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Gratitude in Action

Rep. Kevin Honan’s life is rooted in political activism and community.

Kevin Honan understands as acutely as anyone that appreciation is nothing without demonstration, that good fortune is repaid not with good words but with good works.

He knows, with the heart of a thankful immigrant’s son, that gratitude is an action word.

He is the “Dean” of the Massachusetts House of Representatives – a title bestowed for the longest continuous tenure in the State House, at 34 years and counting – and as he sat with a visitor recently to reflect on his own, rarely paralleled career in public service, that gratitude momentarily overflowed.

Honan was asked about the Rappaport Urban Scholarship that in 1997 afforded him the opportunity to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, adding educational rocket fuel to a legislative career that was already well beyond liftoff.

“I always go out of my way to thank him, for what he’s done for me and so many of my colleagues,” he said of the foundation’s patriarch, Jerry Rappaport. “I would not have been able to access the extraordinary resources of the Kennedy School without him and the Foundation.”

Honan then paused. He put two fingers under his glasses to wipe away a bit of accumulating moisture, then warned with a smile not to mention it. “I’m supposed to be tough,” he said.

But why, he was pressed, do the Rappaports mean so much to him?

“We’re public servants making public servant wages,” he said, “so a scholarship to the Kennedy School is a very special gift that they’ve given public officials here.

“That’s what I’ll be forever grateful for.”

It would be hard to imagine anyone more hardwired for public service, built from the ground up to lead a life dedicated to bettering people’s lives, than Kevin Honan. His parents were good at explaining to him and his two siblings – older sister Claire, who would become a nurse, and younger brother Brian, a future city councilor – about the benefits of giving back, but even better at showing them.

Their father had been raised in poverty on a farm in Kilmihil, County Clare, Ireland, before seeking out the promise of America. He served the United States Army in the Korean War and then settled in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston, where he raised the family and was a member of the Local 550 Sprinkler Fitters Union. His backyard was the community’s backyard, and the nightly cookouts to feed half the neighborhood served as Exhibit A.

Their mother, a 33-year lunch monitor at the local Andrew Jackson Elementary School, volunteered with the Ward 21 Democratic Committee. She was a first-generation American herself, her parents both from Ireland and her father the custodian for the apartments on their very own Gordon Street. Yes, she made sure that her own yard was tidy, but she also insisted that the entrance to nearby Ringer Park be just as clean, so grab a broom and let’s go. If the local basketball court hoops were without nets, Kevin knew whose job it was to put new ones up.

“That was instilled in all of us, how grateful we should be to live here in this wonderful country, this wonderful neighborhood,” Honan said. “We were taught by example to give back, and that’s what we did every day.”

There was no shortage of opportunities to do just that. When his mother worked the polls, young Kevin would bring the coffee. When a local public official showed up at the basketball courts to invite the 14-year-old to help promote an upcoming event for Congressman Tip O’Neill, he quickly ran home and got into his best clothes. When a middle school classmate was hit by a car crossing Cambridge Street, he was among the students protesting until a light and crosswalk were installed.

And when then-City Councilor Ray Flynn showed up to picket in front of local apartments buildings that were being hit with seemingly unjust rent increases, Honan and his friends lined up with him.

“It was a very political neighborhood to grow up in,” he said. “There was always something going on in the community, and we didn’t stand on the sidelines. We were involved.

“We just did it. It was the neighborhood we grew up in. It was the neighborhood we cared about.”

It was also quite evident to Honan how this neighborhood he so adored had been positively impacted by the work of a dedicated public servant. State Rep. Norman Weinberg, who would later become a district court judge after representing Allston-Brighton in the State House for 26 years, was in large part responsible for the development of the local West End House Boys and Girls Club, which since 1971 has served as a second home to Honan and like-minded kids in town.

“I could see the impact of public service on a community from an act like that,” he said. “We all grew up in a safe, caring Boys and Girls Club in Allston because of the local state rep, and that really made an impression on me.”

He was a neighborhood kid to the extreme, educated within walking distance of his home at Andrew Jackson Elementary, William Howard Taft Middle School and St. Joseph Prep before Boston College undergraduate and then Lesley College for his master’s degree in management. His passion, and his work, has remained local ever since – with even his first two jobs no more than a Green Line ride away.

Fresh out of Boston College, he went to work for Action for Boston Community Development. He coordinated the Summer Youth Employment Program for Allston and Brighton kids during the warm months, and when the weather turned cold, he educated low-income and elderly residents on weatherization techniques and fuel assistance programs.

After that, Honan continued public service in the Boston Parks and Recreation Department under Ray Flynn, for whom he had previously volunteered, and who by then had ascended to the role of Boston Mayor.

It was in 1986, at the age of 26, that the sitting representative in Allston-Brighton, Tom Gallaher, ran for Tip O’Neill’s seat in Congress, and Honan – a former Gallaher campaign worker and now well-primed for the opportunity – took his shot at the opening.

“I knew you could make a difference from voting on state law to working on the budget and providing funding for local aid to cities,” he said. “It was an opportunity to deliver for the community I grew up in and fight for the issues and causes I always cared about.”

He had the backing of most of the local unions. He had the convictions. He had the experience.

“I had a good foundation,” he said. “I was ready for it.”

Seven debates and a whole lot of door-knocking later, Honan won the three-person race in 1987 by a convincing 12 percent margin, and he has held the seat ever since, building an ever-expanding resume that continues to express his devotion to his constituents and his indebtedness for the opportunity.

The run has included participation and chairmanships on committees too numerous to list, but the theme has remained the same: looking out for those who might not otherwise be able to look out for themselves. Welfare-to-work benefits, nursing home bed-hold payments, the Senior Pharmacy Program, violence prevention curriculum in public schools, and enhanced health and social service care are just a sampling of his initiatives.

And it was in 1997 that he applied, midcareer, for the opportunity of a lifetime – the Rappaport Urban Scholarship to the Harvard Kennedy School.

“I just felt so strongly that I had to do it,” he said. “It’s such an extraordinary opportunity to study with the finest professors in the world, who care about the same issues you care about, who have devoted their lives to public service.”

Having been only a commuter student while at Boston College, this time Honan promised himself he would seek out a more holistic experience, taking every advantage of the unprecedented access to elite academia he was about to encounter.

Any chance he got to spend an extra moment with a fellow student – such as Jenny Wilson, who would go on to become Mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah, or Stephen Lynch, who would later become a Massachusetts Congressman – he would do just that. Same with professors like Alan Altshuler, the first Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, and Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson.

“It was a chance for me to learn from the best,” he said.

In addition to simply being part of an upwardly mobile force of activism that couldn’t help but propel him, Honan learned critical lessons about negotiation, compromise and building constituencies. They were lessons that would serve him well as he moved on in the legislative chapter that has become his calling card: housing.

“We’re public servants making public servant wages, so a scholarship to the Kennedy School is a very special gift that they’ve given public officials here. That’s what I’ll be forever grateful for.”

Representative Kevin Honan, 1999 Rappaport Urban Scholar

He graduated HKS in 1999, and in 2003 he began a 17-year State House stretch as Chair of the Housing Committee – negotiating, sometimes compromising, and as often as possible building constituencies to help his state’s residents achieve and maintain the fundamental objective of a roof over their heads.

“My goal and focus have been to help people attain safe, decent, affordable housing,” he said, “and we’ve had a lot of success.”

That success has included Honan’s sponsorship of the four largest housing bond bills in the state’s history, including a $1.8 billion bond in 2018 that aimed to produce and preserve affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families and vulnerable populations. It also authorized $650 million for public housing modernization and redevelopment.

Additionally, he has been on the front line for the successful fights of some of the state’s most critical housing and zoning laws: 40B, which allows more flexible zoning for developers who devote a higher percentage of units to low- and moderate-income families; 40R, which allows for increased amounts of land zoned for dense housing; and 40T, which preserves publicly assisted affordable housing.

As Honan will be the first to say, none of it came without plenty of help from colleagues, and those of both political parties.

“All of these successes, they were all done with the support of the legislature,” he said. “It’s a place where you really need help, you need to reach out, and a lot of that is what I learned at the Kennedy School, thanks to the Rappaports.”

And though he doesn’t mention accolades when asked about his proudest moments, there have been plenty for his work on housing alone: 2005 and 2009 National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) Legislator of the Year; 2014 NAHRO Outstanding Public Service Award; 2015 Thomas M. Menino Award for Outstanding Public Service from the homelessness agency, FamilyAid Boston; and 2017 Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association Legacy Award, as well as the B’Nai B’rith Housing Distinguished Achievement Award.

When the pandemic struck and threatened the most vulnerable populations with homelessness, Honan was at the forefront of a Massachusetts eviction and foreclosure moratorium that became a model for states throughout the country. He also fought for hundreds of millions of dollars in residential assistance for families in transition and a substantial rental voucher program to help residents stay in their homes.

In his immediate backyard, meanwhile, Honan’s staff reached out to help over 500 Allston-Brighton neighbors receive help.

“My district has a lot of residents who are in the restaurant, hotel, arts and entertainment industries,” he said. “May of them were out of work and having trouble getting their pandemic unemployment assistance, so my staff and I were very helpful on the constituent level as well.”

In the end, it all seems to come back to the neighborhood for Honan. He grew up in Allston, now lives down the street in Brighton, and the locally sourced gratitude that still fuels him today is never far from his mind.

Nor is the very special Rappaport gift, which he has the continued privilege to repay indefinitely. He says he has no intention of retiring from the legislature. He enjoys it, and it allows him to keep saying thank you through his actions.

“It’s just amazing the doors that the Foundation opened for me and for all the rest of us,” Honan said, before turning his thoughts specifically to Jerry Rappaport. “He’s just a decent, honorable person devoted to the city. His professional activity may have been a while back, but his charitable activity is still in full force.

“I want to continue to honor that with the work that I do.”