Presidential primaries, impeachment proceedings, and coronavirus concerns have made it brutally difficult for Massachusetts pols to draw attention to their local 2020 races. If the megawatt matchup of Rep. Joe Kennedy III versus U.S. Senator Ed Markey can’t rise above the manic national news cycles, imagine the black hole in which candidates are campaigning for Kennedy’s congressional seat.
It’s worth watching. Unlike the last time the seat opened up — when Kennedy easily big-footed his way to succeeding Barney Frank in 2012 — this race features a competitive field of interesting candidates.
One of every five residents of the 4th congressional district, and an even higher percentage of its voting Democrats, live in two places: Newton and Brookline. The former is a city that feels like a town; the latter, a town that feels like a city. Both have distinctly suburban characters, and both are home to many of Boston’s professionals and institutional leaders.
Ever since post-1970 redistricting joined the two municipalities with grittier communities to the south, rather than further suburbs to the west, they have been the seat of the district’s power. But this year, with all nine declared candidates — all Democrats — hailing from either Brookline or Newton, the key to victory might lie elsewhere.
Candidates can only get so far divvying up the same home-town pool of voters. They will need to find pockets of support in and around gateway cities of Attleboro, Fall River, and Taunton, that have long struggled to find prosperity since the end of their industrial heyday.
So, while it seemed appropriate that the first debate of the campaign took place on the Newton campus of Boston College Tuesday evening, there were indications that candidates were mindful of how their messages will play elsewhere in the district.
The ideologies were reliably left-of-center, to be sure, but largely focused on pragmatic approaches to local working- and middle-class worries, from health care costs to opioid addiction.
Seven of the nine took part; all but Thomas Shack, former state comptroller who announced his campaign just last week, and Herb Robinson, an engineer who ran with little effect against Kennedy in 2012.
They constitute an impressive field, who seemed (as viewed over livestream) in mid-season form in their first significant public forum. They effectively staked out distinct personas, and rationales, as they handled questions from staff of "The Gavel," an online progressive campus publication.
Particularly effective in that regard was Ihssane Leckey, a self-described democratic socialist who had entered the race well before Kennedy announced his Senate run. Declaring at one point that “my platform is 100 percent aligned with Senator Bernie [Sanders],” Leckey forcefully made the case for expansive policy as a national moral imperative.
Leckey is a Muslim immigrant from Morocco who worked as a Wall Street regulator at the Federal Reserve. Her appeal might be limited in Brookline and Newton, where Hillary Clinton bested Sanders nearly two-to-one in the 2016 primary. But, don’t underestimate her appeal in the southern portions of the district, where Sanders ran even with Clinton.
Jesse Mermell, former president of the Massachusetts Business Alliance (ABL) staked out the most unapologetically progressive territory of the other candidates. She was the only one on stage to join Leckey in advocating single-payer health care that eliminates private insurance options, and one of the few to back tuition-free four-year public college education.
Mermell, a polished public speaker, made frequent mention of her career working for Planned Parenthood and Governor Deval Patrick, and was especially effective relating her role with ABL in crafting the state’s paid family and medical leave law.
Mermell was somewhat reminiscent of Lori Trahan, who recently won a similarly competitive race to succeed Nikki Tsongas in Congress.
Jake Auchincloss evoked thoughts of another Massachusetts representative: Seth Moulton. Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor, has more than a Harvard degree and Marine war service in common with the popular Salem congressman. Not much over 30 years old, Auchincloss is running as a next-generation leader, stressing pragmatism over ideology. He argued, as Moulton has, that a decline in the number of military veterans in Congress has contributed to the rise in partisan rancor. And he and Leckey were the only ones Tuesday to say they would consider supporting someone other than Nancy Pelosi for Speaker — again, very much in line with Moulton’s history of urging a transition in leadership.
By contrast, Dave Cavell made clear that his insider status propels his candidacy. A former speechwriter for the Obama White House, communications aide for Patrick, and most recently assistant attorney general under Maura Healey, Cavell used the debate to emphasize his range of experience. “I was at the center of the fight” for expanded health care coverage, he claimed, at the state house as the Massachusetts law was being implemented, at the White House for the Affordable Care Act, and at Healey’s office suing to protect the ACA from the Trump administration.
Cavell seemed able to place himself at the center of almost every progressive action under discussion. When Mermell, on the topic of reproductive rights, mentioned Sandra Fluke, Cavell quickly noted that he joined Fluke’s walkout on the issue when they were both students at Georgetown Law School. Cavell is elevating the opioid crisis, a particular concern in those working-class cities of the district.
Newton city councilor Becky Grossman is similarly highlighting one issue; in her case, gun violence. Grossman, a former Middlesex County prosecutor, repeatedly stressed her role as a mother, in discussing that and other issues. It’s an unusual emphasis in Democratic primary politics, and it certainly helps her stand out in the crowded field.
Opening by stating that she is proudest of her role as mom to her two children, Grossman spoke of the gun violence issue through the lens of discussing shooter-safety protocols with her young son. She then argued that not enough members of Congress are mothers of school-aged children.
She similarly personalized the issue of health care coverage, calling it “deeply personal to me” because of her mother’s health struggles.
That came shortly after Alan Khazei declared the issue “personal for me” because his parents were both health care workers.
Khazei, co-founder of City Year and a 2010 candidate for U.S. Senate, projected himself as a big-idea candidate, capable of driving change through “a new people-powered progressive politics movement.” He touts an expanded version of the 529 college savings plans, funded at birth by the government, requiring a year of some type of public service and usable somewhat like the GI Bill toward education, housing or opening a business.
On gun control, Khazei proposed that as congressman he would initiate a non-stop, round-the-clock public hearing that, he argued, would pressure members to pass gun control legislation. He had even calculated the number of witnesses — roughly 50,000 — needed to maintain 24/7 testimony for a full year if necessary.
At 58, Khazei was the oldest on the debate stage by a considerable margin; next in age was Ben Sigel, at a mere 43. Sigel, an attorney with Puerto Rican and Jewish heritage, brings a particular passion for fighting bigotry and expanding access to opportunity. He also emphasized during the debate his background combining work in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, which he said gives him insight and experience to tackle issues of public policy.
Those seven, along with the two Democrats who couldn’t attend, appear fully capable of differentiating themselves as they make their case across the district. They don’t need to win over everybody, just the 25 percent or so that will likely be enough to win a crowded primary.
Trahan, two years ago, won her primary with just a little over 21 percent of the vote. But, she was able to dominate Lowell, her home city and base of the district. None of these candidates is likely to do the same in Newton and Brookline. Watch to see how well each of the above arguments travels beyond those borders.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ihssane Leckey's first name.