Printed in the Sentinel & Enterprise.
LEOMINSTER -- Sue Chalifoux Zephir spent one recent morning writing thank-you letters beside an electric heater in her office, feet away from the counter where each day dozens queue for food assistance.
Like the cost of clothes and home goods also sold at Ginny's Helping Hand, the nonprofit food pantry of which she is the executive director, she keeps the heat in the building on low.
It's a measure to keep the organization she directs just profitable enough "to keep the lights on and employees paid," and let the rest go to helping those who come to the food pantry.
Her mission, Chalifoux Zephir explained, is to help feed people in need across the district she hopes to represent as the next state senator for the Worcester-Middlesex District.
"The things that I see day in and day out, those are the reasons I decided to run for the seat," she said, naming opioids and a "fair" minimum wage as among the priority issues. "Seeing the kinds of things that people are struggling with across North Central Massachusetts really informed my decision to run."
The notes she was writing were addressed to those whose donations helped Ginny's Helping Hand give out 404 Thanksgiving meals.
Chalifoux Zephir's Senate run as the Democratic nominee comes after more than a decade serving on the Leominster City Council off and on.
Politically active since she campaigned for former Boston Mayor Kevin White in his campaign for governor in 1970, she was elected to serve as Ward 4 city councilor driven by a desire to impact local affairs.
"You can be involved on the sidelines, but when it really comes down to making decisions, I really would like a seat at the table," she said.
She and her three siblings were raised by a single mother in an Irish Catholic family in Leominster. She attended St. Leo Catholic School in the city and is a graduate of Leominster High School. Chalifoux Zephir sent her three children to the Applewild Elementary School and St. Bernard's Central Catholic School in Fitchburg.
After graduating from Assumption College in Worcester, Chalifoux Zephir got a job handling group insurance claims at the Fortune 500 insurance company Prudential, then moved to a corporate-benefits job in the now-closed Digital Equipment Corporation.
After the birth of her first daughter, Elizabeth, Chalifoux Zephir enrolled in a yearlong business school "intensive" program at Simmons, graduating in August 1985.
She juggled school with first-time motherhood with support from her husband, Ed Zephir, the plastics-business owner whom she met in high school.
A two-decade career at WGBH television in Boston followed. She started with an entry-level job handling payroll and other tasks, and climbed to become a post-production business manager in the science division.
She took time off from work after the birth of her third daughter, Julia, then returned to help oversee the division that created companion websites to WGBH shows.
Today, Chalifoux Zephir, 62, said she sees a state that is home to worsening income inequality. It's why she supports a $15 minimum wage, she said. If the effort to increase the minimum wage is approved as a state ballot initiative in 2018, it would mean a raise for the two part-time and two full-time employees at Ginny's.
Among her top issues are increasing access to affordable health care, stimulating local economies and transportation networks, and changing the way the state helps to fund public schools.
Asked what accomplishment she has made in public life that she takes pride in most, Chalifoux Zephir cited Leominster's school budget crisis this year.
"The mayor cut the budget arbitrarily and submitted it to the City Council," she said.
Chalifoux Zephir responded by talking to school principals, "gathering and collecting the facts" from those intimate with the impact of budget cuts. She presented her findings to the committee, and the mayor "ended up finding $2 million to put back into the budget," Chalifoux Zephir said.
She said that understanding why people hold different political beliefs from hers will allow her to work collaboratively if elected to the 40-member state Senate.
Her own vision of government, she said, was formed as a "a very little kid" watching the election of President John F. Kennedy.
She recalls his can-do attitude, his sense of optimism and opportunity, and the compact he strengthened between the government and its people to provide public education, public safety and transportation linking people and businesses.
"Politics is a way to really advance a positive agenda for everybody," she said. "It's a way to engage people. It's a way to build and develop community. And it's a way to work together with people who share your values,"
Occupation: Executive director, Ginny's Helping Hand; Leominster Councilor at large
Education: Leominster High School; Assumption College, bachelor's degree in political science; Simmons, master's degree in business administration
Family: Husband, Ed Zephir; daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Ian Fraser; daughter Coco and her husband, Bill Clark; daughter Julia Zephir; granddaughter Winnie Clark.
Famous person you'd like to meet: Abraham Lincoln
Last book read: "Hamilton" by Ron Chernow
Favorite all-time movie: "It's a Wonderful Life"
Campaign message in 15 words or less: Making health care affordable, investing in transportation and public education, creating 21st-century manufacturing jobs