Hailed as “the first woman of South Coast politics,” Margaret “MarDee” Xifaras (1945-2019), New Bedford lawyer and stalwart Democrat, was a driving force behind creation of the state’s first public law school, the University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth, for which The Standard-Times recognized her as 2010 South Coast Woman of the Year. A delegate and superdelegate to Democratic National Conventions for 30 years, MarDee became a trusted confidante of presidential candidates, governors, senators and congressmen.
At the time of her death in 2019, Margaret “MarDee” Xifaras (1945-2019) was hailed as “the first woman of South Coast politics.” A New Bedford lawyer and stalwart Democrat, she had more impact on the region than many elected public officials during a half century of civic activism. She was a driving force behind creation of the state’s first public law school, the University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth.
Margaret Dexter Strahorn was born on June 15, 1945 in Rapid City, South Dakota and raised in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Upon graduation from the University of Illinois in 1967, she joined the Peace Corps and led teacher trainings for two years in Malawi in South Central Africa. She was an idealistic young woman eager to help others. After her service, she won a fellowship to study international relations at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford. As opposition mounted to the war in Vietnam, she took a leave of absence from her studies to work for an anti-war candidate for Congress, Gerry E. Studds. That campaign brought her to New Bedford where the course of her studies and life changed. She fell in love with a young labor leader and activist, John M. Xifaras, who later became a District and Superior Court Judge. They married and had three children and MarDee’s professional and personal focus shifted to her adopted South Coast.
With her energy now on domestic politics and the election of progressive politicians, she earned a law degree at Boston University and a Master of Business Administration at what was then Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth), all while raising three small children.
She worked as a top district aide to Congressman Studds; a part time assistant District Attorney in Bristol County; a special assistant to Governor Michael S. Dukakis; and as a partner in one of New Bedford’s top law firms, Lang, Xifaras & Bullard. She was known statewide for her superb knowledge and understanding of law, serving on the Board of Bar Overseers, as chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Family Law section, as former president of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, and as a frequent panelist on family law and ethics issues. She was well regarded for her professionalism, wit, humor and perhaps most importantly her ever-friendly, kind and compassionate nature.
But it was her avocation for politics and community organizations that she most enjoyed and where she made profound impact on the region. She served on the Democratic State Committee for 48 years and was the Democratic National Committeewoman from Massachusetts and delegate and superdelegate to Democratic National Conventions for 30 years. Despite her experience and standing in the party, she preferred a behind the scenes role. She became a trusted confidante of presidential candidates, governors, senators and congressmen. Yet, she called herself “the aging Girl Scout” with a self-deprecating laugh and gravitated to the low key staff role despite her Pied Piper charisma as a natural leader. She most enjoyed taking up a position at the rear of a meeting room with a clipboard in hand and pen stuck behind one ear, perennially the community organizer and behind the scenes problem-solver. She was always the first to treat campaign volunteers to pizza and beer after a long day. She was a networker extraordinaire who loved nothing more than introducing her many friends to one another. She served on numerous boards and volunteered her time to many community and state organizations. She left her imprint on the YMCA Southcoast, Buzzards Bay Coalition, Oceanarium, Schooner Ernestina, League of Women Voters, YWCA, Habitat for Humanity, UMASS Board of Trustees and countless organizations, campaigns and causes in communities throughout the Commonwealth. MarDee served as a mentor to hundreds of activists and attorneys generously sharing her energy, experience and talents. “She was a person of her word. She was a person I would follow to the ends of the earth,” said Maria Tomasia, retired chairwoman of the New Bedford Election Commission and protégé of MarDee Xifaras. Despite all of these commitments to work and community, she always put her family, her children, and in the last decade of her life, her much loved grandchildren, first. Her daughter Dena said, “Mom was one of a kind and exceptional in every way – she made us kids and grandkids a priority despite living this extraordinary external life advocating and effecting change for community causes.”
Her life experience, political savvy, relationships and persistence culminated in creation of the first public law school in Massachusetts, an accomplishment she called her greatest public achievement and for which The Standard-Times recognized her as 2010 South Coast Woman of the Year. MarDee was “extraordinary” and “a leader in so many fields of endeavor” remarked former Congressman Barney Frank, suggesting at the time that perhaps she be recognized as Woman of the Year. Despite daunting opposition from the prestigious private law schools in Boston, she spent a decade quietly organizing the elements that led to creation of a public law school that trains lawyers with an emphasis on public and community service. A law school scholarship created in her memory is an enduring living legacy for this adopted daughter of the South Coast.
Upon her death at the age of 74 early in the morning of October 8, 2019 after a valiant 23-year battle against breast cancer, she was remembered for her buoyant good nature, fierce love of life, vibrant personality, passion for social justice and service to others.
“We all need to give back in our lives,” MarDee once said. “It’s never enough to work, work and do your job competently. You have to go to a higher level of involvement because in the end that’s all that counts.”
Dena Xifaras and Christine Black