, a National Surrogate for the Obama for America Campaign in 2012, and most recently he served as the Speaker’s designee on the Commonwealth’s Health Equity Legislative Task Force in response to the pandemic.

And when he finally lost his re-election bid in 2018, among the first people on the phone were Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport, inviting him to their Florida home to offer comfort and celebrate a noteworthy career in public service.

“When I felt like crap about myself after I lost the election, they said, ‘Come down, let’s talk,’” he remembers. “Jerry and Phyllis devote themselves not only to bricks and mortar, but also to people.

“They helped me to realize it’s not what you’ve built for yourself, but what profound and lasting impact you can make beyond yourself. That’s what the Rappaports are about for me.”