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In the race to replace Kennedy, congressional candidates vie for women’s vote

Clockwise, from 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

To distinguish herself in the crowded contest of nine Democrats vying for the Fourth Congressional District nomination, newcomer Ihssane Leckey presents herself as the face of change, a “fearless woman of color” running to fight for social and economic justice.

“People are demanding change to a system run by rich white men for too long,” the 35-year-old Moroccan immigrant says in her self-funded ads. “It’s time to change the face of Congress.”

But the lone woman of color campaigning to replace Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III is by no means the only candidate trying to claim the women’s vote. Leckey may have the endorsement of one of the breakout female stars of the 2018 midterms — Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — but another member of “The Squad” has endorsed a rival.


Jesse Mermell, a longtime progressive and reproductive rights advocate, has the fierce backing of Representative Ayanna Pressley, a friend for two decades.

“I don’t just want her in Congress,” Pressley told supporters at a virtual fund-raiser recently. “I need her there.”

And don’t forget the two additional women in the race, Natalia Linos (whose campaign website notes she’s an ”epidemiologist, experienced public servant and mom of three”) and Becky Grossman (slogan: ”Mom. Progressive. Fighter.”), or Alan Khazei, who cofounded the “sister march” network that staged Women’s Marches in 645 cities the day after President Trump’s inauguration.

The four-woman, five-man field is so rife with feminist bona fides that Emily’s List, the organization that recruits and supports Democratic women who back abortion rights, has not picked a favorite. Instead a PAC associated with Emily’s List has tried to winnow the field of men by issuing negative digital ads and mailers criticizing two of the top-funded candidates, Jake Auchincloss and Khazei.


Khazei quickly cried foul, saying the ads distort his record.

To counter them, Khazei circulated endorsements from women including Vanessa Wruble, one of the founders of the Women’s March and now the executive director of the offshoot organization March On.

“Without his essential leadership supporting women leaders, March On would not be the powerhouse women-led organization it is today,” Wruble said in a statement. “Alan is a leading ally in this new movement.”

In the first presidential election cycle since that movement was reignited, the candidates for the Fourth Congressional nomination are highly attuned to female voters’ demands for more representation and better consideration from Washington, D.C.

The past four years have brought renewed awareness not only of women’s minority stature in relevant decision-making — as illustrated in the image of an all-male panel of politicians debating maternity coverage during the 2017 attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act — but also their diminution in the spaces where they do have representation. (See Senator Elizabeth Warren’s erstwhile slogan: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”)

So when Mermell believed she was being dismissed by a male competitor at a Wednesday night debate, she publicly called him out.

Auchincloss was touting his recent support for an increased minimum wage and a Sanctuary City ordinance in Newton, where he is a city councilor, and offered this contrast: “While Jesse Mermell is a wonderful communicator and a good Tweeter, I’ve actually done the work and walked the walk.”

But Auchincloss had previously opposed the $15-an-hour minimum wage and Mermell, as president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, had championed its passage, along with that of paid family leave and equal pay. Mermell has also served as an executive for both the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, and as a Brookline Select Board member and a top aide to former governor Deval Patrick.


“I’m sure you didn’t mean to dismiss the work that I’ve done on the ground,” Mermell retorted at the debate.

The following day, she issued a statement calling his comments sexist. “Another day, another privileged man trying to diminish the accomplishments of a woman,” Mermell wrote. “I may be used to this type of demeaning sexism, but I’m sure not going to be silent about it.”

Her callout drew disparate reactions from women based on their political allegiance. Andrea Kelley, an Auchincloss backer and fellow Newton city councilor, said in a statement: “Jesse has spun this, creating a situation out of a fair rebuttal to her initial attack. When she claims sexism in a situation that doesn’t warrant it, it’s problematic for all women everywhere.”

Barbara Lee, president and founder of the Barbara Lee Political Office, which has endorsed Mermell, wrote on Twitter: “Diminishing a woman’s qualifications is a tried-and-true tactic for male opponents. It is unfortunate to see such an old trope trotted out like this.”

Meanwhile, the Emily’s List-affiliated super PAC — called Women Vote! — sent out mailers calling Auchincloss and Khazei candidates who “don’t stand up for women’s reproductive freedom.”


The PAC’s ad targets Auchincloss as a “former Republican operative when his party opposed abortion rights.” Auchincloss worked for the Massachusetts Republican Party in 2014 when Charlie Baker was running for governor. Though Baker supports abortion rights, the state GOP that year approved a platform opposing it.

The PAC’s ad about Khazei displays images of President Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh while claiming Khazei “said he would have let congressional Republicans use women’s health care as a bargaining chip.” The ad cites an 11-year-old Politico story about the negotiations over the Affordable Care Act that says Khazei, then a candidate for the Senate, would have supported the bill even though he disagreed with an amendment being demanded at the time by antiabortion congressmen in return for its passage. That amendment restricted those with federal subsidies from getting private abortion coverage.

But that amendment was driven by antiabortion Democrats — and it was accepted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and all the members of the Massachusetts House delegation, who voted for it rather than let the Affordable Care Act die. The amendment was ultimately excised from the bill and replaced with a milder executive order.

“Their ad is patently false. They are trying to say that I work with Republicans,” Khazei said. “It’s a cynical attempt to fool people with tens of thousands of dollars behind it.”

Emily’s List rejected the pushback from both men, however.


“At a time when women’s rights are under attack from Republicans and this administration, voters deserve all of the facts on every Democratic candidate’s record, especially when it comes to reproductive freedom,” said Emily’s List spokeswoman Mairead Lynn. “Massachusetts’ voters deserve a leader who will never waiver from protecting women’s reproductive rights, regardless of political pressure.”

In response to the criticism from Mermell and Emily’s List, Auchincloss issued a statement saying: “Jesse has a strong record, like many of the candidates in this race. My record, and my message, of ensuring Donald Trump’s dangerous and hateful politics don’t stand is resonating with voters, and it seems lots of my opponents are realizing that, too, so they’re trying to tear me down with misleading attacks.”

In addition to the four women, Auchincloss, and Khazei, the race includes former Obama speechwriter Dave Cavell, tech entrepreneur Christopher Zannetos, and attorney Ben Sigel, who is Puerto Rican and Jewish, and would be the first Latino in the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.