Daughter, First: Katie Mahoney Brown Has a Big Political Problem

Part 1 of our political fiction series.

Fiction Daughter First Katie Mahoney Brown Has a Big Political Problem
Illustrations by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

As Katherine Mahoney Brown walked her daughter away from St. Bernadette’s School for Girls, she didn’t stumble. Katie pushed past the throng of journalists without looking at them, and without changing the expression on her placid, unlined face. The mothers in the pickup line, who didn't know Katie well enough to say more than hello to her, pretended to look away. It was only polite. And whatever the gossip was about Katie — and there was a lot of gossip in this particular corner of Boston — everyone always said she was polite. The nannies stared openly. They didn’t have to suck up to Governor Mahoney’s daughter.

Flashes popped, blinding them. Katie’s three-year-old daughter, Orla, looked up at her mother with confused, bright-green eyes and started to cry. The girl pulled her hood down over her eyes while tears streamed down her chubby cheeks. Katie picked Orla up and hid the child’s face in her shoulder without missing a step. Her four-inch stilettos clacked evenly on the ground.

Reporters, staked out on the wide sidewalks surrounding St. Bernadette’s, screamed, “Katie! Katie! Are you going to stand by your man? Did you know about the kickbacks?” Katie Brown didn’t say a word. She flipped her perfectly blown-out chestnut hair over her back and maintained eye contact with the horizon.

The reporters trailed her down the street, all the way to a waiting black SUV, which gleamed with a fresh wax in the waning October sun. She turned her head only to look at the car door. She opened it and deposited Orla in her car seat. Then she climbed in behind the petrified child and shut the door in all their faces.

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“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Sully said as he drove away. He tried meeting Katie’s eyes in the rearview mirror, but she was still comforting Orla, whose shrieks had tapered off into sniffles and caught breath. Katie had always been Sully’s favorite of the Mahoney kids, and she was certainly the best looking. She had penetrating blue-green eyes, and those light eyes and her gleaming, burnished hair made for a striking combination. Katie was tall, five-foot-nine, and broad, too, but somehow still remained lean and muscled. She resembled a very expensive racehorse in the best way possible.

The preschool receded behind them, and the Charles River appeared in the distance. “Where are you going?” Katie said sharply when she finally looked up from the child. She had never yelled at Sully, who had been driving various members of her family around since she was a kid. Sully, with his kind eyes that crinkled around the edges with age and the weathered cap he’d been wearing for as long as Katie could remember. The cold, impatient edge in Katie’s accentless voice was the closest she’d come to snapping since her family’s ordeal had begun earlier that day.

The Mahoney girls, Katie and her sister, Mary, had manners above all else, drilled into them by their mother, Rosemary. Especially with the help. Rosemary would say, If you can’t keep help, you can’t run a home. Katie remembered this whenever she directed her maid, Manuela, to use a different vase for the lilies, her favorite flower. No, Manuela, Katie would say brightly and slowly, the way you’d talk to a preschool class if you had no experience interacting with children. This vase is for roses.

The Mahoney boys, however, were allowed to treat the help with sneering indifference and outright abuse. Patrick and Jim Junior had driven out every single nanny they’d ever had. Patrick once convinced Nanny Marta that their rabbit’s poop was a Milk Dud and had made fun of Marta for eating Bunzo’s poo for the rest of her employ. Junior once locked Nanny Bridget on the balcony during a blizzard and let her back in only when she started to sob. Katie had overheard Rosemary say that one of them, a particularly fragile au pair from Belgium named Nanny Fleur, had had to seek mental help back in Antwerp.

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“I was taking you home, like always,” Sully said. Home was a brownstone in Beacon Hill. Katie and her husband, Tommy Brown, had bought the brick mansion when he was still working for his family’s construction business and she was the owner of a local clothing store called KAYT, which sold Lilly Pulitzer dresses, brightly colored tights, classic brown Uggs, and headbands for local teenagers to stock up on before they left for boarding school.

That was before Katie and Tommy had Declan, their oldest, now 7, and Katie decided to shutter her business to work on “personal projects,” or at least that’s what she had told the Boston Globe’s “Names” reporter when they asked her at the Pretty in Pink benefit to support breast-cancer survivors.

That was before Katie’s dad, Big Jim Mahoney, the controversial former mayor of Boston, had announced his run for governor — Katie had really quit to help her dad realize his dream, something she was deeply honored to do. It was something she felt he was owed, after everything they’d been through.

And that was long before Jim Mahoney won the governor’s race in a stunning upset, making her family the most famous local political clan since the Kennedys.

An Independent had never won the governorship in Massachusetts before, but even though no one could agree on Big Jim, everyone could agree that he was not like other politicians. For one, he hired both Katie and Tommy as senior advisers. Keep your enemies close and your family closer was one of Jim Mahoney’s mangled maxims. For another, he had already weathered one political scandal, the kind that had ended a million other promising careers but seemed, somehow, to slide right off Jim in the long run.

“We’re not going home today, Sully,” Katie said. The edge had left her voice. Orla had fallen asleep by then, which she did on any car ride longer than four minutes. Katie watched Orla as she slept, as her eyelids fluttered, and she sighed deeply. She has no idea, Katie thought, and suddenly felt very tired herself. She closed her eyes — the lashes that she had just paid to have glued into her face suddenly felt incredibly heavy. “Just keep driving.”

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Najeebah Al-Ghadban

This was not Katie’s first rodeo with an after-school stakeout. She’d been through this all before as a child. That was when her dad was mayor of Boston, and halfway through his first and only term, The Herald’s coverage became a fact of her family’s life. Rosemary barely acknowledged the reporters camped outside their brownstone. She told the kids not to make eye contact. “Reporters are scum,” she’d say. “They live to bring us down.” She never even talked to Katie or her siblings about what was really going on, preferring to pretend the family existed on some protected plane, high above the fray.

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The distance between Big Jim’s brain and what came out of his face had always been nonexistent, and it got him into trouble, but it was also why people loved him so deeply. He was big in every sense of the word: six-foot-four, with a lunky body, and a big head, even for his frame, that seemed even bigger because it was topped with a shellacked helmet of chestnut hair, the same shade as Katie’s. But nothing was bigger than Jim’s mouth. That was something Katie had learned from the womb.

Katie was the last of her sainted mother’s four children. She was the biggest at birth, clocking in at nine pounds, three ounces, with a big, bald Irish head. The size of her was something her father would boast about to anyone who would listen. “Can you believe little Rosie pushed out that big baby? All nine and a half pounds of her,” he’d say, pulling her mother in close. “All because of my supersperm,” Big Jim would say, laughing as Rosie cringed. “Nobody’s stronger than my kids!”

As the years went by, the legend of Katie’s size grew. “Can you believe little Rosie pushed out that big baby?” Jim would say. “All ten pounds of her, and with a big Irish noggin, full of brains!”

When Katie was old enough to comprehend what her dad was saying, she once tried to correct him. He was on the campaign trail, running for mayor, and he had dragged eight-year-old Katie along with him. She hadn’t wanted to go, but her mother forced her. “This is a family effort,” Rosemary said, tightening Katie’s pigtails as she scowled. “And you’d better represent the family well.” Rosemary’s piercing blue eyes bored a hole into Katie’s. She turned her scowl into a neutrally pleasant expression. “OK, mommy, whatever you say.” Katie wondered if Rosie could discern the tiny note of sarcasm in her voice, but her mother wasn’t big on subtlety. “Good,” said Rosemary as she watched Katie’s face change to her liking. “You understand.”

They were at Florian Hall in Dorchester, and her dad was having beers with a bunch of grizzled World War II vets. He held court at the podium, saying things like “I want to bring jobs back to our neighborhoods,” and the old men would erupt in cheers.

They’d known Jim since he was a local kid running around in short pants — his dad, George, had been their landlord or their employer, because he owned half the bars and tenements in the neighborhood. George started as one of their peers, living with all his relatives in a triple-decker. George ended up inheriting another triple-decker, and he shrewdly bought two more, for cheap, when he was just starting out. Then he seemed to buy up half of Dorchester, and when Jim was a kid, they moved into a big, showpiece Queen Anne in Savin Hill. And by the time Jim was in high school, it was boarding school for him and his brothers, and then off to a fancy private college.

Even after they made all that money, the Mahoney family still went to St. Mark’s Parish with the old guys from the neighborhood, and everyone knew George paid for that big chapel renovation in ’66, even though he only showed his face on Christmas and Easter.

George was an old bastard, everyone agreed. He refused to fix broken toilets and busted refrigerators until his tenants got together and sued him. And there was the little matter of that federal lawsuit against George for violating the Fair Housing Act, because he refused to rent to anyone with skin darker than George Hamilton’s. But still, he was their old bastard. And Jim was their fortunate son.

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Katie had been quietly drawing with crayons, the way her mother told her to, when she heard her name. “See my little girl Katie over there?” her dad said, gesturing toward her with his beer. “I’m running because of her. I want to make the future better for her and her brothers and sisters. I want to make sure they can stay in the Boston I’ve always known, and keep it strong forever,” he said. Katie was a bit confused by this — no one had ever mentioned leaving Boston. In fact, her family talked about their hometown as if it were the only place in the universe.

“I’m sending these four kids to Catholic school in our fair city, and let me tell you, it isn’t cheap. But I want the best for my kids, just like you want the best for yours.” The old guys cheered again, this time louder. One of them leaned over and pinched Katie’s cheek, hard, with his wizened, dry hand. She gritted her teeth; she knew better than to cry, no matter how much it hurt.

“Look at this beautiful face,” Big Jim said, sitting down next to Katie. “Did you fellas know this baby was eleven pounds when she was born? Damn near tore her mother in two, with that big Irish head full of brains!”

The room erupted in laughter, and Katie’s face burned with embarrassment. Her dad was wrong. She knew how big she was when she was born; her mother had told her — nine pounds, three ounces. Katie had a head for numbers and remembered. She just couldn’t let this misunderstanding stand. Her dad would want to tell the truth, she knew it. It was clearly very important to him — just last week he had slapped the piss out of Junior for cheating on a test at school and then lying about it.

“Actually,” she said quietly, “I was nine pounds and three ounces.” The din in the room was so loud that only her father heard her. And before she could say it more loudly, so that everyone would know what was correct and true, her father pinched her leg so hard that tears welled up in her eyes.

He stood up quickly and continued his speech, “Like I was saying, we gotta keep these big Irish babies in our prayers …”

From then on, Katie spent more time observing her father than speaking to him. She never again wanted to make the mistake of saying the wrong thing, and especially not in public. Not that she had much of an opportunity to speak to him. He was elected mayor — the first time an Independent had won that office, too – by a slim margin. And he was almost never home after that. In order to see her father, she had to make an appointment with his secretary, and then, Big Jim would always make sure it was some kind of photo-op, so Katie would be sure to be dressed in her Sunday best, with white patent-leather shoes that pinched her toes and French braids so tight that she couldn’t move her eyebrows — always her father’s favorite look.

These visits were rare, though. Because the Mahoney administration was dogged by charges of corruption from the day he took office in 1984. Big Jim had a lot of friends. And those friends always seemed to wind up with lucrative city contracts for everything from waste removal to school construction. There were reports that the government was building a conspiracy case against him, but Jim always dismissed that as media lies.

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Ultimately, it was a woman who brought him down. He had a longtime mistress, a barmaid and part-time model named Raquel. The Herald, which had been following his various corruption scandals, got wind that he was spending a lot of time on his boat, the Good Time Sally, and that he wasn’t alone there. When asked about it, in his typical grandstanding way, he said, “If you think I’m getting up to no good, follow me.”

So they did. And photos of Raquel and Big Jim entwined on the deck of ol’ Good Time Sally were everywhere within a week. And that’s when reporters were posted outside Katie’s house, and outside St. Bernadette’s, where Katie went to school, just like Orla.

During the troubles, Mary would link arms with Katie as they walked into school. Mary was two years older than Katie and had never been particularly warm toward her before this happened. “Never let them see you sweat,” Mary would tell Katie, echoing their mother, before hugging Katie goodbye. Besides a few anonymous notes in her cubby, no one was outwardly cruel to Katie — she was too rich and pretty and powerful for that — but she could feel her friends pulling away from her. She stopped getting invites to birthday parties, and groups of girls would go silent as she approached. The lesson for Katie was clear. When things got hard, most people would fall away. But Mary, and even those bastards Junior and Patrick, remained.

Still, she was relieved when Big Jim decided not to run for a second term “to spend time with his family.”

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As she reclined, eyes still closed, in the SUV, Katie remembered how much the flash had hurt her eyes and how her legs had burned as she’d run as fast as she could away from those monstrous reporters. It still made her angry to think about it, more than 30 years later. She was just a little girl. How dare they. And how dare the media do this to her child, too, her precious Orla bug. She could still hear the slow, even breath coming from her sleeping child, who was peaceful. Hopefully she was young enough that she wouldn’t remember this.

Katie was so trapped in this feeling of rage that she hadn’t noticed Sully turning on the radio. She perked up only when she heard her husband’s name.

Tom Brown is the first of Governor Jim Mahoney’s advisers to be indicted on federal charges of racketeering, conspiracy, bribery, and extortion. Brown could not be reached for comment. A representative for Governor Mahoney says the charges are “baseless” and “yet another plot by the federal government and the media to prevent the governor from doing his job: standing up for the people of Massachusetts.”

“Turn that off, now,” Katie said, as quietly as she could, to be heard without waking Orla.

Sully startled. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I thought you were asleep.”

“It’s fine,” Katie said, putting her hand up.

“Do you want to go home now? I don’t think anybody’s trailing us.”

“No,” Katie said. “Take me to Daddy’s house.”

The story continues: read part 2.

Jessica Grose is the editor in chief of Lenny and the author of the novels Soulmates and Sad Desk Salad.

Special thanks to @heymaya___, @shrutesnladders, and @michaelaham for their love of classic Uggs and @love_leigh_ness for the rabbit-poop detail.