LAWRENCE — After six hot and humid hours on the campaign trail last month, Josh Zakim finally arrived in Lawrence, where he and Mayor Dan Rivera strolled through a park to greet residents who had taken over tables for a dominoes tournament.
Speaking in Spanish as merengue music played in the background, Rivera interrupted to remind everyone to vote in the Sept. 4. primary for Juana Matias and Marcos Devers, both well-known local Latino candidates. And, he added, vote for “mi amigo, Josh Zakim.”
Zakim, the Boston city councilor who is running for secretary of state, nodded and grinned.
“Hi, Josh Zakim, nice to meet you,” the candidate said in English, offering a handshake and a campaign flier.
This was unfamiliar territory for Zakim, who grew up in Newton, went to private school in Cambridge, and has represented the tony Back Bay and Beacon Hill neighborhoods for the past five years. In his uphill challenge to unseat Secretary of State William Galvin, he has ventured well beyond the Zakim Bridge that bears his father’s name to far-flung corners of the state, hoping to sow excitement among voters who have returned the incumbent to his post for the past two decades.
“It’s tough to run for statewide office,” said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, though he added that Zakim has the advantage of name recognition.
His father was Leonard “Lenny” Zakim, the civil rights leader from Boston who was active in Boston’s black and Jewish communities. Zakim doesn’t shun the name, either, and even played off it in a campaign video declaring his candidacy “a bridge to progress.”
“That last name is magic to a lot of people, but most of those people are around the Boston area,” Cunningham said.
Since announcing his first statewide campaign in November, the 34-year-old Zakim has attempted to ride a wave of younger progressive candidates challenging more established officeholders. He’s traveled from city to city with a platform that promises to bring new energy to the office, whose duties including overseeing elections, the securities industry, public records laws, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
He seems comfortable in these new environs, whether talking to locals one-on-one at a Mexican restaurant in Lawrence about improving voter access or with union members in Worcester about construction permitted by the Historical Commission.
He has won the endorsement of big-city mayors such as Boston’s Martin J. Walsh and politicians from Northampton to Cape Cod, including US Representatives Seth Moulton and Niki Tsongas. With the help of former state treasurer Steve Grossman, a family friend, he has raised more than $600,000 since December, and had just over $430,000 left in his campaign account as of mid-August.
Earlier this year Zakim stunned the political establishment by winning the Democratic Party’s endorsement at its convention — the first time the party had backed a nonincumbent in more than three decades.
Still, by most accounts he faces an uphill challenge. The only public poll in the race so far showed Galvin comfortably ahead of Zakim, 46 percent to 17 percent, according to the WBUR survey taken in June. Sixty-two percent of those polled say they have never heard of Zakim.
Galvin also has more than $2.6 million in the bank.
Zakim said he recognizes the challenges of going against a longtime incumbent. (“We’re certainly the underdog in this race,” he said.) But he stressed the importance of reaching out to voters at large events like the convention and in one-on-one settings on the campaign trail.
“It’s an opportunity to talk to people, make sure they’re aware that for the first time, in a long time, there’s a choice in this race,” he said.
Married, and expecting a child in December with his wife, Grace, Zakim is a lawyer by trade. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and earned a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law. He briefly worked for Greater Boston Legal Services, in the consumer rights unit, and worked on municipal bond transactions at the law firm Mintz Levin.
As a city councilor, he has focused on immigrants’ rights issues, as well as civil rights and voter access, and he has said he would bring those values to the office of secretary.
“He can make that connection, one on one, work the room well, and he is becoming a stronger and stronger orator,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley, an ally of Zakim’s on the council, noting his speech at the convention and his performance at a recent debate.
He said he appreciated Zakim’s confidence, but also his dry sense of humor. “He’s that type of guy you’d want to have a beer with. . . and a guy you’d want to have your back in a foxhole,” he said.
“He works for people,” said Rivera, the Lawrence mayor, who endorsed his message of bringing change to the office.
On a weekday in July, Zakim and a campaign aide traveled some 180 miles in a gray Honda Civic.
In Chelmsford, he argued that the state under Galvin has fallen behind in improving voter rights. The way Zakim sees it, voter access is at the center of every other government function, and at a time of disarray in Washington, the secretary of state should be leading the effort for reform.
“It’s the way we make decisions in this society, and I think that goes to everything,” Zakim said. “The way we set up all the rules is at the ballot box.”
An hour and 40 miles later, in Worcester, he toured the Canal District with Councilor Khrystian E. King, who said he was looking for a “fresh perspective” in the secretary of state’s office.
Their first stop was Lock 50, a restaurant where five members of the local carpenters’ union and a local entrepreneur looking to join the state’s fledgling marijuana industry came at King’s request. They peppered Zakim with questions about fees for small corporations and his plans for development projects governed by the Historical Commission.
Ed Russo, the restaurant owner, said he welcomed the visit, calling the possibility of a new secretary “refreshing.”
“I want to see it across the state, fresh change,” he said.
Zakim later stopped at a pub, and a Mediterranean restaurant, though there were few patrons on a slow Wednesday afternoon.
At The Queen’s Cups bakery, the owner told Zakim she is not typically politically active, but she was glad to take his card. “It smells amazing,” Zakim whispered to a staff member, before pulling out a $10 bill to buy a lemon square cupcake for King and a Cap’n Crunch crispy treat for himself.
Around the corner, at Harding Tire, co-owner Debbie Feingold said she recalled Zakim’s name from the June convention at the DCU Center, a few blocks away.
“It’s good to get some new blood,” she said. “What’s fortunate for you is your name recognition, with your father. It helps out.”