Race to replace Joe Kennedy III in 4th Congressional District a heated affair

Gun Rights

There’s an open congressional seat in Massachusetts where 10 candidates are waging war across a 34-town battlefield, each attempting to drown the others out on the airwaves as outside groups fan the flames and pot shots fly.

It’s quite the dogfight. Yet in a race overshadowed by devastating pandemic and an increasingly bitter primary battle between U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, whose 4th Congressional District seat the candidates are running to fill, many of the hopefuls are struggling for air.

“People are mostly worried about their kids going back to school,” Democratic candidate and City Year co-founder Alan Khazei said. “So many people are undecided. Some are just starting to pay attention.”

The crowded Democratic field includes Khazei; Jake Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor and former Marine captain; Jesse Mermell, a former Brookline Select Board member and Gov. Deval Patrick aide; Becky Grossman, a former Middlesex County assistant district attorney and Newton councilor; former Wall Street regulator Ihssane Leckey; social epidemiologist Natalia Linos; attorney Ben Sigel, and tech entrepreneur Chris Zannetos. The victor will face the winner of the Republican primary between Julie Hall and David Rosa.

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Much of the action has been on the Democratic side, where Auchincloss, who has distant ties to the Kennedy clan, has emerged a front-runner — and taken substantial heat because of it. He’s been blasted by his opponents over old, tone-deaf social media posts that included a reference to burning the Quran and taken to task over past comments concerning the Confederate flag and free speech. He’s also been criticized for a brief stint as a Republican helping to elect Gov. Charlie Baker.

“Criticism is a part of politics,” said Auchincloss, who’s apologized for the remarks and who touts his record as an “Obama-Baker” voter. “The more that your message is working with voters, the more other campaigns are going to direct criticism towards you.”

NEWTON, MA – AUGUST 22-SATURDAY: Congressional candidate Jesse Mermell holds her Chihuahua “Isabelle” while chatting with supporter Yasy Celikoyar, right, outside of Newton City Hall August 22, 2020, in Newton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)

The action — and scrutiny — has been shifting toward Mermell recently, particularly after Dave Cavell, a President Barack Obama speechwriter, dropped out and pointedly endorsed her as the leading progressive against Auchincloss. Attorney General Maura Healey endorsed soon after. And Mermell’s long had support from close friend U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

“Given the dynamics of the race and where we are, it is time to support the progressive leader who’s best positioned to win,” Cavell told the Herald. “That’s Jesse.”

With the Democrats all hailing from Brookline, Newton or Wellesley, it’s hard for anyone to claim a geographical advantage similar to how Lori Trahan capitalized on her Lowell roots to win the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas in 2018.

The dearth of external polling means any candidate can claim momentum. The top tier is usually seen as some combination of Auchincloss, Mermell, Grossman, Leckey and Khazei. An outside poll released this week scrambled that slightly, tying Linos with Leckey and putting her ahead of Khazei, who narrowly leads the money race.

There’s some daylight between the candidates on the issues, particularly “Medicare for All,” which Leckey, Linos, Mermell said in a recent forum they support fully. Grossman and Sigel said they want a public option on the way to Medicare for All, Khazei and Zannetos want a strong public option and Auchincloss said he supports the Affordable Care Act.

But the overall lack of definition has led to a messy battle full of mudslinging across dozens of Zoom forums and candidates spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads. Outside groups are backing Mermell. A Super PAC supporting Auchincloss is funded in part by his parents. Women Vote!, a Super PAC affiliated with Emily’s List, is running negative ads against Auchincloss and Khazei.

Leckey — who’s poured $1 million of her own money into the race — leads the field of a half-dozen self-funding candidates.

“We were running a campaign that planned to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors and all of a sudden you can’t do that because the health and safety of constituents comes first,” Leckey said. “We had to spend big on other methods.”

Ultimately, the winning Democrat could take the Sept. 1 primary with 20% of the vote or less, not unlike Trahan’s 21.7% victory.

“It could be anyone’s game,” Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said. “It’s come down to the three women — Grossman, Mermell and Leckey — and whether Auchincloss has a ceiling that he will hit.”

Boston University professor Thomas Whalen warned the progressives could split the vote and hand Auchincloss the win, saying, “If you had a strong, single progressive candidate, I don’t think (Auchincloss would) have a shot.”

The Herald asked the candidates to explain their core issues in their own words:


Auchincloss: “We’ve got to listen to science and be driven by facts when we deal with the COVID crisis… We’ve got to listen to science to beat back climate change. We’ve got to fight back the rollback of environmental regulations and transition to a clean energy economy.”

Grossman: “I’m determined to take on the NRA and enact reasonable gun measures that have popular support from the vast majority of this country. Second, we must tackle skyrocketing prescription drug costs and expand access to affordable healthcare. … we must create a public option to cover as many people as quickly as possible, and also allow the federal government to negotiate reasonable drug prices.”

Khazei: Khazei has released individualized legislative plans for each of the district’s 34 cities and towns. He also wants the federal government to invest $15,000 in a child’s account when they’re born, paid for by the estate tax, accessible by completing one year of national service by their 28th birthday.

Leckey: Leckey says the district has been “a target for pharmaceutical corporations and fossil fuel corporations and the people who have paid the costs are the most vulnerable in this district: the working class, single moms … who’ve been denied economic opportunity and their children denied a 21st-century education. It’s been very important to me that we build a platform that reflects the needs of the whole child and of the whole person.”

Linos: “My COVID-19 plan covers everything from health care to school reopenings to how to protect and support our workers. …. I’ll fight to enact ‘Medicare for All’ … I’ll fight for climate action and a Green New Deal … and I’ll fight to fix broken criminal justice, child care, education, and public health systems.”

Mermell: “When I talk to voters they want to know: Can I fight for ‘Medicare for All’ and for a health care system that works for everyone? Can I lead an equitable recovery from COVID-19? Obviously the COVID piece wasn’t there on day one but the fight for equity and the fight for fairness was, and I’m focused on delivering.”

Sigel: Sigel’s COVID-19 plan would help small businesses and continue the $600 a week federal unemployment funds. He also wants to “ensure universal access to high-quality, affordable healthcare. … We need to pass emergency and permanent paid family and medical leave … and ensure access to mental health care.”

Zannetos: “The centerpiece of my agenda is to invest in the creation of ‘New Collar Jobs’ that would eliminate the imbalance between the skills we have and what we need” including in software development, cybersecurity, analytics and environmental science. He would also prioritize infrastructure and climate change.


Hall: Hall wants policies that promote a free market economic system. “We must invest more in our police by creating more federal grants to fund cutting-edge training and equipping law enforcement agencies with limited resources with body cameras. … We also need to reform our health care system with proven, market based solutions that will make healthcare more effective and more affordable.”

Rosa: “The most important policies to me are those that are most important to the constituents of the district. … I support policies that improve our economy and provide for economic opportunity for all.”

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