As Representative Seth Moulton spent the Fourth of July shaking hands in Nevada in an attempt to drum up support for his presidential campaign, a city councilor in his Massachusetts congressional district put the finishing touches on her announcement to take him on in the Democratic primary next September.
Lisa Peterson, a financial planner who was first elected to the Salem City Council in 2017, will announce Monday in a video that she intends to battle Moulton for the nomination in the district, which includes the North Shore and parts of Essex and Middlesex counties.
Moulton’s presidential ambitions are front and center in Peterson’s case for why she would be a better representative for the Sixth District.
“It’s clear he’s moved on from the district,” said Peterson, 41, in an interview. “I mean, obviously he’s running for president so he’s not here, he’s not representing us. I think we can do so much better.”
Peterson joins Salem State University trustee Jamie Zahlaway Belsito of Topsfield in the ranks of people officially challenging Moulton. But Belsito once helped Moulton’s Republican rival, Richard Tisei — a tough sell to Democratic primary voters — making Peterson the most credible challenger to emerge against Moulton thus far. Former state senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover, state Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, and Angus McQuilken, an activist against gun violence, may also jump into the race, though none of them have declared.
Peterson says she was inspired to run for City Council after the election of President Trump in 2016. She created a private Facebook group called “Run for Our Lives” to encourage women to run for office. It swelled to over 1,000 members before Peterson realized she should take her own advice and run for something. Now, she says, she wants to take a step onto the national stage, in part to set an example for her 10-year-old daughter, Alice.
“I want to show. . . my own daughter what’s possible and that we can step into our political power and that we can really make a difference,” she said.
Moulton, a decorated Iraq war veteran and Harvard graduate who also lives in Salem, is a formidable opponent and fund-raiser. But he hasn’t faced a primary challenge since he knocked off nine-term incumbent John Tierney in the Democratic primary in 2014, stressing a fresh outsider perspective more than any deep-seated policy differences. (Tierney is also reportedly weighing reprising the rivalry by joining the primary race.) Peterson appears poised to deploy a similar playbook against Moulton, stressing that she is more connected to the district than a politician who has spent time far afield seeking the presidency.
“Seth’s record of accomplishments in the district speak for themselves,” said Moulton spokesman Matt Corrodoni in a statement. “Both Seth and his team continue to work around the clock to successfully deliver results while he’s running for president.”
Speculation that Moulton could face a primary challenge began last year when he waged a public and losing battle to block Representative Nancy Pelosi from becoming House speaker. The move generated a backlash among some of his constituents who berated Moulton in a boisterous town hall last November. Moulton said the stance was about wanting to foster a new generation of leadership among Democrats. “I think it disappointed a lot of people in the district,” Peterson said. “I think it made a lot of people wonder if he was representing us well.”
It’s unclear whether the primary challenges will cause Moulton to rethink his presidential campaign, which he has focused on veterans’ mental health and national security issues. Asked whether he had to decide between seeking the presidency and defending his congressional seat by a reporter last month, Moulton suggested he had another year to make up his mind.
“Our primary is in September of 2020, so I have to decide by then,” Moulton told a group of national newspaper and TV reporters in Miami, where he shared his thoughts on the first Democratic debate. Moulton didn’t qualify for the debate stage, after failing to crack zero percent in any of the 20 polls used to determine the lineup.
The congressman added that he is used to facing challenges, referencing his defeat in 2018 of Republican Joseph Schneider, a businessman who ran on term limits for members of Congress in the Democratic district.
“He was a very good candidate. I still beat him by double digits,” Moulton said of Schneider. “But you always have to be aware of that.”
Peterson says she will kick off her campaign with a series of public workshops in the district to allow voters to have a say in shaping her policy platform. Her top issues are combating climate change, finding ways to make housing and health care more affordable, improving public transportation in the region, and immigration reform.
“I’ve been on the very front lines of these issues and I’ve sat with so many members of our community who are in tears about these very real concerns that affect our lives,” Peterson said. “I haven’t had the experience in Washington, but I’ve had the experience in the district.”