How is it possible that Jake Auchincloss is the perceived front-runner in a congressional race in Massachusetts?
We are living in a moment that calls for systemic change on race and gender. Yet amid an impressive field of millennial female energy, somehow the thirty-something Newton city councilor, former Marine captain, and recovering Republican has the momentum in the hotly contested Democratic primary to fill Representative Joe Kennedy’s seat.
Folks, this ain’t 1999 when all the rich kids get their way.
The moment clearly calls for Jesse Mermell, 40, who has spent her life preparing for it. She has been a Brookline selectwoman, a senior aide in the administration of former governor Deval Patrick, and most recently served as the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership.
That’s how I got to know Mermell ― she turned a run-of-the-mill organization into a force in the business community and on Beacon Hill.
She has fought successfully at the state level for paid family leave, equal pay, and a $15 minimum wage. Imagine what Mermell could do if voters send her to Congress to tackle climate change, gun violence, and health care inequities.
And if you’re worried about Roe v. Wade, Mermell knows how to fight for reproductive rights, having also worked at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
In other words, Mermell has done the work needed to represent the sprawling Fourth Congressional District that stretches from Brookline to Fall River, and it shows in the broad coalition she has built from business leaders to union members.
Among her biggest supporters are Boston venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang and Josh Boger, founder and former chief executive of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Boger helped start the Alliance for Business Leadership over a decade ago, or as he likes to call it “a progressive business leaders support group.”
Pre-pandemic, Boger held a fund-raiser for Mermell in his Seaport home. When he looks at candidates, he asks a simple question: Can the person do the job?
“There are some very good people on the list,” said Boger, but “Jesse has the proven skill set to do the job of being a representative.”
In his mind, the most important skill of a House member is the ability to listen, analyze, and critique policy proposals, and then graft them onto legislation.
Boger said Mermell has that experience. She’s worked through complex issues like paid family leave and excels at “that kind of parsing of policy onto the political process,” he said.
Count Care.com cofounder Donna Levin as another enthusiastic Mermell supporter. Levin got to know Mermell when they were both on a state task force on women and families during the Patrick administration, and later when Mermell ran the alliance.
Levin, who lives in the district in Newton, has seen Mermell push for what is good not only for business but for everyone on a range of issues such as child care, transportation, and affordable housing.
“They are not buzzwords for Jesse,” said Levin, who now teaches entrepreneurship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard Business School. “She has lined up behind these for years.”
Mermell also has racked up a long list of unions supporting her bid, including the Massachusetts Nurses Association, Massachusetts Teachers Association, IBEW Local 103, and the SEIU Massachusetts State Council.
When business and labor organizations in 2018 hammered out the so-called grand bargain to make paid family leave and $15 minimum wage possible, Mermell and the alliance sat alongside labor at the negotiating table.
“We have the utmost confidence in her representing working people in a pragmatic, get-the-job-done way,” said Harris Gruman, executive director of the SEIU Massachusetts State Council, a coalition of local SEIUs working on politics and organizing.
Her most loyal foot soldiers tend to be women who have been fighting for women’s rights. Among them: Boston lawyer Beth Boland, who sits on Mermell’s finance committee, and retired corporate executive Gail Deegan, who drives the district in a pickup truck outfitted with Mermell signs. Both also live in the district.
Then there is Barbara Lee, the Cambridge philanthropist who has propelled a generation of women into higher office, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Representative Katherine Clark, and Attorney General Maura Healey.
Lee told me in an e-mail she first met Mermell at a state Democratic Party gathering when she was still a student at Boston College. “I chatted with Jesse in the photo line, and was so impressed that I encouraged her, then and there, to run for office,” Lee recalled.
Lee said the COVID-19 crisis has deepened inequities, especially for women and people of color, and Mermell can be their champion in Congress.
“She won’t just be a reliable vote,” Lee said. “Jesse will be a bold voice and a strong advocate for the people of Massachusetts.”
I had a chance to hang out with Mermell on the campaign trail in Fall River in February before the pandemic restrictions made such activities impossible. Mermell met with small business owners such as Leah Ehrenhaus, a third-generation family member running American Wallpaper & Design Center, and she lunched at Scotties Pub like a regular.
I caught up with Mermell by phone on Wednesday to see if the virus had changed her as a candidate. “I’ve been focused from day one on creating an equitable country and equitable district,” she said.
But the urgency of Mermell’s mission now has an added exclamation mark.
“We need someone who understands this is a transformative moment,” she said. “You need someone who has been on the front lines and can deliver that change.”
In so many ways, Mermell meets the moment. The voters of the Fourth District should send her to Congress.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.