Four of the eight Democrats vying for the Fourth Congressional District nomination faced a straight-forward question in a Zoom debate last week: Should Congress restore the additional $600 in unemployment aide that expired in July?
But within minutes, Jesse Mermell dredged up a two-year-old tweet one of her opponents, Jake Auchincloss, sent in reply to Senator Kamala Harris, suggesting he was trying to “mansplain” economic policy to Harris. Becky Walker Grossman, a Newton city councilor, piled on, saying the tweet was a part of “pattern” from Auchincloss. He replied he wasn’t going to engage with “ad hominem” attacks.
“All right,” moderator Ted Nesi said early in the fray, “we pivoted there.”
Indeed, the race has. Long a traffic jam of a primary, many of the Democratic candidates are increasingly turning on each other, hoping to separate themselves within the left-of-center field vying to succeed Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.
With days left before the Sept. 1 primary, they’ve strained to flip debate questions into a demand for answers on their opponents’ years-old votes or social media posts. At least two candidates have pressed for one of their foes to drop out for different reasons.
Candidate Christopher Zannetos, a Wellesley tech entrepreneur, released a television ad this month touting his support for universal health care. But he opened with black-and-white photos of six of the other Democrats — some staunch single-payer health care system advocates, others not — warning over soft piano music they “would eliminate private health insurance.”
And in the latest wrinkle, Alan Khazei, a Brookline Democrat, has begun criticizing his opponents — for not criticizing outside attacks of him.
“You’ve had 90 minutes,” Khazei said toward the end of a debate Friday, the third time the City Year cofounder had asked other Democrats to speak out against mailers targeting him funded by an EMILY’s List-affiliated super PAC. “And none of you will join me in denouncing the money that’s flooding into this race, the secret money, spreading lies and misinformation.”
A negative turn in campaign rhetoric is, of course, common, if not expected in a heated contest. But in the Fourth District primary, it has helped feed into its already chaotic nature, with arrows seemingly whizzing from all corners of a race where most policy disputes span different points of the progressive spectrum.
Every candidate says he or she supports expanding health care, with Mermell, Ihssane Leckey, a self-described Democratic socialist, and Natalia Linos, a Brookline epidemiologist, fully embracing Medicare for All.
All but Zannetos and Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor, say they endorse ending qualified immunity for police facing threats of lawsuits. (The other two say they support reforming it.) Seven candidates that logged into a student-led forum on Friday all said they back a so-called “blue new deal” to further protect oceans.
That general homogeneity in a Democratic-leaning district has left the candidates’ backgrounds — and their perceived standing in a fluid field — as fodder for their foes. But there’s little clarity of whether the growing number of shots are landing for voters, many of whom have already made up their minds. As of Monday, more than 50,000 voters in the 34 cities and towns the district touches had submitted Democratic ballots, according to state figures.
“I don’t think pointing out records is negative,” said Mermell, a progressive Brookline Democrat who has repeatedly driven attacks against the more centrist Auchincloss. “In a crowded field where lots is going on — COVID, major social upheaval, a big Senate race, a big presidential race — we’re just working hard to make sure that the differences in this race are clear.”
The knives came out in earnest in late July when during and after a debate, Leckey, a former Wall Street regulator from Brookline, and Ben Sigel, a Brookline attorney, suggested Auchincloss should drop out of the race. Leckey argued he broke a pledge not to take money from the fossil industry, prompting Auchincloss to shoot back about Leckey pouring money into her campaign from savings she shares with her husband, an energy trader.
Sigel, meanwhile, seized on a letter Auchincloss wrote in 2016 urging school officials not to punish students who had flown the Confederate flag outside a Newton high school, saying that while it was an “act of bigotry,” punishment could violate their right to free speech. (Auchincloss called the letter a “mistake.”)
Days later, the Globe’s editorial board endorsed Auchincloss, further ratcheting up the attacks on him as a perceived front-runner, with Sigel lashing out in a statement that he is a “silver-spoon Republican,” a reference to Auchincloss’s past work as a staffer and consultant for the state Republican Party and Governor Charlie Baker.
The attacks have since expanded. Asked about largely self-funding her campaign at a debate last week, Leckey — who as of mid-August had put more than $1 million into the race — quickly turned her answer into a critique of Mermell.
Mermell had earlier addressed a vote in 2010 when she was on Brookline’s Select Board to briefly suspend a fire lieutenant, who later was promoted, after he used a racial slur on a voice mail message for a Black firefighter.
Mermell, who left the board in 2013, said the punishment was “inadequate” and apologized in May 2019 for voting for it. But Leckey, who entered the race before Kennedy challenged Senator Edward J. Markey, suggested that Mermell’s contrition in the spring was politically driven. (It wasn’t until August that news reports surfaced of Kennedy’s interest in the Senate, opening the field.)
“I don’t think that we need people who, you know, sometimes mean well but fall short, and then it takes them a decade to come out and apologize when they’re looking for a higher office,” Leckey said.
Mermell pushed back, saying it was “unacceptable and insulting” to say her apology wasn’t sincere.
The jabs haven’t been limited to candidate-on-candidate blows. The super PAC Women Vote! — affiliated with EMILY’s List, which has not endorsed in the race — has spent nearly $560,000 in attacking Auchincloss and Khazei as candidates who “don’t stand up for women’s reproductive freedom.”
The assaults dig back years, citing Auchincloss’s time working during the 2014 gubernatorial race, and for Khazei an 11-year-old Politico story about the negotiations over the Affordable Care Act. The article says Khazei, then a Senate candidate, would have supported the bill even though he disagreed with an amendment restricting those with federal subsidies from getting private abortion coverage. (It later was stripped from the final version.)
Khazei has railed against the mailers, calling them patently false and, in recent days, demanding without success that his opponents also condemn them. But the group has also appeared to begin shifting most of its focus to Auchincloss, spending roughly $350,000 targeting him alone and devoting to him its entire bare-bones website.
Auchincloss’s response: In a race with four women, including a former Planned Parenthood official, his campaign has mailed fliers picturing him and his mother, Laurie Glimcher, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s chief executive, calling him the “right leader” to defend Planned Parenthood against President Trump.
“I really strongly believe that voters want to hear a positive message for the day after Trump,” Auchincloss said. “They don’t want to focus on negativity when we should be uniting to defeat him.”
Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.