Kaprielian Is Laboring for Common Good

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — There are only a handful of Armenians in Massachusetts politics at any one time who are in the public eye. They become familiar figures for Armenians throughout the United States, and even abroad. Massachusetts Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rachel Kaprielian is one of those Armenians. She has risen high in the world of Massachusetts politics, but remains close to her roots and true to the values she learned growing up in Watertown.

Kaprielian reminisced: “For me it was very much about community. I grew up in Watertown and the community was an important part of my life. Armenians were not considered to be a hotbed for political activity but about 20 percent in Watertown were at that time of Armenian descent, and I wanted to be a part of that community.”

She feels her personality and work ethic even at a young age were suited to the American political process: “I think I was naturally drawn to asking people what they thought was important. Becoming involved politically was a way to be able to make decisions. To me it was about being able to take steps to change policy.”

Kaprielian graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester in 1990. She recalled, “No one had a job then, so I moved home to my parents, as most good Armenians do, and started working on the campaign of my predecessor, Warren Tolman. I really enjoyed it, and the next year I ran to be a Watertown councilor.”

She had an advantage as a Watertown native and built on this by spending long hours every day after her regular job, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., going house to house, knocking on doors.

This got her a lot of third and fourth votes on the ballot, but, Kaprielian remembered with a smile, “For Armenians, I was always their first choice. Even when I had a difficult day, I would come back to east Watertown and when I heard, ‘Of course, honey, I’ll vote for you,’ that made everything okay. It was a tremendous wellspring of strength and support that I drew upon all the time. With an Armenian household, I would ask if I could give a lawn sign, and the Armenians were always thrilled to put it up.”

She feels fortunate and grateful for the support which she has received over the years, personally and politically, and stressed, “I have been very lucky. It has mattered a great deal for me.”

Armenian industriousness and family values have also been very important for her personally. She said, “a lot of what I hold dearest come from growing up with those values and my family.”

Kaprielian won the election and served in the Watertown Town Council from 1992 to 1995. She did not pay much attention to obstacles. “As a woman in politics, things were probably harder but I didn’t realize it. I was young and naïve. I didn’t notice it and it didn’t bother me. In fact, it was probably more age than gender that created problems for me. I looked young. I think definitely people were thinking ‘what does she know.’ To some extent it was true, but I tried to get up to speed quickly and learn by talking to voters and residents,” she said.

After a few years working on the town level, the next step for her was running for Massachusetts state representative for areas of Watertown and Cambridge. After winning, she ended up serving for some 13 years (1995-2008), during which time she tried to improve the quality of life in her district.

“I think that having a vision of what the town should be is important. I always viewed the Watertown Arsenal Development, for example, as the last big shot for development of the town. I felt more comfortable not going for the quick money, because it was more important to shape the character of the community for the long term. It was necessary to do a lot of planning and meet with other developers and interested parties,” she explained.

She worked for municipal organizational and pension reforms and tackled statewide issues concerning early intervention for at-risk children and special education programs. Kaprielian was also a leader in efforts to ban public smoking.

Kaprielian not only continued to learn from her community and job, but she managed to finish her law studies at Suffolk University in 2000, and obtained a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 2003. Kaprielian said she feels that having “a background in law helps me reason and weigh evidence.”

Kaprielian also taught some courses at Harvard and Tufts.

Her career advanced in a new direction when she was appointed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick as registrar of the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) in May 2008. She focused on modernizing its operations and made Internet transactions possible on a greater scale than before.

Kaprialian said, “I helped to change the business model in the RMV. People want to get in and out faster. People already banked online and were doing more things on the Internet, so the time was ripe for this change.”

The idea of taking renewals out of the branches became a successful one. Kaprielian also advanced the use of facial recognition technology for licenses. By the end of 2013, every valid license had an image with facial recognition. This will soon eliminate having to go to an RMV branch to prove one’s identity.

Kaprielian’s successful work at the RMV led Patrick to appoint her in January 2014 as secretary of labor and workforce development. Kaprielian pointed out that her approach remains the same. “It still is very much about the quality of life. How do we get ideals to work in practice? I’ve just taken it a couple of steps further, from the state house to the RMV and now as secretary,” she explained.

A Democrat throughout her career, Kaprielian remains a pragmatist: “I used to call myself a ‘Reasonable D’ on my radio show. The party doesn’t matter as much as the point of view. I believe more in certain ideals. For example, some things like job creation are not solely Republican issues. We need to have well-paying sustainable good jobs.” She looks at job development from a regional perspective to see what is useful for local communities and works with industry groups to align with their needs.

On a broader level, Kaprielian said she feels that serious changes are necessary to keep the economy in Massachusetts, and in the US in general, globally competitive. “I believe that we have reached a moment in time when training must go beyond 12th grade. It is no longer possible to get by just with a high school education, but bachelor’s degrees are not for everybody. Instead, training programs in advanced manufacturing can land people good paying jobs,” she said. “I don’t want to see a large part of our workforce stuck in lower-paying, lower-skilled jobs. It is the state’s mission to train people to be in a position to get these better jobs in new industries that are springing up. For example, there are tens of thousands of lab technicians or lab assistants necessary in new fields like biotechnology, and these jobs will have decent career ladders.” Necessary skills can be obtained through certificate programs in community colleges or apprenticeships in some fields.

Kaprielian is part of the “inner circle” in Patrick’s administration and participates in cabinet policy discussions. She also carefully coordinates her work with that of other secretariats in the administration. Ultimately though she does work on policy issues, she said that “I think of this job very practically. My job is to make policy work on the ground.”

She is very focused on her work, which includes improvements in the usage of modern technology in a sense in a parallel fashion to what she did at the RMV. As she serves on a cabinet position, her term is concurrent with Patrick’s and will end at the end of his term in January 2015. However, Kaprielian declared, “It’s too soon to ask about the next step. I don’t close doors unless I know definitely that I am not interested in something. I have been lucky to have always had a job to which I loved to get up and go. I like to work in the public interest, even if it is not in government. It could be in private sector, if it is something that I believe in.”

Whatever she does, no doubt Kaprielian will somehow manage to remain involved in Armenian affairs. A 2005 trip to Armenia “was a profound experience. I heard before that going there changes you, and it did. I never felt so much being part of an important culture.” A subsequent trip to Jerusalem allowed her to witness firsthand the Armenian stewardship of some of the most holy places for Christians.

Still, it is Watertown in general, where she has lived most of her life (and still lives today), and the local Armenian community, which remain closest to her heart. Kaprielian exclaimed, “I love all the good work done in it, whether in the arts or for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Whenever a big Armenian gala takes place, I will always be a part of it. Even when I end up one day in the Armenian nursing home in Jamaica Plains, I will still be involved in things Armenians care about. It is the greatest blessing and accident of birth for which I could have asked.”