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Potential candidates are already jostling for Joe Kennedy’s congressional seat

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2019/Globe Staff

More than a dozen potential candidates — from obscure local officials to established statewide officeholders — are not-so-quietly eyeing Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s congressional seat or openly declaring their interest in a campaign that may never materialize.

The crush of activity has been set off by speculation that Kennedy, the 38-year-old scion of the famous family, may leave the seat he has held since 2013 to challenge Senator Edward J. Markey, the 73-year-old party stalwart who has served in Congress since 1976. Kennedy is expected to make his decision in the coming weeks.

Until the last several days, it was a lonely race for the Fourth Congressional District seat, featuring just one challenger to Kennedy: a Brookline resident and self-described democratic socialist named Ihssane Leckey.


“I suspect every single legislator, city councilor, school committee member, and appointed water board member in the district is thinking of joining Ihssane Leckey in the race,” said John Walsh, a former chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Count state Representative Tommy Vitolo, a 40-year-old Brookline Democrat elected in November 2018, as among those suddenly hearing the call to serve in Congress.

“I think I could be useful in Washington,” Vitolo said, “just as Congressman Kennedy has been really good on issues around immigration and LGBTQ issues.”

The potential field of 2020 candidates is drawing broad interest because Democrats do not see a dominant figure on the horizon. The sprawling district also includes several distinct power centers that could propel a potential candidacy.

Stretching across 34 cities and towns, it includes the wealthy, liberal strongholds of Brookline and Newton, the conservative suburbs of Wrentham, Norfolk, and North Attleborough, and the working-class South Coast cities of Taunton and Fall River.

The race could also be unsettled because Democratic voters have lately shown a willingness to elevate insurgents such as Ayanna Pressley, the former Boston city councilor who ousted 10-term representative Michael Capuano in the 2018 primary.


“It’s pretty clear that in congressional races, particularly congressional primaries, expecting the unexpected is probably the right strategy,” said Steve Grossman, the former state treasurer and former state and national Democratic Party chairman, who lives in Newton. “There’s no clear pathway because the demographics of the electorate are changing so dramatically, even from the time Joe ran to now.”

The most established potential candidate might be state Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, a Brookline resident who would not have to give up her seat to run. She has been calling party leaders to discuss a potential candidacy, according to one person she called. Goldberg did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday.

Two Democratic state senators — Becca Rausch of Needham, who was elected in November 2018, and Paul Feeney of Foxborough, who was elected in 2017 — are expressing interest publicly.

Rausch wrote in an e-mail that she’s been focused on issues such as maternal health and election reform, but “given the clear nexus between my policy work on the state level and issues needing real reform on the federal level, I would consider the opportunity to run for Congress should Congressman Kennedy decide to vacate his seat.”

Feeney said, “I’m humbled by those that have reached out in the last couple of days to urge me to run for Congress if the opportunity presents itself, and I will give it serious consideration at the right time after talking with my family and supporters.”


A third Democratic state senator mentioned as a potential candidate, Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton, declined to discuss whether he would consider running, saying, “I don’t play what-if games.”

Jesse Mermell, the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, has been telling friends, family, and supporters that she is virtually certain to run, if Kennedy gives up his seat.

She lives in Brookline and was a communications director for former governor Deval Patrick and a close friend of Pressley.

Chris Dempsey, the director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, who served as policy director for Kennedy’s 2012 campaign and was active in the movement against hosting the 2024 Olympics in Boston, said he, too, is interested in running.

“It’s certainly something I would think about,” said Dempsey, a Brookline resident who added he has not been calling donors or advocates yet.

Former New Bedford mayor Scott W. Lang said he has been deciding whether to challenge Markey, but would consider running for Kennedy’s seat, if Kennedy runs for Senate.

“This is going to be dominoes,” Lang said. “If Kennedy runs against Markey then, obviously, there are going to be a lot of people who will recalculate what they can do in public service.”

Still, Lang acknowledged he would have to move since New Bedford is not in the district, and added, “I’m probably not going to move to an apartment in Fall River.”


Josh Zakim, a Boston city councilor who grew up in Newton, has been talking to party leaders about a potential candidacy, according to two people who have spoken to him. Zakim did not return messages on Tuesday.

Two Newton city councilors — Jake Auchincloss and Becky Walker Grossman — are declaring their interest in the race.

“We need a voice for the exhausted majority, the people who are tired of the ‘us-versus-them,’ far-left, far-right populism,” said Auchincloss, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan.

Grossman, a former prosecutor and the daughter-in-law of Steve Grossman, said she’s giving serious consideration because “I think the future of our country is at a critical moment,” and “it’s a time for bold leadership to step up.”

Democratic leaders and strategists said other potential candidates could include former Newton mayor Setti Warren and former Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez, who lives in Needham.

Warren, now executive director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, did not respond to messages on Tuesday. Gonzalez declined to comment.

Although the district leans strongly Democratic, several Republicans have been mentioned as potential candidates, including Keiko Orrall, a former state representative and Republican national commiteewoman, who lives in Lakeville; and state Representatives Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton and Shawn Dooley of Norfolk.

O’Connell and Orrall did not respond to messages. Dooley acknowledged he is interested.

“Certainly, I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people over the last four or five days, so it’s something I would definitely look into,” he said. “I think most people who go into public service would love to do more and help more people, so that would be the incentive.”


Correction: This story has been updated to correct Josh Zakim’s status on the city council.

Michael Levenson can be reached at