Ihssane Leckey was 15 months into her campaign for the Fourth Congressional District seat when she recently picked up a call from an unknown number.
“I’m just calling on behalf of the Ihssane Leckey campaign,” the caller told her, “to see if you have plans to vote for her.” Leckey chuckled at the memory Friday, moments after she, in fact, voted for herself at Brookline’s town hall.
“It took a while” for her campaign volunteer to grasp the irony, Leckey said, laughing. “‘No, no, I am the candidate. I am her!’”
Such is the tumult that’s enveloped the Fourth District, where the country’s last unsettled open-seat primary has shed candidates but not uncertainty with just days left before the Sept. 1 election.
Nine Democrats are on the ballot but just seven are still running. The race’s scant polling has shown a wide-open field, with one, from the think tank Data for Progress, putting Newton city councilors Becky Walker Grossman and Jake Auchincloss and Brookline’s Jesse Mermell toward the top — but most of the field within the margin of error. Outside groups and super PACs have poured in, aiming in the case of Auchincloss and City Year co-founder Alan Khazei to both buttress and blur their records.
Two candidates — Dave Cavell, of Brookline, and Christopher Zannetos, of Wellesley — ended their campaigns in recent weeks, quickly throwing their support behind Mermell. But she is just one of three candidates, with Leckey and Brookline epidemiologist Natalia Linos, jousting for the race’s progressive mantle.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic thicket will face one of two Republicans running, and will be the heavy favorite to win the solidly blue district in November.
“Anyone can potentially come in first. And anyone can potentially come in last,” said Ben Sigel, a Brookline attorney vying in the race to become the first Latino elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress. “I don’t think anyone says there is anyone not qualified.”
That haziness has hung over the race since the district’s current representative, Joseph P. Kennedy III, opted last year to forgo reelection to challenge Senator Edward J. Markey. But seemingly at every turn, it’s only felt heightened as the candidates — many of them running for the first time — navigated the novel coronavirus pandemic, a nationwide movement for racial justice, and, within the Massachusetts political world, the shadow of the Senate primary itself.
The entire field is bunched within the district’s northern, wealthy suburbs, leaving all seven to scramble for support within more southern, blue-collar communities. Over months, they’ve carved up endorsements from the region’s local elected leaders, muddying any perceived advantage. Indeed, one local union representing food, health care, and other workers in southern Massachusetts endorsed not one but two candidates, Mermell and Grossman, on Friday.
And seemingly no mailbox or television set from Brookline to Hopkinton or Wrentham to Fall River has been untouched by a torrent of advertising, with roughly half of the remaining field having reported spending at least $1 million each as of mid-August. That doesn’t include Leckey, who has reported giving her campaign $1 million of her own money.
“I’ve pretty much taken all of the mail I’ve gotten in the race, and thrown it directly into the recycling bin,” Becca Wefald, a 28-year-old undecided voter said Thursday outside the Brookline farmer’s market, where several candidates and their supporters converged on a rainy afternoon. “It’s so impersonal to have your mailbox flooded with junk.”
Candidates have ping-ponged across the district in recent days and made their final pitches mask-to-mask to voters, aiming to frame a race that’s long escaped tidy narratives.
Mermell, a former Brookline selectwoman, has seized on the two candidates who dropped out consolidating behind her, Cavell and Zannetos — the former a progressive one-time Obama speechwriter, the latter a more moderate tech entrepreneur. She has continually pitted her liberal platform backing a single-payer health care system and free public college tuition against Auchincloss, a Democrat who describes himself as an “Obama-Baker” voter after working for the state Republican Party and Governor Charlie Baker’s 2014 campaign.
“I hear it every day from voters: That, one, they want a proven progressive,” said Mermell, 40. And “they don’t want someone who spent their career doing the exact opposite.”
Auchincloss, 32, has largely sought to avoid the fray, repeatedly using President Trump as his direct foil even though every candidate has harshly criticized the Republican’s administration. He’s emphasized his service in the Marines, with groups such as VoteVets and the With Honor Fund helping pay for advertising or texts to voters, providing a counterbalance to attacks from an EMILY’s List-associated super PAC.
“The world has changed in the last year without question, and I think priorities have necessarily updated. But I don’t think my underlying message has changed: Standing up to the dangerous and hateful Trump agenda,” Auchincloss said.
But other candidates have bristled at the narrative among some in the political class that the race has effectively become a head-to-head match between Mermell and Auchincloss.
Linos, a Harvard epidemiologist, has pointed to her background as a unique tool amid COVID-19, reminding voters since her late entry into the race in May that few in Congress have a scientific background.
“It’s not, I’m only [about] one issue. This issue is the issue,” the 38-year-old said Thursday in Brookline, where she stood alongside campaign signs calling her an “Epidemiologist. Public Servant. Mom.” (She has a seven-year-old and three-year-old twins.)
Linos too, backs Medicare for All as part of a platform ceding little liberal ground to the field. “I don’t think we actually know which progressive has the best shot,” she said.
Leckey, 35, pushes herself as the progressive best positioned to upend the status quo.
A self-described Democratic socialist and former Wall Street regulator, she told about a dozen supporters outside Brookline’s town hall on Friday that the country’s wealth and racial disparities are “disgusting,” and recounted her own struggle; she cleaned restaurant floors to put herself through college after she emigrated from Morocco at age 20.
“This campaign has been standing strong, rooted in justice,” said Leckey, the field’s only Muslim and woman of color. “Progressives, especially, have one choice and that is this campaign.”
As other members of the field drift closer to the Democratic center, they’ve tried to define themselves less by ideology.
Grossman, 40, has melded her image as a mother of two school-aged children into the core of her messaging, touting tighter gun control and scaling back pharmaceutical prices. The daughter-in-law of Steve Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, she’s committed $430,000 of her own money into her campaign, helping run ads that feature her 6-year-old son and her mother’s struggle with an auto-immune condition and climbing drug costs.
“When we come out eventually on the other side of this pandemic, everything that we had been talking about before is still going to be there,” Grossman said Friday in Attleboro, where supporters waved to passing cars outside Capron Park. “We can’t go back to the way things were. We have to move forward. And moving forward includes sending new and different types of people and voices to Congress.”
Khazei, a two-time candidate for Senate, has, in turn, leaned on the experience and connections he said he can bring.
Wielding a detailed plan for each of the district’s 34 towns and cities, Khazei has been endorsed by several former high-ranking Obama administration officials — Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, and Arne Duncan, a former education secretary, among them — arguing that should former vice president Joe Biden win the White House in November, “these folks are all going to be back in government” in some form.
“And they’re all in my cell phone,” Khazei, 59, said. “I’m not going to go in as a junior member.”
Several of the candidates acknowledged parsing their policy differences takes precision, no easy task as tens of thousands voters have already rushed to cast their ballots via early or expanded mail-in voting
“Is it a progressive or someone who worked in the Republican Party? How much is too much self-funding? Are you the candidate for the moment or the one for many different issues?” Sigel, 44, asked, running through various questions that have hung over the race.
The Brookline Democrat has stressed in the race’s final days that he’s the only candidate to not have self-funded his campaign or drawn super PAC help — evidence, he said, of his claim as the unifying, people’s candidate. His campaign slogan “We the 4th” was emblazoned on a button he wore outside a quiet Hopkinton polling center Friday afternoon.
“Are you talking about it to gain votes? Or are you talking about it because you believe it?” Sigel said.
“Whether people believe it or not,” he added, “we’ll see that on Tuesday.”