For the most part, Massachusetts’ members of Congress can measure their time in office not in terms, but in decades. The state’s history of extremely safe congressional seats brings some advantages in Washington, where seniority and proximity to party leadership are legitimate currency. If the Democrats were to retake Congress, several Massachusetts representatives would be in line for committee chairmanships, which would help the state maintain its outsized influence on national politics.
On the other hand, there’s a strong case to be made for congressional turnover, to draw fresh ideas into individual districts and offer some hope of breaking Washington’s partisan dysfunction. Alas, vacant seats come up only rarely. And given the realities of campaign finance, sitting representatives only tend to draw credible challengers when they seem badly weakened. So it is with John Tierney, who narrowly weathered a scandal involving his wife’s and brothers-in-law’s finances two years ago, and now faces four primary challengers in his race to retain the Sixth District seat he has held since 1997.
Two of Tierney’s opponents have barely registered notice. The other two, Marisa DeFranco and Seth Moulton, offer a refreshing mix of energy and fresh ideas. Of them, Moulton, a 35-year-old Iraq war veteran and transportation specialist, offers the best chance for effectiveness and influence in Washington. He should be the voters’ choice in the Democratic primary.
An endorsement of Moulton isn’t a wholesale indictment of Tierney’s tenure in Washington. Though Tierney’s opponents like to paint him as an ineffective back-bencher — Moulton attacks him for only passing one bill, under his name, in nearly 18 years — that’s not a full representation of the way things work in Congress, where behind-the-scenes negotiations can yield results, and hard-fought amendments can change policy. Tierney has worked diligently on a number of issues, most notably efforts to make student loans more affordable. His close relationship with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, which has made him a beneficiary of the Democrats’ financial largesse, also gives him noteworthy access to influence.
Still, there is something problematic about Tierney’s full-throated partisan stances and his staunch defense of Congress’s business as usual. Returning him to Washington would do little to change a system that is widely seen as gridlocked and broken. Moulton and Tierney share nearly identical political views, but Moulton’s background, and his approach to discussing the issues, suggests an openness to new perspectives. His personal history is compelling. A Marblehead native who attended Phillips Academy in Andover and Harvard College, he chose to enlist as a Marine when he graduated from college, several months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After the country went to war, Moulton undertook four tours in Iraq, serving as an infantry platoon commander, fighting in the Battle of Najaf, and serving as a top aide to General David Petraeus.
Moulton’s work in Iraq — negotiating with warlords, developing on-the-ground relationships in tense circumstances — might bode well for his ability to deal with recalcitrant Republicans, and to broker agreements between the two parties. At the very least, his war experience, status as a veteran, and nuanced take on America’s Middle East policies lend him a thoughtfulness and gravity that would be an asset to Congress. Moulton also draws from his time in the private sector, working for a company that was constructing a high-speed railway between Dallas and Houston. The experience has given him an appreciation for public-private partnerships, along with ideas that could prove useful to the Sixth District’s cities and towns.
DeFranco, who first gained attention in her 2012 US Senate primary campaign against Elizabeth Warren, is a solo-practitioner attorney from Middleton who approaches the issues with a populist’s zeal and a small business owner’s practical perspective. Her history of civic engagement and volunteer service is admirable, and many of her specific ideas are compelling. But some of her proposals are so specific as to feel a bit naive, given the junior position she’d have in Washington. And her broad attacks on the establishment are reminiscent of the Tea Party’s all-encompassing fury, which has helped create gridlock, rather than cure it.
Moulton isn’t that sort of outsider. He has worked with high ranks of the military; he has backers in the financial and political worlds. That might make him less likely to be an agent of dramatic change, but it could also demonstrate an ability to bring new approaches to working the levers of power. To some degree, Moulton is a blank slate. But he represents a relatively rare opportunity for Massachusetts to send a newcomer to Congress with high hopes. It’s a chance the voters should take.