The Race to Replace Joe Kennedy in Congress Is Heating Up

Ihssane Leckey, a democratic socialist and former bank regulator, is surging in the open field.

Ihssane Leckey, left, and Jesse Mermell, right. Photo: Courtesy of Ihssane Leckey for Congress, Courtesy of Jesse Mermell for Congress

A crowded primary for Joe Kennedy’s congressional seat in Massachusetts is presenting Democratic primary voters with one of their final opportunities of the cycle to decide which direction to take the party. The nine-person race includes just about every archetype from every faction of the Democratic Party. 

There has been no public polling of the 4th Congressional District race, leaving voters who want to cast their ballot strategically in the dark. But a new internal survey from the campaign of Ihssane Leckey, provided to The Intercept, shows the progressive candidate surging into a virtual tie with the campaign of Jesse Mermell. 

Mermell is a longtime friend and ally of Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who has endorsed her, while Leckey has the support of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who faces her own primary in Minnesota on Tuesday.

But the poll has Leckey and Mermell not battling for first, but for third — within striking distance of two more conservative Democrats. 

Mermell comes out of the party’s dominant wing, having served as a top aide to Gov. Deval Patrick and in a senior role at Planned Parenthood. She was also a board member at the Alliance for Business Leadership. A fellow Alliance board member, Josh Boger, recently backed Mermell in the Boston Globe. He’s the founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, recently in the news for its $272,000-per-year cystic fibrosis medication. 

Like Pressley, Mermell has fixed herself in the Elizabeth Warren lane, caught between the insurgent Bernie Sanders left and the deep pockets and influence of Massachusetts’ conservative political establishment. That can work for the popular incumbent Pressley, but it didn’t work for Warren, and Mermell appears stalled. She won 9 percent in a June survey also commissioned by Leckey’s campaign, and only rose 1 percentage point in the most recent telephone survey to 10 percent. The most recent survey of 400 likely primary voters was conducted from August 1-4 by Frederick Polls, the same firm that conducted the June survey. (Warren herself has not endorsed in the race.)

Newton City Councilor Becky Walker Grossman attends the Brookline Democratic Town Committee as one of the six declared candidates for US Representative for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district on Oct. 20, 2019 in Brookline, MA.

Newton City Councilor Becky Walker Grossman attends the Brookline Democratic Town Committee on Oct. 20, 2019, in Brookline, Mass.

Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
The leader in the poll was former prosecutor and corporate attorney Becky Grossman, pulling 19 percent with more than triple the support of the Bain Capital-backed Alan Khazei, the founder of City Year who is currently polling at 6 percent. Grossman decided to run for public office just a few days after Donald Trump’s election, part of a wave of resistance that brought a generation of talented women and men — mostly women — off the sidelines and into political combat. A Newton City Council member, she describes herself as the mom most likely to organize the class Halloween party, and her top priority is taking on the National Rifle Association, a popular issue with Democratic primary voters in the district. 

The ads flooding Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District — winding through affluent Boston suburbs and down to working-class Fall River — on air, online, and by mail, depict Grossman’s main qualification as her status as a mom, something Ihssane Leckey can also claim. “There are only 25 moms of young kids in Congress” has become a constant and grating refrain in Grossman’s ads. What’s left out in the flurry of pro-Grossman commercials is a different familial connection, this one to Steven Grossman: her father-in-law who has served as the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Massachusetts state treasurer. 

She’s taken in tens of thousands in maxed out donations from members of the Grossman family, received financial support from a smattering of Boston’s top financial firm executives, and won a healthy contribution from the National Association of Realtors PAC.

Despite both her statewide and national political connections, Grossman, too, has stalled, rising just 2 points from 17 percent in June.

Much of the movement in the poll went toward 32-year-old Jake Auchincloss, another Newton city councilor and a former Republican who has been hammered recently for a series of anti-Muslim and racist remarks. In 2016, Auchincloss defended the harassment of Black students at a local high school on First Amendment grounds after a Confederate flag was used for intimidation, likening it to that of a Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ flag. Similarly, constituents have raised grave concerns about a 2010 Facebook post in which Auchincloss wrote: “So we can’t burn their book, but they can burn our flag?” citing an article on Pakistani lawyers burning the American flag. At a recent hearing in Newton, he voted against a 1 percent decrease in funding for the local police, drawing the ire of civil rights activists further angered by the candidate’s insensitive comments on the irrelevance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Two town council members from Newton have endorsed Leckey. 

Jake Auchincloss attends the Brookline Democratic Town Committee as one of the six declared candidates for US Representative for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district on Oct. 20, 2019 in Brookline, MA.

Jake Auchincloss attends the Brookline Democratic Town Committee on Oct. 20, 2019, in Brookline, Mass.

Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Auchincloss, from a Massachusetts clan with long ties to the Kennedys, also has family help in more than name alone. His parents have given heavily to a super PAC that also includes powerful Boston power brokers like Robert Kraft and John Connors and that has spent $139,200 in support of his candidacy so far. The former Marine captain has also come under scrutiny for a recent Boston Globe endorsement that current and former members of the Globe’s newsroom and editorial board described to The Intercept as an unprecedented rupture from the paper’s editorial norms. Auchincloss’s mother, Dr. Laurie Glimcher, who holds the title of president and CEO at Boston’s Dana–Farber Cancer Institute, is a close friend, ally, and frequent collaborator with Linda Henry, the managing director and owner of the newspaper. Henry is regularly involved in editorial board decisions but has failed to offer a disclosure on her relationship with Glimcher or her role in the rocky process that led to the board’s endorsement.

After blowback from Globe readers and employees, who were angry that a deep blue seat might be given to a former Republican thanks to the paper’s intervention, the newspaper’s editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman announced a public interview with the Newton City Councilor. On Monday, Venkataraman interrogated Auchincloss on his record of racist and Islamaphobic statements, while also taking to Twitter to state that a full post-mortem on the Globe’s editorial board process would come later, “in a moment that can’t be exploited by political interests.” 

In a statement appearing in CommonWealth magazine, Venkataraman said, “The Auchincloss endorsement choice was in no way steered or suggested by the Henrys; it came from a full editorial board deliberation that was then presented to the Henrys, who approved it. … Linda Henry sat in on our deliberations in this race as an observer, as she does in other editorial board meetings.” The Globe did not immediately respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.

While Auchincloss has repeatedly touted his service as a Marine captain in Afghanistan where he commanded an infantry platoon in 2012, his time spent training a 60-man counter narcotics operation in Panama has received little to no scrutiny despite the Marines and the U.S. Army School of the Americas’ long history of disastrous foreign intervention there, namely their role in training Panamanian dictator and drug lord Manuel Noriega. (The SOA, in 2001, was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a reflection of its toxic reputation in the region.)

In the June survey, Auchincloss sat at 7 percent, and his spending blitz and the Globe backing has lifted him to 16. 

Only Leckey, a self-described democratic socialist, has similarly surged, on the back of her own well-funded ad campaign, rising from 3 percent to 11. The number of undecided voters dropped from 46 to 25 percent, meaning the race is slowly solidifying but still up for grabs. Part of Leckey’s rise has to do with her effective positioning as a counterweight to the billionaire donors propping up her competitors’ campaigns. At the Boston Federal Reserve, Leckey worked on stress testing banks involved in consumer lending, evaluating their stability in areas like credit card lending, mortgages, and student loans. But her more recent work evaluating counterparty risk — the likelihood of a party defaulting on a debt, which then produces cascading effects through the system — within major financial institutions is an asset for a progressive in a race heavily subsidized by pharmaceutical executives, fossil fuel interests, and private equity moguls.

There is presently nobody in Congress with comparable experience in that critical area of bank regulation.

There is presently nobody in Congress with comparable experience in that critical area of bank regulation. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and her mentor Warren are both experts on consumer finance, and now have legislative experience when it comes to risk analysis and bank regulation, but Leckey serving in Congress would be a unique complement. Leckey argues that a holistic approach to legislating the financial sector is critical. Trump supporters, she noted, believe that the nation is like a business and that therefore President Donald Trump, a businessman, is the best choice to run it. “He knows exactly how to run it into the ground. If you really believe our country is running as a business, you have to have risk assessment, and risk management, and this country has none,” Leckey said. Those risks, she said, include environmental risk, credit card risk, student loans, and medical debt. “The more you can’t pay, the higher the interest, right, bundled and put in the portfolios of the big banks, and when it takes those giant banks down, the CEOs still profit.” 

In her most recent ad, a six-figure buy, Leckey is linking that message to her identity as the only woman of color in the race, a good place to be among a Democratic primary electorate in late pursuit of racial justice. “I struggled through poverty, put myself through college and took on Wall Street’s greed. Now as the only woman of color in this race, I’m fighting for racial justice, to guarantee health care, free pre-K, and housing for all,” she says in the ad. “We need leaders who represent our diversity and courage.”

Leckey’s rise is linked to her ability to go up on TV the past month, which itself was made possible by a $650,000 loan she and her husband made to her campaign. The loan has brought attention to her husband’s income from his position with Boston Energy Trading and Marketing, with suspicion that fossil fuel money may be fueling her campaign. “Ihssane’s husband is currently employed by Boston Energy Trading and Marketing, LLC, which to our knowledge, deals at least in part in fossil fuels,” reads a letter sent by former Leckey staff to the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

But that’s not the case: The firm, a Mitsubishi subsidiary, helps manage and run the electrical grid, which is agnostic as to its power source. In a post-Green New Deal, zero-carbon world, firms like Boston Energy will still be around to manage electrical grids. “My husband and I don’t have a dime from fossil fuels. We don’t work in fossil fuels,” she said. “His job is to make sure we don’t get blackouts. … When we have blackouts, it hurts poor people the most.”

The letter was signed by her former fundraising director, Rachel Craig, who was terminated by the campaign in December, as well as two other former staff who remained anonymous. The letter accuses Leckey of “a lack of work ethic” and of being “downright cruel” to the campaign staffers.


The Democratic Party’s Most Confounding Primary

Leckey launched her bid in May 2019, when Kennedy was still expected to be running for reelection. In September, when Kennedy announced his challenge to incumbent Sen. Ed Markey, Leckey got a flood of attention, but also a deluge of new rivals. The campaign had been limping along at that point, as Boston’s campaign staff infrastructure was reluctant to be blacklisted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for working for a campaign challenging a Kennedy. Democratic presidential campaigns, too, were absorbing seasoned aides. “It was very challenging to find people with a long professional background who are strong at running congressional campaigns,” acknowledged Leckey.

Much of the original staff has since turned over, and now that the presidential campaign is over, Leckey has been able to bring in four veterans of Bernie Sanders’s operations, including Josh Miller-Lewis, doing communications; Jeremy Meadow, working on the data side; Malea Stenzel Gilligan, doing fundraising; and Brooke Adams, running field operations. The former Sanders aides, who are no strangers to a gruff boss, say that the characterization of Leckey as cruel by the disaffected former aides is utterly foreign to their experience. 

The letter’s characterization of Leckey as having “a lack of work ethic” makes a stark contrast with her life story. Leckey, 35, was born in Meknes, Morocco. Her father, a public school teacher, died when Leckey was 13, unable, she said, to afford the heart medication he needed. Her mother raised Leckey and her three older brothers, while Leckey resisted the strict, conservative culture of Morocco, and survived sexual abuse. The first time, she said, her mother told her not to tell anyone, otherwise her brothers might kill the assailant and themselves wind up in prison. 

At the age of 17, she also survived an unsafe, illegal abortion — the only kind available to the nonwealthy. After a year at a public college, she transferred to a more selective school, studying economics. At 20, she managed to get a visitor visa to the United States, and applied for and received a student visa while in the country. She learned English, made it her home, and eventually worked her way to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, where she became a regulator leading stress tests at major banks. 

The former staffers had asked the Boston DSA to rescind its endorsement. Boston DSA, without speaking with Leckey, distributed it to its entire membership. The staffers also provided it to The Intercept. 

Leckey, a onetime dues-paying member of the DSA who was active with the group, responded by rescinding her acceptance of the group’s endorsement.

I was told that Boston DSA’s political endorsements were not just a symbol candidates put on their website, but instead would be the beginning of a relationship that is built upon our shared values of compassion and justice in all of its forms. Instead of engaging with me in a process or even attempting to contact me as part of a fact-finding approach that seeks truth, you acted carelessly by promoting and spreading false, unfounded, and racist allegations about me. You chose to circulate a letter filled with anti-immigrant and sexist smears to Boston DSA’s entire membership. And one or more members of your organization also appear to have chosen to leak your email to membership to members of the press.

You have not shown even the vaguest interest in dialogue. Instead, you told my campaign that on Saturday, I could have a few minutes in a public trial to attempt to defend myself, and immediately follow it with a vote to rescind your support. Your approach mocks the Anti-Harassment and Inclusion priority we passed this year and is antithetical to restorative justice.

Leckey’s most impassioned response was to the charge of laziness.

The letter the leadership circulated implies an immigrant woman of color is lazy. I have fought these stereotypes since I came to America. I moved to this country with nothing, and have had to work twice as hard to overcome the barriers and stereotypes immigrants, Muslims, and women of color face every day. We are told we are angry and aggressive, and othered. I mopped restaurant floors to get through community college. I earned a Women in Math scholarship that allowed me to become the first in my family with a college degree when I earned a Bachelor degree in Economics and Math from Boston University. I work long hours everyday while caring for my child and family because that’s what immigrants do. And as a survivor, I have always prioritized making time for healing for myself and my staff.

I am proud of the campaign we are running, and cannot express the full extent of my gratitude and love for every member of this campaign, including the many amazing members of Boston DSA who have volunteered their time and support. I genuinely hope one day Boston DSA can be an organization that lives up to the values of our movement, but the leadership of this chapter has thus far failed in that task. 

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