US Representative Stephen Lynch and his Democratic primary challenger, Dr. Robbie Goldstein, are both runners who enjoy taking in slices of the city’s waterfront on their jogs.
Lynch likes to run around South Boston’s Castle Island whenever he is home. Goldstein, meanwhile, has a five-mile route that brings him to the Southie shoreline from his Fort Point residence.
And that’s just about where the similarities between the two men end. In this race, the choices for voters in the Eighth Congressional District are stark, with contrasts on everything from health care to police reform, to say nothing of their disparate careers and backgrounds.
Lynch, a 65-year-old attorney who in an earlier part of his life was a union ironworker, is a 19-year congressional incumbent. Before his D.C. career, he won stints on Beacon Hill as a state representative and a state senator. He grew up in a South Boston public housing development and once quipped, “Calling me the least liberal member from Massachusetts is like calling me the slowest Kenyan in the Boston Marathon. It’s all relative.”
Goldstein, a 36-year-old infectious disease specialist who built a groundbreaking transgender health program at Massachusetts General Hospital, has never run for public office. He grew up in upstate New York; his parents ran a dentistry practice. He moved to the area in 2001 to attend Tufts University and never left. Now, he hopes to be the latest progressive success story amid a wave of upsets in the Democratic Party throughout the United States.
“There’s a very clear difference between the two of us,” said Goldstein recently before a briefing where he offered medical insights to residents, or doctors in training, at MGH. “The goal is to get that difference out to the voters.”
Recent Democratic primary victories for progressives have included Jamaal Bowman in New York, Marie Newman in Illinois, and Cori Bush in Missouri. Those successes followed 2018 upsets that saw Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrest congressional seats away from entrenched incumbents.
Still, some observers are not sold that the Eighth Congressional seat is vulnerable for the taking. The district stretches from Boston’s North End to Raynham and also includes some western neighborhoods of Boston, large chunks of the South Shore, as well as some western suburbs, like Dedham and Westwood. During the last election cycle, Lynch cruised to victory with a decisive 71 percent in a Democratic primary against a challenger running to his left.
Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston-based political consultant who has worked as a strategist for Pressley, gave a frank assessment: “Lynch matches the overall electorate of that district and trying to unseat him is not possible — even now.”
Likewise, Ray La Raja, a UMass Amherst political science professor, said he “did not see the dynamics that would put Lynch in jeopardy.”
Goldstein is undeterred. He says there are areas of the district that have moved to the left of Lynch, that there’s a large chunk of the Eighth that doesn’t support the incumbent.
Lynch, for his part, says he is not worried. He does not feel the political times have passed him by. In recent cases where longtime Democratic pols have been ousted, the unseated lawmaker had lost touch with their constituency, according to Lynch. That’s not him, he said.
“I’m here every single week, I have really strong personal connections with people,” he told the Globe recently after taking in Quincy Center with that city’s mayor and a pair of city councilors.
He added, "My campaign is just doing my job day-to-day."
COVID-19 has shaped the contest in ways large and small. Door-knocking is out. On the campaign trail during different days this month, elbow taps replaced handshakes for both Goldstein and Lynch. The candidates now try to connect with voters from behind face masks. There are no fairs or parades where the pols can mingle; Lynch has opted to visit more than a dozen outdoor New England town meetings in the district as a way to connect with his constituents.
Seated at a table with elected officials and entrepreneurs inside Quincy’s QUBIC Labs, a start-up incubator, Lynch last week wondered aloud about the future of high-rise commercial space, given the realities of the pandemic.
Two days later at a tiny Haitian takeout spot in Brockton, Goldstein chatted with the man behind the counter about coronavirus PPP funding, a loan program designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.
Additionally, Goldstein had plans to step away from his medical practice in March to concentrate full-time on the campaign. Thanks to the novel coronavirus, it didn’t happen. That means grueling days that include his work at MGH and campaigning.
“I’m an infectious disease doc and I obviously have to step into that role,” he said.
Treating patients drove him to run for office, according to Goldstein, who over a six-year period built a transgender health program at MGH that is “dedicated to serving some of the most vulnerable in our community.”
He would hear patients talk about food insecurity, housing issues, and employment problems.
“I can’t fix that as a doctor,” said Goldstein recently. “That requires change at the federal level.”
Both candidates have tried to portray themselves as having a unique perspective for a federal lawmaker; Lynch has pointed out there is no one else with “ironworker” on their resume in Congress. Goldstein has countered that, if elected, he believes would be the first infectious disease doctor in Congress. Given the current public health crisis, he thought his expertise would serve the district well.
“We’re in this COVID space for a while,” he said.
Lynch also acknowledged the immediacy of the pandemic, saying hundreds of seniors living in the district’s nursing homes and senior housing have died during the crisis, while noting local racial health disparities. Normal life, he said, has been transformed.
“That’s got to be Job 1, we got to get to a position where we allow people to regain their normal lives,” he said.
On the issues, the distinctions are numerous. Goldstein supports abortion rights and speaks passionately about reproductive justice. Lynch, who in years past said he was pro-life, now says he doesn’t think his position fits on a bumper sticker.
“I certainly wouldn’t associate myself with the current version of the pro-life movement,” said Lynch recently.
Goldstein views a single-payer health care system as “the next step.” But Lynch favors fixing the current system.
Of an end to qualified immunity for police, Lynch recently said “To have no protections? I don’t think that that’s the way to go.”
He continued, “I think some of these provisions basically say that if a police officer is in uniform, he’s immune. That’s wrong.”
Goldstein, meanwhile, is more unabashed: He wants an end to qualified immunity for police.
On LGBTQ rights, Goldstein, a married gay man, has blasted Lynch, saying that he initially ran for office at the State House level “because he wanted to exclude LGBTQ” marchers at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Lynch’s native Southie. The Globe has reported that in 1994, during Lynch’s run for the Massachusetts House, he cited his concern that the incumbent state representative had not done enough to keep gay and lesbian groups out of the parade as his main reason for entering that race.
“His entire political career, in many ways, is focused on an anti-LGBTQ agenda,” said Goldstein.
Lynch’s campaign, in a statement, said he has a record of support for the LGBTQ community, citing the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBTQ advocacy group. Lynch, according to his campaign, was instrumental in working to ensure that OUTVETS, an LGBTQ veterans nonprofit, could “take a proud and prominent place” in the parade.
There has been more jousting, with both candidates suggesting the other has failed to connect with communities in the Eighth.
“I think there are online candidates, and, you know, face-to-face candidates,” said Lynch.
Goldstein rejected that jab, saying that Lynch, despite being in Congress since 2001, hasn’t “really shown that he can lead on any issue.”
“He’s sat on the back bench,” he said.
In turn, Lynch’s campaign batted away that assertion, saying the congressman is “an active and engaged senior member” who is a recognized leader on national security and foreign policy.
The primary day is Sept. 1, but voters can already cast ballots by mail. No Republican is running for the seat.