Ten candidates. Thirty-one hours. One Democratic primary
Shoppers buzzed by outside the Chelmsford Market Basket when a man asked again, just to make sure he heard it correctly.
“How many? 10?!” he said, turning a campaign flier over in his hand. “No wonder we can’t keep it straight.”
Welcome to the Third District, where 10 — yes, 10 — Democrats are vying to replace retiring US Representative Niki Tsongas in Massachusetts’ largest congressional primary in two decades.
With no front-runner, it makes for a busy campaign trail. Over two days last week, candidates weaved through a Hindu temple, small-town post office, Buddhist water blessing, senior center, and, a staple in any north-of-Boston political race, multiple Market Baskets.
Thirty-one hours. Hundreds of hands shaken. And, maybe, the outcome of a congressional primary turned.
Friday, 11:30 a.m.
DRACUT — Her arm wrapped around 91-year-old Jeanette Iby’s shoulder, Barbara L’Italien swayed as the two crooned “You Are My Sunshine.”
“My dad used to sing this with me,” L’Italien said.
The scene at the Dracut Council on Aging’s 90-plus birthday party is familiar for L’Italien, the area’s state senator and herself a former elder care social worker. She’s attended the last three years, handing out citations to every senior turning 90 or older.
“Claire?” L’Italien asked, citation in hand, as she scanned another table. When a woman raised her hand, L’Italien smiled. That was her mother’s name, too, she said.
Walking the buffet line, L’Italien chatted with the oldest party-goer, a 102-year-old man who said he once was a mill worker. A woman with him in line leaned in.
“And,” she told L’Italien, “he votes in every election.”
LOWELL — Juana Matias moved almost as quickly as she spoke, bouncing from vegetable stands to baby carriages. She greeted one person in English (“Do you live in Lowell?”) and another in Spanish (“¿Cómo está?”). In the first 15 minutes at the Lowell Farmers’ Market, she shook just as many hands.
At 31, Matias is the field’s youngest candidate. But in a race noted for its number of first-time office seekers, the Lawrence state representative is one of a few to win before, topping an incumbent for her seat in 2016.
Back near the market’s entrance, Matias walked toward its “dance zone” — a 10-foot stretch of sidewalk flanked by a DJ booth playing, at that moment, the “Cupid Shuffle.”
Two girls were dancing in a line. Matias — who, during an earlier song, said she preferred to watch — decided to jump in.
LOWELL — Ding!
It was pouring rain, and Rufus Gifford’s campaign headquarters was filled with 30 volunteers glued to smartphones and checking laptops. On one table was a canary-yellow classroom bell that, with a quick rap, signified another voter saying they’d back Gifford.
The former US ambassador to Denmark likes to say he’s running the “most modern and most old-fashioned” campaign — enough so that campaign workers chuckled when he said it again Friday.
The modern part includes the phone banking system, touted as the “predictive dialer in the cloud.” The old-fashioned part refers to retail politicking.
But with rain outside, Gifford was making calls inside. To his left, a twentysomething used a tablet and wireless ear buds. To his right, a gray-haired volunteer worked off a piece of paper and a flip phone. Activity buzzed behind them.
Saturday, 9:30 a.m.
SHIRLEY — This Middlesex County town is what strategists call “purple.” Governor Charlie Baker won here in 2014. President Trump got 42 percent of the votes in 2016. On Saturday, Alexandra Chandler told voters at its Main Street post office that she worked for Democratic and Republican administrations as a naval intelligence analyst.
“If you lower my taxes, I’ll vote for you,” one man told her.
Another asked if Chandler is a Republican or Democrat. He walked away when she identified as the latter.
A postal employee later asked Chandler and her supporters to move down the sidewalk. Farther from foot traffic, her supporters strategized if another event was better worth her time.
Then a motorist sped by, beeping her car horn three times and waving at Chandler’s campaign signs.
“One [beep] is usually being polite,” Chandler said. But three? “That’s enthusiasm.”
CHELMSFORD — Lori Trahan was spinning from shopper to shopper outside this Market Basket when a voice emerged from the automatic doors.
“Hi Lori!” Kathy Tubridy boomed as she pushed an overflowing shopping cart. When Trahan’s 4-year-old daughter, Caroline, handed her a campaign flier, Tubridy smiled. “I have a bunch of those at our house.”
“Good job, Lori!” a woman shouted.
“I know you,” another told Trahan, studying her brochure. “You have a very familiar face.”
Trahan, who runs a consulting company, lives in Westford but touts her Lowell roots. On Saturday, her daughter sported a shirt that read “Born/Raised/Stayed/#MA3,” though she wasn’t alone. Another shopper, Roberta Emerson — and a friend since the second grade, Trahan said — arrived at the supermarket 30 minutes after Trahan.
“Who doesn’t shop in their Lori shirt?” Emerson said with a laugh.
LOWELL — A garland of flowers draped around his neck, Beej Das spoke to a room of hundreds of his fellow Indian-Americans, awash in bright blues, purples, and greens, celebrating the ISSO Shree Swaminarayan Hindu Temple’s 12th anniversary.
“I’m just so proud of this community,” he said to applause.
The speech was also a call to action. He’d be the first Indian-American in Congress “from Maine to Florida,” if elected, the hotel executive said, but across those 14 states, eight have some of the country’s highest Indian-American populations.
“On Sept. 4, please remember there is a primary election,” he implored. “One of your own needs your support.
“We need to have power at the federal level, so that all of what we’ve done as a community — all of our economic and social progress — needs to now become political progress.”
LOWELL — The rain had finally let up at the Southeast Asian Water Festival when Bopha Malone knelt to the ground. It was time for more water.
A wristlet was tied to her arm, and as she kneeled before a Buddhist monk, water from a silver bowl was sprinkled over her. Malone, a Cambodian refugee, asked him to bless her on the trail.
“District Three?” he asked.
Soon, a boat racing team surrounded her near the tent, heads bowed while water sprayed across them.
The blessing, Malone said, is about “fortune” and cleansing — helpful sentiments two weeks before a primary.
And with that, she ran through the soggy grass to the festival stage, where she and other candidates were being recognized. The ominous rain clouds began to clear, and Malone, a bank executive, gathered volunteers for a photo.
“It’s rejuvenating,” she said.
LOWELL — The line of people formed quickly in front of Jeffrey Ballinger. Few, if any, knew who he was, but they did know he had balloons.
“You solve the labor problem, you solve all the problems,” the labor activist told a mother as he handed her daughter a yellow balloon emblazoned with the words “Ballinger For Congress.”
“Blue, please!” a woman said, motioning toward a balloon.
“He’s blue, too,” Ballinger’s wife, Tanyeli, said, motioning to her husband. “Democrat.”
Ballinger reminded parents about the Sept. 4 primary. He passed out business cards and asked if they were registered to vote.
Balloons, he said, were a first. A week earlier at the Bolton Fair, he handed out Brazil nuts, but several people declined, citing allergies.
No one turned away a balloon.
“The strollers are lining up!” he said.
HAVERHILL — Dan Koh kept a pen handy. At each door he knocked with no answer, he grabbed a campaign flier and scribbled a note for the resident.
“My cellphone number,” Koh said. “Some of them call not believing it’s actually me.”
So it went for Koh, the former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, as he zigzagged from house to house, finally catching people at home at the next street.
“I’ve had other [campaigns] coming to the house, too,” one man said.
In a nearby complex, a man in suspenders opened his door to Koh’s extended hand. “I’ve seen your face all over the TV,” he told Koh. The man’s neighbor — and his three dogs — answered, too.
But at the next door, knocks again met silence. The pen returned.
“We were on a streak, too,” he said.
WESTFORD — Outside another Market Basket, Leonard Golder said his biggest challenge is name recognition.
As shoppers passed, he touted his Facebook page. He handed them a two-sided sheet of paper with his background and priorities. Stuck to his lapel was a campaign sticker recycled from his run for the Massachusetts House a decade ago, the words “state representative” scratched out, replaced by “Congress.”
So when John O’Hara stopped, Golder was ready. O’Hara said politicians “do what they want to when they want to.”
“You can vote them out,” Golder said.
O’Hara said he’s frustrated by federally elected officials who just “make everything better for themselves.”
Golder, a former selectman, said he’s served only in local government.
They went back and forth, but O’Hara had the final word.
“I’ll read your thing,” he said, the paper in hand. “Good luck.”