Branding experience helped Governor’s Council candidate break through

BOSTON — A newcomer to state government from the small city of North Adams is poised to represent the state’s largest political district in January, and she partially attributes her win this year over well-financed, connected politicians to her extensive background in the advertising industry.

Before Democrat Tara Jacobs won the westernmost seat on the Governor’s Council in November — with a projected margin in excess of 23% over her Republican opponent — she first emerged in September as the winner of a tight four-person Democratic primary.

The other Democrats in the race were a Springfield city councilor, a Springfield lawyer who ran for the seat once before, and a Holyoke lawyer who previously ran for Hampden County district attorney. They had name recognition, hailed from more populous cities, and had significantly more campaign cash on hand than Jacobs, a member of the North Adams School Committee and a trustee for the city’s library.

In the heat of primary season at the end of July, her opponents had a combined $188,000 in the bank. Jacobs had around $3,700.

But Jacobs saw an edge.

“I had a lot of advantages going in, in terms of being distinctly different,” she said in a post-election interview with the News Service. “Being the only woman in the race, being the only non-lawyer in the race, and coming from Berkshire County and coming specifically from North Adams, a tiny, tiny little city tucked in the corner of the state. Those actually were advantages,”

She cited 90-hour campaign weeks, “deep conversations” with constituents, and drives all over the district — which spans all of Berkshire and Franklin counties, along with parts of Hampshire, Worcester, and Hampden counties — in a win for her “grassroots message.

And, she said, it was also her long career in the advertising business, including experience with branding and consumer insight, that fed her successful campaign.

“To be fully transparent, coming from my advertising background I had brands that were competing against global, ubiquitous brands, and had a tiny, tiny fraction of the resources to break through. And I know the tactics to be that grassroots, under-resourced, but big-brand-impact message,” she said.

Jacobs is set to join a three-member minority of non-lawyers on the Governor’s Council, which vets and votes on judicial candidates.

She hails from New York, but also has childhood memories of the Berkshires since her family had a house on the Lanesborough side of Pontoosuc Lake.

From her start in market research at a “very big, ancient, no longer in existence” ad agency in New York City, where she worked on blue chip accounts like Levi’s and McDonald’s, she moved to Dallas and handled accounts like Travelocity, Dr. Pepper, and Chupa Chups lollipops.

She came to Boston, worked at Mullen, then took a job at the Arnold ad firm as lead brand planner for the “Truth” anti-tobacco campaign. She called it an “enormous” role “very much dictated by the master settlement agreement with big tobacco.” The campaign’s goal was “to change the attitudes and behaviors with teens around smoking,” she said.

She also worked on the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s anti-drug campaign after moving back to New York. The ONDCP brand was pivoting from “anti-drug” to “above the influence,” and she wrote the strategy, she said.

A 36-hour blackout on Manhattan — which made her and her husband feel “trapped on the island” — pushed them to create a “brand strategy” for their own lives which led them to North Adams nearly 18 years ago. The goal was to “become a part of a community and do good things.”

Former Governor’s Councilor Tom Merrigan was one of the first people she met after moving to the Berkshires, she said, so she was aware of the elected eight-member panel.

Jacobs got involved with the Berkshire County Commission On The Status of Women and groups like Rotary, and has since been elected to the North Adams School Committee and chaired the local library’s Board of Trustees.

Retired District Court Judge Mary Hurley, a former Springfield mayor, announced her plans to retire from the Governor’s Council last winter. Jacobs started reading more about the council and watched “probably over 100 hours” of council meetings online to decide if she wanted to go for it.

“It is a little bit of a quirky government role that people mostly aren’t aware of, and yet the work they do is so important and so impactful. And I’m drawn to work that is meaningful and important but not necessarily sexy. So it just fit with the way I approach things and the kind of work that I feel has meaning for me,” Jacobs said.

On the campaign trail, she said she would educate people at community events about the council’s role — and found that it resonated with voters who recognized the impact the council can have on their lives.

“They’d be like, ‘That’s important stuff, that’s actually — I should know about this and I’m actually kind of upset I don’t know about this,’” she said.

Jacobs popped into the Council Chamber for the first time last week while visiting the State House for the Citizens’ Legislative Seminar. She reported a “very warm welcome” from her future colleagues and said they “have been so lovely.”

After seeing the councilors at work in person and online, Jacobs noticed some of the questions asked of potential judges differ “from what I think I’ll bring from my perspective.”

“Sometimes watching, it’s very clear, it’s like, ‘I practice law on a daily basis, and this is the thing I’m very focused on’ kind of questions, which won’t be what I’ll bring to the role so much as really coming at it from a standpoint of the broadness of who’s served by our judicial system, and the needs of the people in my district especially, but across the state, in terms of not just the legal community’s needs, but the needs of the people who are victims, and defendants, and families, and the community at large,” she said.

As for the type of judicial candidates she hopes to see from Gov.-elect Maura Healey, Jacobs said she will be focusing on “social and racial justice, and gender justice.”

She said she hopes to “confirm judges who are aware of their own privilege and aware of their own biases, and are aware of the racial disparities in our incarcerated population in this state, and hoping to find the people to put on the bench who can be a part of working toward shifting that trend.”

Reproductive rights featured as a big topic on the campaign trail after the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, and Jacobs pledged a “hard line” when it comes to Bay Staters’ access to abortion.

She said she would be a “no” vote if a judicial candidate believed “our state should not give abortion access,” but her vote would not be impacted simply because a potential judge “personally feel[s] a certain way, but they respect others’ rights to choose.”

“That’s their privilege and their right. It’s when it becomes anti-choice for the rest of us that I draw a hard line. So, for instance, if there’s someone who’s Catholic and their beliefs are very strong that they just would absolutely never, that’s fine. As long as that doesn’t then extend to, they don’t believe people who believe differently should also not have accessibility to reproductive rights,” she said.

She estimated that Governor’s Council work typically involves a 20 to 30-hour commitment each week, but Jacobs has shelved her marketing consultancy for now in order to focus on connecting the western Massachusetts region into the council’s work. She aims to hold hearings in the district if there’s a pending nominee for a western court and wants to partner with local groups on missions like encouraging more lawyers to apply for judgeships.

Jacobs also sees particular issues for western Massachusetts that she hopes to lobby on, like a backlog at Pittsfield Superior Court that she thinks could be aided by the addition of a second justice there, and she wants to see Springfield’s Roderick Ireland Courthouse rebuilt from the ground up instead of renovated.

The advertising strategist-turned-constitutional officer represents thousands of people located at the other end of the state from the capitol building, and spoke of “bringing Boston’s attention” to local issues.

Her district is so geographically separate that on a sunny day in Boston, she reported there were “big, fat flakes” of snow falling in North Adams.

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