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In race for open Kennedy seat, candidates try anything to break through

Clockwise, from top left: Becky Grossman, Jake Auchincloss, Alan Khazei, David Franklin Cavell, Ihssane Leckey, Christopher Z. Zannetos, Natalia Linos, Benjamin R. Sigel, and Jesse R. Mermell.
Clockwise, from top left: Becky Grossman, Jake Auchincloss, Alan Khazei, David Franklin Cavell, Ihssane Leckey, Christopher Z. Zannetos, Natalia Linos, Benjamin R. Sigel, and Jesse R. Mermell.Pat Greenhouse

It’s Massachusetts’s most unwieldy Democratic primary, a rare open seat nestled in a liberal hotbed. And the candidates just want your attention.

Dave Cavell, a former Obama speechwriter, cooked cucumber gazpacho on Facebook Live. Christopher Zannetos, a tech entrepreneur, is orchestrating a 34-town bike tour. Jesse Mermell, a former Brookline select board member, created a congressional-themed crossword puzzle.

“I will tell you, that was a total bust," she said.

The Democrats running in the Fourth Congressional District have tried nearly everything to stand out in their nine-person primary, a race that began in the shadow of a Kennedy and has shifted almost entirely online as the coronavirus pandemic, layered with widespread protests against racism, grip the country.

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Of course, quarantined campaigning is not limited to the Fourth, a misshapen jigsaw puzzle of affluent Boston suburbs and working-class towns that scrapes the South Coast.

But the reverberations have been especially acute in the sardine can of a race. The Fourth District field is so tightly packed — with a two-person Republican primary to boot — one environmental group split a candidate forum into three events.

All of the Democrats hail from Brookline or Newton, two of the state’s wealthiest communities, or Wellesley, by some accounts the wealthiest. The majority of the field is white (85 percent of the district identifies as such) and relatively young — six are 40 years or under. More than half are first-time political candidates vying for a seat now held by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is mounting a US Senate campaign.

Kennedy and his predecessor, Barney Frank, are among the state’s most well-known political brands, emerging nationally to deliver a State of the Union response or author generation-defining legislation. But now, amid compounding national crises, the question before voters ahead of the Sept. 1 primary is not so much which successor they’ll pick, local activists say, but more simply: Who’s running?

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“When you’re talking to the average person, it’s: What election?” said Dennis Naughton, the chair of the Foxborough Democratic Town Committee. “They don’t know [the candidates'] names at all. Or if you said to them, ‘Can you tell me three people running for the Fourth Congressional seat?’ — they couldn’t do it.”

There’s been no independent public polling of the race, but one survey released by the campaign of Becky Walker Grossman, a Newton city councilor, found 60 percent of voters were undecided.

“A lot of candidates, and not a high degree of name recognition," said Naughton, who has not yet backed a specific candidate. “I have no idea how it’s going to shake out.”

He’s not alone. The typical guideposts that can help voters sift through an expansive field have largely disappeared amid the pandemic. Naughton said his committee hosted six candidates for meet-and-greets, but the last was in February. That same month, several candidates gathered on a debate stage at Boston College, and it’s unclear whether all the Democratic contenders will appear together, in person, in a public setting before the primary.

The candidates also share similar positions on most policy issues, supporting efforts to get to universal health care, for example, or lowering the costs and debt burden from college.

Some have sought to position themselves to the left. Only Mermell, 40, and Ihssane Leckey, a 35-year-old former Wall Street regulator, for example, say they support a single-payer Medicare-for-All system, according to questionnaires seven of the nine candidates submitted to Progressive Massachusetts. Both they and Cavell say they fully embrace proposals for tuition-free public colleges.

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The trick has been finding ways to carve out those clear distinctions for voters.

Jake Auchincloss, a 32-year-old Newton city councilor and Marine corps veteran, and Alan Khazei, the cofounder of City Year and a two-time US Senate candidate, entered April with significant fund-raising advantages, with roughly $950,000 and $780,000 on hand, respectively, to help amplify their pitches.

Auchincloss, who was briefly registered as a Republican and worked for Governor Charlie Baker’s 2014 campaign, has emphasized transportation and preserving the state’s cut of federal resources. “We’ve got to protect our state and local provision of essential services,” he said.

Khazei, 59, has threaded national service through his policy proposals, emphasizing his work helping to grow City Year from 50 people in Boston into a 29-city nonprofit program. “I’m the only who’s built an organization from scratch into a national, even global, institution."

But they, like other candidates, have thus far largely lived virtually, hoping voters log into Zoom meetings or scroll through their Facebook pages.

“I think they’re trying their best. They’re trying to send e-mails. They’re trying to be in the virtual universe as much as they can,” said Cindy Rowe, who chairs the Brookline Democratic Town Committee and is neutral in the race. “But nothing replaces that ability to walk into a room, shake hands and look someone in the eye, and talk with them about what is most meaningful in their lives.”

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It’s left many to be creative. Ben Sigel, an attorney, posts videos of his kids discussing inspirational quotes from Walt Disney, Yogi Berra, and others.

Mermell did an online sing-along with a Mansfield Brownie troop on Facebook and posted sketches of herself, and her dog, for kids to download and color. (About 100 people submitted them, and Mermell posted them in her campaign office.)

“There is no idea too grass-roots,” said Mermell, a former Deval Patrick aide.

Mostly, candidates have leaned on their resumes and biographies, arguing they offer voices now missing in Washington.

Grossman, 40, has emphasized her role as a mother to two school-aged children, a profile that only two dozen members of Congress fit, she said. “If we have 200 or 250 moms in Congress, it would change the conversation completely,” said Grossman, the daughter-in-law of former state treasurer and Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman.

Zannetos, 56, of Wellesley, said his background in the tech sector — he’s started three businesses, the most recent providing online security tools for businesses — offers a perspective lacking as the country has slid into a recession.

For Natalia Linos, it’s about science. A 38-year-old social epidemiologist at Harvard University, she said fewer than a dozen members of Congress are scientists at a time when the federal COVID-19 response has been roundly criticized as inadequate. Linos, whose decision to run in late April was spurred specifically by the pandemic’s fallout, has framed herself as an “outsider.”

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Cavell, 36, has built a different pitch, emphasizing his experience in federal government. Before working for Attorney General Maura Healey, he worked as a speechwriter for President Obama and calls himself “the only candidate who has been in Washington.”

“This congressional seat has mattered, for a long time," Cavell said. "Not just in the Fourth District but for the country. I absolutely think that we need to continue that legacy.”

But how candidates try to focus voters’ attention also continues to shift. The waves of protests that have blanketed the country following the death of George Floyd in police custody have offered not just a new outlet for reaching voters, but pushed to the forefront calls to recognize and more acutely address structural racism.

Sigel, whose mother is Puerto Rican, would be the first Latino elected to Congress from Massachusetts, and like other candidates, he’s attended various rallies to connect with voters.

“One of the underlying causes of structural racism is the failure of Black and brown communities to have access to decision makers,” said Sigel, 43. “I would be a role model and a leader.”

Leckey, an immigrant from Morocco, said the shift in the national conversation resonates with what she has been advocating all along. She was the first candidate to enter the race, months before Kennedy announced his Senate run.

“Throughout this race, I’ve been told, ‘This is a white district. Don’t talk about racial justice,’ ” said Leckey. “I have repeatedly said this is not a white district. There isn’t a white district. Black lives and brown lives are everywhere.”

As a summer of uncertainty dawns, the challenge for all the candidates, observers say, is not just carving out their corner of the debate, but overlaying it across a district where priorities can differ widely from the well-heeled suburbs and to Fall River. Given the crowded field, the winner is likely to emerge with a plurality, but would be an overwhelming favorite in November against whoever emerges from the Republican primary between Julie A. Hall and David Rosa.

“It’s a district with so many different types of people, but our congressperson should be of that kind of stature and capacity of what we’ve always had,” said state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, a Brookline resident and Democrat who nearly ran for the seat herself. “Someone’s who’s willing to take risks, someone who says it the way it is.”

Of course, voters first need to hear it.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.