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A stream of personal wealth is defining, and dividing, the Democratic race for Kennedy seat

Clockwise, from left: Becky Grossman, Jake Auchincloss, Alan Khazei, Dave Cavell, Ihssane Leckey, Christopher Zannetos, Natalia Linos, Ben Sigel, and Jesse Mermell.
Clockwise, from left: Becky Grossman, Jake Auchincloss, Alan Khazei, Dave Cavell, Ihssane Leckey, Christopher Zannetos, Natalia Linos, Ben Sigel, and Jesse Mermell.Pat Greenhouse

It’s a pitch in one form or another that most of the Democrats vying for the Fourth Congressional District nomination have made: Politicians must address the economic inequality dividing the region. People are hungry for better jobs. Money plays too big a role in politics.

But as the race barrels toward the Sept. 1 primary, the personal wealth of many of the candidates and their families is playing an increasingly outsized part in the race, funding a surge of television advertising and the Democrats’ newfound exposure to voters.

That wave of money could have a major hand in deciding who ultimately is the party’s nominee to succeed Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III — even as it underlines the economic differences between the candidates, the wealthy Boston suburbs from which they hail, and voters in the southern blue-collar communities they’re trying to woo.

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“It’s a really interesting dichotomy,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College in Easton, which is wedged in the center of the serpentine district. “These are fairly progressive candidates. They line up well with the progressive side of the Democratic Party by and large.

“On a meta level, it’s an issue,” he said. “There’s such a symbolic divide in this district.”

Four candidates have given their campaigns six-figure sums, including Ihssane Leckey, who has committed at least $800,000, and Becky Walker Grossman, who loaned her campaign $430,000. All told, six of the nine on the ballot have reported giving or loaning their campaigns personal funds — collectively, at least $1.75 million so far.

Many can afford to. Five have disclosed a net worth north of $1 million between them and their spouses, wealth that, for one, includes a family home on Martha’s Vineyard and another, her husband’s seven-figure stake in a family company.

Jake Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor who has distant family ties to the Kennedys, has sunk $150,000 of his own money into his campaign, with the potential to commit $100,000 more, his campaign said. And his parents have committed tens of thousands of dollars to a super PAC that has so far spent more than $420,000 boosting his candidacy.

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The wealth of a candidate, and how it factors into a campaign, is not an issue confined to the Fourth District, but part of a long-held trend in national politics, where big self-funding has produced mixed results. But it can resonate more in races dominated by progressive, populist themes of increasing taxes on the rich and tackling the country’s widening wealth gap.

The current representative of the Fourth District is himself from one of the most famous, wealthy families in American politics. And the very makeup of the field to succeed Kennedy has accentuated its geographic and economic divide.

All nine candidates on the ballot hail from Brookline, Newton, or Wellesley. Those three wealthy communities anchor the northern reaches of a district that includes Taunton and Fall River, communities to the south where median household incomes are one-third or one-fifth the size of those Boston suburbs.

The candidates have repeatedly sought to make inroads in the district’s southern end, touting local endorsements and their intentions to lift up economically depressed and middle-class neighborhoods. But for activists and observers, it has done little to fill the void of actually having a candidate from that area.

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“Wouldn’t it be great to get somebody out of Fall River running?” mused John Quinn, chairman of the Wrentham Democratic Town Committee, which has met or spoken with all of the candidates but as a group hasn’t endorsed one.

“We pressed them on, what could you do to improve on economic development in the parts of the district that have been struggling really since the 1950s and 1960s since factories started to close down?” Quinn said. “Everybody had an answer. But I can’t with all honesty say it’s part of their elevator pitch.”

The campaign, long plodding in the political background, has intensified into a bare-knuckled Democratic fight.

Candidates have ratcheted up their criticisms, with several targeting Auchincloss, a one-time Republican endorsed by the Globe’s editorial board. Dave Cavell, a Brookline Democrat, said Thursday that he was suspending his campaign to back another progressive candidate, Jesse Mermell, with the intention of blocking Auchincloss.

Outside groups, too, have begun to swarm the race. The National Association of Realtors reported spending about $8,200 backing Grossman, a Newton city councilor. Women Vote! — a super PAC associated with EMILY’S List, the powerful political group that supports women running for office who back abortion rights — has spent $422,000 on mailers and digital ads attacking Auchincloss and Alan Khazei, a Brookline Democrat and cofounder of City Year, as candidates who “don’t stand up for women’s reproductive freedom. Both candidates say the charge is unwarranted and false.

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Two super PACS, including one with support from unions SEIU and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, have emerged to back Mermell, and another, dubbed Unite to Win, is backing Khazei, though it’s yet to report any spending. And then there is the super PAC backing Auchincloss, seeded with at least $37,000 from his father, mother, and stepfather.

Still, the candidates’ own money has been a driving factor in propping up their campaigns at a time when the coronavirus has undercut typical political fund-raising.

Christopher Zannetos, a former tech entrepreneur, has reported giving his campaign at least $306,000 to help fund his relatively late entry into the race. Natalia Linos, a social epidemiologist from Brookline who joined the campaign in the spring, has put $35,000 into the race. Cavell, before dropping out, had loaned his campaign nearly $29,000.

Several of the candidates said they’ve sworn off certain donations, including those from corporate PACs or particular types of lobbyists, a point they’ve emphasized amid their self-funding. Others — Mermell, a former Brookline selectwoman; Ben Sigel, a Brookline attorney; and Khazei, one of the field’s top fund-raisers — haven’t reported committing any of their own money.

The influx of personal funds comes as the candidates pitch why they are the best to understand people’s economic pain. Leckey, a self-described Democratic socialist, emphasized her back story as a Moroccan immigrant who came to the United States at age 20, mopped floors at restaurants and baby-sat, and put herself through community college. She later attended Boston University and worked as a Wall Street regulator.

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“I understand what the working class in our district goes through, because I’ve been there,” said Leckey, who reported at least $1.2 million in assets with her husband, Sean, an energy trader. Her campaign said she has committed more than the $800,000 she has officially disclosed to date, but declined to say how much.

“Yes, I do live in Brookline. Yes, I’ve been able to afford that in the recent years,” she said at a recent forum. “Before that, I could not afford to send my kid to a good school. And that is the suffering of so many people across this district.”

Grossman, of Newton, reported at least $3.6 million in assets between her and her husband, Ben, the son of former Democratic National Committee chairman Steven Grossman, and copresident of the family’s printing business. She’s framed the ability to fund her campaign as evidence of her commitment to the race.

“I believe so strongly in this fight that I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” she said in a statement.

Zannetos, who’s reported at least $4 million in assets, said he’s been “very fortunate to not have to jump over so many hurdles that other people have had to.” But he pointed to a nonprofit he launched that connects tech companies and students interested in STEM, saying it’s helped him “learn of the obstacles” others face.

“I recognize that if you look at the race and you see all of the candidates coming from the wealthy suburbs of Boston, that is a reality, that can be a theme,” the Democrat from Wellesley said. “I’m trying to focus on how we get more jobs to people, better jobs to people.”

Auchincloss has disclosed at least $1.9 million in assets between him and his wife, Michelle, and owns a family home in Chilmark. But it’s his relatives’ contributions to the super PAC that have helped push his family’s wealth and connections into focus.

He’s a distant stepcousin to Caroline Kennedy and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.; Hugh D. Auchincloss, his grandfather’s first cousin once removed, was the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.


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