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In primary and beyond, Democrats grapple with a generational divide

The 30- and 40-somethings on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot are buoyed by a national trend, and their contests echo a generational divide in the party between its longtime stalwarts and upstart contenders, party members said. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

The next generation of Massachusetts Democrats is knocking on the door.

On Tuesday, will voters let them in?

In a state where constituents often stick with a familiar name (see: Markey, Edward J., the US senator who began his uninterrupted congressional tenure as a Representative more than 41 years ago), it can be an uphill battle for younger hopefuls to break through.

But the 30- and 40-somethings on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot are buoyed by a national trend, and their contests echo a generational divide in the party between its longtime stalwarts and upstart contenders, party members said.

In Massachusetts, there’s “a new generation of leaders ready to bring a new set of eyes to the same old set of challenges,” said 33-year-old state Senator Eric P. Lesser, adding that the state is seeing “a surge of enthusiasm from younger candidates because they represent that change.”


Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who is cochairman of the chamber’s Millennial Engagement Initiative, said “there’s an increasing belief that we live in a time of great urgency, and the status quo frankly just won’t do.”

Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said he believes the election of President Trump “reminded people how important it is to stick your neck out and run for office or go vote.”

Bickford, 55, said “it started the day after the inauguration with the women’s march. I think it has been amplified since then about how important it is to be active. . . . People are angry, and that has definitely energized the younger generation.”

On Tuesday’s ballot, Josh Zakim, a 34-year-old Boston city councilor, is aiming to dethrone Secretary of State William F. Galvin, 67.

Zakim has attacked Galvin for not modernizing state election systems, painting him as resistant to progressive change. Galvin, first elected to state office in 1975, has framed his opponent as lacking the necessary experience, and in one debate underscored a key vote he took in the Legislature when Zakim was barely 6 years old.


In the Boston-anchored Seventh Congressional District, Ayanna S. Pressley, a 44-year-old city councilor, is challenging Representative Michael E. Capuano, 66.

“We’re seeing a lot of young people really step up,” said Dan Koh, 33 , one of 10 Democrats seeking to succeed retiring Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, 72, in the Lowell-anchored Third District. “We’re seeing a new generation of leaders,” said Koh, one of seven candidates in the field who are 45 or younger.

And in the key Democratic primary race for Suffolk County district attorney, several candidates a generation younger than the departing incumbent are vying to succeed Daniel F. Conley, 60. The five Democrats — Evandro C. Carvalho, Linda G. Champion, Gregory D. Henning, Shannon McAuliffe, and Rachael S. Rollins — range in age from 36 to 50 years old.

“A lot of us, millennials, we’re starting families in our communities, we’re rooted in our communities,” said Carvalho, a 36-year-old state representative. “We can’t sit and just complain and wish things were better. We have to step up.”

Further down the ballot, activist Suezanne P. Bruce, 53, and emergency room physician Jon Santiago, 36, are trying Tuesday to unseat state Representative Byron Rushing, 76, who was first elected to the House in 1982.

“This race isn’t really about age or race or any identity politics; it’s about issues,” said Santiago, who is running to represent parts of the South End, Roxbury, Fenway, and the Back Bay. “But the fact that I do look at things differently matters. Byron’s been around almost 40 years in office, and the district and the way of doing business has changed.”


Rushing, for his part, pushed back on the idea that he has fallen out of step with the district.

“What people are looking for is that their politics are represented in the Massachusetts Legislature,” said Rushing, a top member of House leadership. “And I certainly represent the progressive politics of the majority of people in my district.”

Maurice T. Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said it’s tough for Democrats in Massachusetts because people win office and then don’t leave. “There’s a lot of pent-up ambition,” he said.

He added that in some election years, voters are looking for a change, and in others, experience is tops.

Of course, the type of experience a longtime politian has — and emphasizes — makes a difference.

On his campaign website, Capuano trumpets “a solid record of accomplishment” and calls himself an “experienced Representative.” In his television ads, he underscores what kind of experience he means: “100 percent in the fight to stop Donald Trump.”

Pressley, his challenger, rarely mentions age directly, but more subtly underscores the divide.

“Activism is no longer an option,” she says in her messaging, “but is the expectation of our generation.”


To be sure, there are hard-fought contests on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot where the incumbent and challenger hail from the same generation and age is not at all an animating factor.

For example, state Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, the House’s budget chief and one of Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s top lieutenants, is facing a tough challenge from lawyer Nika Elugardo, who is running to Sánchez’s left. Sánchez is 49 and Elugardo 45.

And there are plenty of strong contenders of many generations, such as state Senator Barbara A. L’Italien, 57, who served as a legislator from 2003-2011 and then again beginning in 2015.

“After 15 years, I truly believe what the Third Congressional District deeply needs is a seasoned, experienced legislator who has done the hard work of lawmaking,” she said. “That experience sets me apart from everyone else in the race.”

But nationally, younger candidates have had some high-profile wins of late.

Bucking the Republican and Democratic establishments, two 39-year-olds, Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum, won their respective parties’ nominations for governor in Florida last week. (The man they’re seeking to succeed, Governor Rick Scott, is 65 years old.)

And there is 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley, 56, in a Democratic primary in New York earlier this year.

That has raised the hopes of some of Massachusetts’ younger Democratic contenders.

Of course, perspectives can change. A younger candidate who wins this year calling for fresh leadership may be singing a different tune a decade — or even a few years — down the line.


Cunningham, the professor, recalled the different framing that longtime state legislator William M. Bulger, who served as state Senate president from 1978 to 1996, used during his tenure in politics.

“My old friend Bill Bulger, ran in 1960 saying, ‘Give a young man a chance!’ ” Cunningham said. “And then much later he’d say, ‘experience counts!’ ”

Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.