Meaghan Gallagher ’18 was interning and studying for a semester in Washington, D.C., when she first heard of Lori Trahan, who was running for Congress in Massachusetts’ 3rd District.
So when Gallagher, a political science major, returned to Lowell in late 2017, she went to hear Trahan speak at the iconic Owl Diner.
Everything Trahan talked about – reducing student debt, supporting public education, raising the minimum wage and improving health care – resonated with Gallagher, the daughter of a hard-working single mom. Although Gallagher was working her way through UMass Lowell with multiple jobs, she signed up as an unpaid campaign intern on the spot.
“I felt she was very genuine,” Gallagher says. “I said, ‘I want to help you!’”
Gallagher, a Student Government Association senator at the time, was joined on the campaign by two UML friends: then-SGA President Lisa Degou and Alexandra Karabatsos, a former vice president. The three moved into off-campus housing together, working for Trahan every spare minute while juggling classes and homework. They brought home campaign projects to finish and brainstormed strategy until the wee hours. Sarah Keene ’17 often joined them.
“We’d be graphic designers for campaign materials in the morning, and in the afternoon, we’d be sending out mailers, dropping signs or figuring out a visibility strategy,” Gallagher says. “It was the ultimate chess game: How do we get her message out to the most people?”
Their dedication paid off. They were part of the team that helped Trahan eke out a 145-vote victory in the 10-way Democratic primary last September and a convincing win against Republican Rick Green in November. Now all of them work for her full time.
In Washington, D.C., Degou is her scheduler, and Karabatsos is her legislative correspondent. In Trahan’s district office in Lowell, Gallagher is the staff assistant, and Keene is liaison to the western part of the district, helping with constituent services, outreach and economic development.
Three more alumni anchor the district office: District Director Emily Byrne ’02, ’04, Constituent Services Director Sara Khun-Leng ’99 and Vladimir Saldana ’13, liaison to the northern part of the district.
Trahan’s UML connections are strong. She worked as former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan’s chief of staff, helping to hire Byrne and Khun-Leng right out of college. Trahan mentored the younger women, and they stayed in touch even as Trahan moved to the private sector and Khun-Leng joined the Lowell Police Department.
Byrne stuck with Meehan when he left Congress to serve as UMass Lowell’s chancellor and then president of the UMass system. Still, when U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, Meehan’s successor, announced in the summer of 2017 that she would not seek another term, Byrne got the itch for politics again.
A month later, Trahan jumped into the race. Byrne helped out in her spare time, and after Trahan won, Byrne agreed to manage her district office – with Meehan’s blessing.
“The campaign got the fire burning in me again. It’s also an interesting time to come back into politics and to be part of a team with a woman leader,” Byrne says. “I feel like I can have an impact, especially at this uncertain time for our country.”
Byrne, who first interned in Meehan’s Washington office in fall 2001 through the university’s partnership with the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, says being in the capital during the Sept. 11 attacks and seeing how Meehan’s staff helped the families of victims from the district cemented her commitment to public service.
As soon as Byrne graduated, she went back to work for Meehan in his district office while pursuing a master’s degree in regional economic and social development. Trahan mentored Byrne in both positions.
“Lori took me under her wing as another Lowell girl. She served as a professional mentor for me,” Byrne says.
Khun-Leng, a refugee from Cambodia who grew up in Chicago and Lowell and majored in criminal justice, also worked for Meehan’s district office during her first few years out of college, then moved to the Lowell Police Department, where she worked in community relations and family services.
Khun-Leng says she was happy to get the call from Trahan, who asked her to head up the constituent services team. Now she’s helping the district’s residents get the services they need, with a focus on vulnerable groups like immigrants and veterans. Such community work is her calling, she says.
But the first weeks on the job were challenging.
“We just jumped into crisis mode because of the government shutdown, helping people get their benefits and unemployment,” she says. “We survived our first month, and now we’re focused on trying to improve.”
Saldana, who majored in business, does outreach to local governments, nonprofits and businesses in the cities of Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Fitchburg and Methuen. He, too, is determined to help disenfranchised groups, with a focus on improving their economic opportunities and giving them a political voice.
Saldana says his classes in finance and management, along with his leadership role in the student club M.A.L.E.S. – Men Achieving Leadership, Excellence and Success – prepared him for his job.
“I’m being proactive, making sure everybody knows that we’re here for them,” he says. “We need to make social, political and economic progress in our district and region, and one way we can do that is by supporting the immigrant innovation economy.”
Keene, who grew up in Lowell a few blocks from Trahan’s family home, began volunteering for the campaign at her father’s suggestion. She met with Trahan and was impressed by the candidate’s understanding of the challenges facing working families – and the parallels in their experiences.
“Her dad was in the ironworkers’ union, my dad is in the firefighters’ union. Her mom did odd jobs, my mom did odd jobs,” Keene says. “We’re both working-class people.”
Keene quickly rose from intern to field organizer and then field director. And, although she was technically living at home with her family, she became an honorary fourth resident of the apartment shared by Degou, Gallagher and Karabatsos.
“We’d spend 12 hours a day together, seven days a week, and then they’d say, ‘Want to come over for dinner?’” Keene says.
Gallagher says the opportunity to discuss her campaign work with her political science professors and classmates working on other campaigns was invaluable. And working with Trahan, her friends and more experienced campaigners brought her academic studies to life.
“We all grew together. We were all 26 and under, and we had never done this before. Lori saw the potential in us – and we saw that if we put the work in, the results will show,” Gallagher says.
The learning – and the fun – continue, now that she’s transitioned from campaigning to public service, she says.
“I’m working with a staff of almost all women, which is amazing. I feel like my ideas and strategies are taken seriously. And you can’t beat going into work with your friends.”