UMass Lowell and the Boston Globe are hosting a debate for Democratic candidates in the Third District on Sunday, April 29 at noon and 2 p.m. Watch it on BostonGlobe.com. More information is available here.
For months, a growing cadre of Democrats have been ping-ponging across the state’s Third Congressional District, meeting with small groups of voters, denouncing President Trump, and trying to underscore their credentials.
And to simply distinguish themselves from the crowd.
Buoyed by the allure of a rare open seat and a galvanized national party, the 13 Democrats vying for the nomination this September to replace retiring Representative Niki Tsongas have created an eclectic field dominated by first-time candidates with lengthy resumes, varying political experience, and little name recognition.
Some moved into towns and cities they’ve never called home or to places they haven’t lived in since childhood. Most use Trump and his policies as rallying cries.
And all of them are benefiting from one major factor: There’s not a front-runner among them.
It can be a rarity in Massachusetts politics, where the state’s deep bench of Democrats and unwritten “wait-your-turn” rules often allow a well-known candidate to quickly clear a field. But since Tsongas declared in August that she wouldn’t seek reelection, it’s drawn in a wave of unexpected names, some who say they otherwise wouldn’t have considered a bid.
“I never thought I was going to run. I really didn’t,” said Lori Trahan, a Lowell native who left D.C. over 10 years ago after serving on the staff of then-representative Martin T. Meehan during a tumultuous time of impeachment and partisan bickering.
Yet, here she is, now a member of what could be the largest congressional primary field the state has seen in four decades.
“I can’t think of a similar occurrence, in this region, because there is no obvious successor [in this race],” said Frank Talty, codirector of University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion. “It’s going to be a noisy summer.”
The Third District has long been anchored by Lowell, its largest city and political epicenter, which has produced the last two incumbents — Tsongas and Meehan. But the city, insiders and candidates say, appears ripe for competition, potentially weakening its ability to drive its top vote-getter to victory if several Democrats slice up its votes.
That’s put a focus on other corners of the sprawling district, from affluent suburbs in Concord and Carlisle in the south, to the blue-collar cities of Lawrence and Methuen in the north, and Fitchburg, Gardner, and other communities in the west.
“I don’t think Lowell will be the power base in this race,” said state Senator Barbara L’Italien, one of two elected officials in the field.
This has only added to the wide-open aura of the primary.
Labor endorsements and local lawmaker support have been scattered across the field as candidates try to establish footholds. Dan Koh, an Andover native and former chief of staff to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, has sought to frame himself as the labor candidate, cornering more than a dozen vows of support from unions. He’s raised a field-leading $2.5 million, with help from Boston developers, companies, and others with business in Boston.
“There’s no heir apparent in this race,” Koh said. “I think the bottom line is what messages are you sending and what are you prioritizing.”
The race, for its focus on local issues, has taken cues from the national environment. Nearly all the candidates have fashioned themselves as a foil to the Trump administration, hammering the importance of jobs and pushing back against the White House’s immigration policies. The district has leaned Democrat, voting for Hillary Clinton by a 23-point margin in 2016.
Several candidates, in stump speeches or through their websites, even emphasize their family’s own immigrant roots. That may be an attempt to connect with cities such as Lawrence, where 40 percent of the population is foreign-born, or to underscore their ties to the district as their family’s first home in the United States.
L’Italien, the Andover senator, points out that her immigrant grandparents settled in Lawrence in the early 20th century. Koh’s campaign notes in every press release that his great-grandparents did the same a century ago. Trahan, speaking to a group in Chelmsford, responded to a question about immigration by speaking to her family’s Portuguese roots.
Bopha Malone, a bank vice president from Lowell, is a Cambodian refugee, while Juana Matias, a first-term state representative from Lawrence, immigrated to Haverhill at the age of 5 from the Dominican Republic. She touts that her election would make her the first Latina congresswoman from New England.
“There’s a huge sentiment of voters who are concerned with the Trump administration,” Matias said. “But they just don’t have to want to hear about an anti-Trump agenda. How do you move this country forward?”
The field gives other indications it’s been molded by the rise — and response — to Trump. Alexandra Chandler, a former US Navy intelligence analyst, points out that she is a Russian-speaking attorney, and has built her pitch partly on her national security experience. Beej Das, a hospitality executive who emphasizes his business record, said with a laugh that he was concerned Trump, a real estate mogul, “would have ruined it for all of us business owners.”
It was the country’s current political climate that convinced Rufus Gifford, a former US ambassador to Denmark, to say last summer he intended to seek some type of office. He ultimately targeted the open seat in the Third District, moved to Concord — he’s originally from Manchester-by-the-Sea — and caught attention last week when he emerged with a slim lead in a Boston Globe/UMass Lowell poll, drawing 11 percent of support.
“We know we need to define ourselves before the end of June, before school gets out,” said Gifford, who has already fanned mailings out to prospective voters. “This is all an effort to slowly build name ID, to slowly build support. This is a marathon.”
It remains to be seen if all 13 candidates make the ballot ahead of next month’s deadline to file signatures with local cities and towns. The last time there’s been a congressional primary this large was in 1976, when Edward Markey, now a senator, emerged from a 12-person field in what was then the Seventh District. He won with just 22 percent of the vote, according to state records.
Twice since, there have been primaries with 10 candidates, including in 1998, when Michael E. Capuano won his congressional primary with 23 percent of the vote.
The race for Tsongas’ seat could follow a similar formula when voters head to the polls for the Sept. 4 primary, the day after Labor Day. Other candidates include Patrick Littlefield, a former Veterans Affairs director from Boxford; Keith St. John of Marlborough; Leonard Golder of Stow; Jeff Ballinger of Andover; and Don Bradley of Andover.
The winner would face Rick Green, a Pepperell businessman and the lone Republican running, in the Nov. 6 general election.
Beyond one another, nearly every candidate is wrestling a more nebulous foe: Building a name.
It’s one of the biggest obstacles for a candidate like Das, whose campaign released a video jokingly highlighting his plight. Seated around a conference table, a team of advisers acknowledge that not only do few know who Beej Das is, they don’t what he is.
Twenty-four percent of those “polled” think he’s a smoothie flavor, a staffer reports. Seventy-four percent think he’s an “organic chip dip.” Beej is not even his real name, an adviser points out. It’s Abhijit.
“Who names someone Abhijit?” a staffer asks.
The camera then pans across the table, where a woman raises her hand. It’s Mitra Das, the candidate’s mother.
“Really Mrs. Das?” adviser Scott Ferson asks in the video. “You didn’t think he might run for Congress someday?”
Perhaps not. But again, did many of these candidates?