A Wash in the Bay State

Ed Markey's victory was a coup for the Left, but a look down-ballot reveals mixed results for Massachusetts progressives.

Aidan Smith

27 October 2020

From left to right: Ed Markey, Senator from Massachusetts; Marianela Rivera, former state house candidate (17th Essex district); Robbie Goldstein, former congressional candidate (MA-08); Damali Vidot, former state house candidate (2nd Suffolk district); Nichole Mossalam, former state house candidate (35th Middlesex district)

There are few circumstances in which the victory of a 74 year-old incumbent over a challenger nearly four decades his junior can be described as a boon for an insurgent youth movement. To an outside observer, the 2020 Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts between incumbent Ed Markey and challenger Joe Kennedy III had few obvious major stakes. Beneath the surface, however, was a fierce factional war between the insurgent progressive movement and the entrenched right-wing of the party.


This is not to allege that the national Democratic establishment coordinated from the start to oust Markey, who has been a loyal partisan throughout his career. Kennedy’s surname allowed him to get away with primarying an incumbent, long a taboo in Democratic politics, despite lacking any legislative accomplishments. Early polling suggested that Kennedy was heavily favored in the contest, leading some commentators to speculate that Markey would preemptively retire to avoid an embarrassing primary loss. When Markey turned the tide by asserting his position as the candidate of the Left in the race, however, top national Democrats like Nancy Pelosi happily set aside their traditional disapproval of primary challenges to assist Kennedy. They saw an opportunity to humiliate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and deplete her political capital while promoting someone with the potential to be a future national candidate.


It's clear that Markey’s choice to position himself as something of an “insurgent incumbent” was a stroke of political genius. The willingness of Ocasio-Cortez and groups like the Sunrise Movement to stick their necks out for Markey, even as polling suggested he was facing a double-digit loss, was a monumental display of bravery. But what should be recognized above all else was the work done by young activists associated with the "Markeyverse". An organic digital ecosystem of Markey supporters succeeded in bringing attention to Markey's record as a fighter for environmental justice and conveying the importance of reelecting the "Green New Dealmaker" to both national observers and Massachusetts voters.


Given the race’s high profile, it’s only natural that most analyses on the Massachusetts primary cycle have focused on the outcome of the Senate primary. Though progressives should make sure to celebrate victories when they come, taking a victory lap without accounting for disappointing results at the congressional and legislative level is inappropriate. In New York, the Left managed to topple a top House committee chair, replace a retiring member of Congress with a progressive, and win historic victories in the state legislature. In contrast, Alex Morse’s high-profile challenge to House Ways & Means Committee chair Richard Neal ended in defeat, the disaster scenario in the race to succeed Kennedy in the 4th district came to fruition, and the Left did not end up breaking through in either house of the state legislature. Reckoning with these results will be crucial for Massachusetts progressives as they look to build power in one of the traditional hearts of American liberalism.

House Rules


There’s no way to describe the outcome of the Democratic primary in the 1st district as anything other than a tragedy. This was not a race in which a victory by the primary challenger would’ve represented a symbolic changing of the guard in favor of the party’s left-wing. It was a race that had enormous, tangible consequences for millions of uninsured Americans, whose possibility of attaining healthcare will be inhibited as long as Richard Neal is at the helm of the Ways & Means Committee. It’s well within the realm of possibility that President Joe Biden will be paired with a Democratic-controlled Congress come January, a historic opportunity for change in the realm of climate and healthcare policy that could easily be squandered by Neal’s chairmanship.


If any justice is to come out of this endeavor, Neal and his allies’ campaign against Alex Morse will go down as one of the most shameful in modern history. Little needs to be said about the now-infamous smear campaign waged by Neal’s supporters against Morse. A scheme aided by some of the most powerful people in state politics, The Intercept’s exposé of the plot against Morse helped the Holyoke mayor build his national fundraising base in the weeks before the primary.

It did not, however, lead to local media loyal to Neal to cover revelations surrounding the smear campaign, even though these outlets reported heavily on the accusations levied against Morse when they were fresh and appeared legitimate. Though Neal formally disavowed homophobic attacks on Morse, this did not stop a pro-Neal PAC’s “accidental” decision to air ads hitting Morse as a predator until the end of the campaign.


Complacent local media allowed the Neal campaign’s obscene lies to go effectively unchallenged. It's bad enough that Neal's lie that he supported ending surprise medical billing despite single-handedly killing legislation that would’ve done so went unpunished. It's even worse that regional outlets let him get away with claiming that Morse, who made Medicare for All a centerpiece of his campaign, was the candidate in the pocket of the health insurance industry.


Holyoke will likely be drawn out of the district come 2022, making the possibility of a rematch in which Morse triumphs over Neal unlikely. If Neal is to be seriously targeted again next cycle, progressives would be well-advised to support a candidate of color who hails from Neal's home base of Springfield; indeed, candidates fitting that description did well down-ballot this year despite Neal's victory. But do-overs are never truly possible in politics, and the damage Neal is set to inflict on progressive causes as chair of the Ways & Means Committee in the next Congress will have reverberations for years to come.

It is similarly impossible to sugar-coat the disaster in the 4th district. Newton city councilor Jake Auchincloss is a conservative who helped Massachusetts’s current Republican governor get elected, something that should be an automatic disqualifier in any Democratic primary. Auchincloss’s claim that he left his history of Confederate flag apologia and support for burning Qurans in the past is hard to take seriously given his recent tirades against the scourge of “socialism” and support for platforming Steve Bannon.


Even more disgraceful is that the outcome was both easily predictable and one that could’ve been avoided: The final poll of the race showed Auchincloss up 23% to 22% over Jesse Mermell, his closest opponent, a margin almost perfectly replicated in the final count of the race. A member of the party’s “soft left”, Mermell was endorsed by Ayanna Pressley and endorsed key progressive issues such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.


A former advisor to moderate Governor Deval Patrick, Mermell never positioned herself as the fourth district’s answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It's understandable that some of her positions received criticism from the Left, such as her opposition to conditioning aid to Israel. But by the end of the race, it was clear she was the only candidate to the left of Auchincloss or Becky Grossman, a fellow moderate on the Newton city council who came in a close third, with the ability to win.


Auchincloss failed to secure so much as a fourth of the vote in the primary, and the chaotic nature of redistricting calls his status in a 2022 primary even further into question. The potential is obviously there for a primary challenge to his left, either from Mermell or one of the other two major progressive 2018 contenders, ex-Wall Street regulator Ihssane Leckey or epidemiologist Natalia Linos. Indeed, someone like state senator Paul Feeney of Foxborough, a leading progressive on Beacon Hill and an alum of Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign, could mount a bid as well. But Auchincloss has already amassed an enviable war chest, and even if his fundraising doesn’t deter challengers from emerging, it does mean that the race to defeat him could prove a money sink for progressive groups.

At face value, the result of the 8th congressional district primary leaves little room for interpretation. It's difficult to look at the fact that infectious disease physician Robbie Goldstein's last minute surge only translated into a 33% vote share versus socially conservative incumbent Stephen Lynch and conclude that Lynch will be vulnerable to a future primary challenge. After all, despite Goldstein having a background virtually tailor-made for a "pandemic election" and Lynch being something of a political dinosaur, the incumbent won renomination by a wide margin. Nevertheless, it wouldn't be particularly wise to conclude that Lynch will forever be impervious to a primary challenge.


Unsurprisingly, Goldstein is not the first primary challenger Lynch has received. After voting against the Affordable Care Act, Lynch received a primary challenge in the 2010 cycle in the form of SEIU official Mac D’Alessandro. Mounting a campaign that received more attention than Goldstein's 2020 primary challenge, D’Alessandro received the endorsement of the Boston Globe and support from the SEIU, which invested almost $300,000 in his race. Despite the fresh outcry at Lynch's Obamacare vote, D'Alessandro ended up receiving around the same vote share as Goldstein did a decade later.


More relevant to the result of the 2020 primary, however, was the decision of video game journalist Brianna Wu of Gamergate fame to mount a quixotic bid against Lynch in 2018. Garnering a mere 23% versus the incumbent, Wu's poor 2018 performance and her early statement of intent to seek a 2020 rematch likely deterred progressive groups from targeting Lynch this cycle. It should be noted that, during his short 2020 campaign, progressive physician Mohammed Dar privately received attention from organizations like Justice Democrats. After exiting the field for personal reasons in the Spring of 2019, the contest became an afterthought for over a year, only receiving national attention around the time Goldstein posted a six-figure fundraising total in July 2020. Even in the final two months of the race, though, Goldstein's bid against Lynch was still overshadowed by the Senate primary and the 1st district contest.


It’s unfortunate that Lynch, an ex-ironworker and union leader who made a name representing public housing tenants pro bono during his legal career, now uses his position in Congress to stand against reproductive rights and single-payer healthcare. Though his politics are increasingly out-of-step with a rapidly changing South Boston, he's become more careful at masking his social conservatism in the past ten years, and is politically adept enough to not to antagonize pro-choice groups in the same way Dan Lipinski did. But while it would be wrong to underestimate an anti-abortion politician who managed to garner 42% in a 2013 statewide primary, it should remembered that Lipinski, too, was beating challengers with 90% of the vote until he wasn't.

It's hard to see the failure to find a serious primary challenger to Seth Moulton as anything other than a tactical flub. Representing the North Shore and Cape Ann in Washington, there may never be a path to defeat Moulton as obvious as the one that existed going into 2020. Born to a wealthy family in Salem, Moulton's upbringing is almost a caricature of a Massachusetts politician. After attending the elite Philips Academy Andover as both presidents Bush did, Moulton attended Harvard and enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduation. Following discharge, Moulton continued to pad his credentials for a future political campaign, receiving two master's degrees and beginning a failed weight loss company to pad his business experience.


In 2014, Moulton defeated embattled incumbent John Tierney in the 6th district primary; while his candidacy was framed as non-ideological, he was clearly to Tierney's right. After four quiet years in Congress, Moulton launched a sloppy coup attempt against Nancy Pelosi's House leadership from the right, a move that infuriated both constituents and all factions of the party. Despite the obvious potential for a rare primary challenge that wouldn't have induced the wrath of House leadership, no serious primary opponent to Moulton emerged, even during the months he mounted a futile presidential campaign.

The most remarkable aspect of the disaster in the 4th district is that a similar outcome occurred in the 3rd district just two years prior. Lori Trahan, the only major candidate in the race to oppose Medicare for All, ended up winning the crowded primary by 22% of the vote. Coming in around 100 votes behind was Dan Koh, a former chief of staff to moderate Boston Mayor Marty Walsh who endorsed key progressive policy items such as single-payer healthcare during his bid. Two progressive legislators, Justice Democrats-endorsed state representative Juana Matias and state senator Barbara L'Italien, an early supporter of ICE abolition, each took around 15% of the vote.


No comparisons are perfect, and there are marked differences between the 3rd district contest in 2018 and the race for the 4th district two years later. Trahan is not nearly as conservative as Auchincloss, and, despite opposing Medicare for All on the campaign trail, Trahan ended up signing onto the Medicare for All Act of 2019 once in Congress. Additionally, the outcome of the race was never as predictable as the 4th district contest was two years later, where polling forecasted the outcome to a tee. Nevertheless, it is still disappointing that Trahan coasted to renomination given that she only won her first primary with under a fourth of the vote. Indeed, it's even more disheartening given Trahan's first term in Congress has been marked by ethical issues, and it's unlikely that there will ever be as obvious a path to primarying Trahan as the one that existed going into this cycle.

A Shining Beacon On a Hill


Massachusetts has a large legislature, with a whopping 160 members in the state house of representatives alone. Though the Democratic Party commands supermajorities in both chambers, this does not necessarily mean there is a majority coalition for progressive action in the legislature. The Democratic caucuses of both chambers include a sizable number of conservatives opposed to climate action, police reform, and protecting reproductive rights, among other key progressive measures. Given the state's famed progressive lean, the combination of small districts and Democratic caucuses to the right of the electorate make both houses of the legislature ripe for progressive insurgency.


Indeed, Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s inner-circle is keenly aware of this, which is why Baker's inner circle intervened in Democratic primaries to protect his conservative allies in the legislature. Despite the deliberately ambiguous name, there's no confusion surrounding the purpose of the "Massachusetts Majority PAC": Both its chair and a senior advisor to Baker explicitly acknowledged the Governor's support for the PAC and its efforts to influence Democratic primaries. In the 2020 cycle, the Republican-linked PAC endorsed twelve Democratic legislators facing contested primaries and the candidacies of three Democrats running for open state legislative seats. Disturbingly, every single one of them won their races.


This is not to say that Massachusetts progressives failed to win any important legislative primaries. In Somerville, a high-profile primary for an open seat in the state house was won by socialist Erika Uyterhoeven. A former digital organizer for U.K. socialist group Momentum, Uyterhoeven’s support for a statewide Green New Deal and free public transit will be a breath of fresh air in a caucus too eager to collaborate with Baker’s right-wing agenda. In the realm of primary challenges to an incumbent, the biggest victory for the Left was the triumph of Adam Gomez, a Springfield city councilor supportive of statewide single-payer, over incumbent State Senator James Welch.


However, a dive into legislative primaries in Massachusetts in the 2020 cycle reveals an array of missed opportunities for progressives. Either by way of candidates finding themselves starved of resources or, as was too often the case, recruitment failures in winnable districts, the Left did not make inroads at the legislative level in Massachusetts as they did in states like New York and Rhode Island this cycle.

Containing many of Boston's largest suburbs and two of the five largest cities in the state, Middlesex County is the largest in both Massachusetts and New England. There's little doubt that the victory of Uyterhoeven is the single biggest coup for progressives in the county this cycle. In addition, the triumph of career transit policy advisor Steve Owens, a supporter of single-payer healthcare and the Green New Deal, in the open 29th Middlesex district is cause for celebration. Besides these two welcome outcomes, however, were an array of missed opportunities for progressives in the county to make inroads in the state legislature.


Marlborough's Danielle Gregoire, a moderate opposed to single-payer healthcare and increased taxation for incomes above $1 million, only narrowly defeated a largely ignored progressive challenger. Gregoire’s narrow margin of victory in her 2016 renomination battle should’ve signaled her vulnerability to progressive groups. Despite little outside investment in her race, environmental scientist Jeanne Cahill, who ran in support of statewide single-payer and comprehensive climate action, received 44% versus the incumbent.


Representative Christine Barber, an ally of moderate state house speaker Robert DeLeo, won with less than 60% of the vote versus socialist Anna Callahan in her Somerville district. Though Barber’s voting record itself isn’t particularly objectionable, a Callahan victory would’ve been a rebuke to DeLeo and other enablers of Baker's right-wing agenda as well as a boon to Somerville’s increasingly formidable socialist movement.


In Everett, moderate house member Joe McGonagle, who had the support of the Baker-linked Massachusetts Majority PAC, didn’t even face a left-wing primary challenger. His lone primary opponent was a local officeholder of indeterminate ideology who he defeated by a relatively comfortable margin. Given McGonagle’s near loss to a primary challenger in 2018, it makes the lack of a challenge to his left this cycle all the more disappointing. Indeed, it should be noted that Everett was won by Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary and by Ed Markey in the 2020 Senate primary. While this does not necessarily translate into the conditions needed for a left-wing insurgent candidate to succeed in any sense, it does make McGonagle going without any opposition to his left disappointing.


A favorite of anti-abortion groups, longtime state representative Paul Donato's social conservatism has not led to his marginalization the Democratic caucus. On the contrary, Donato, a fixture of Medford politics for almost five decades, remains an important ally of speaker DeLeo despite his retrograde politics; in 2019, he reportedly helped shut down and ostracize three critics of DeLeo within the caucus. Though Donato was able to skate by without primary opposition in the 2010s, he received a long overdue challenge from his left from Nichole Mossalam.


One of the inaugural co-chairs of Our Revolution Massachusetts, Mossalam is a community leader who notably helped found the Islamic Cultural Center of Medford. Mossalam hit Donato particularly hard on his anti-LGBTQ+ record and ran a progressive campaign that emphasized support for statewide single-payer and a Green New Deal. In the end, Mossalam managed to garner over 44% versus the longtime incumbent, an impressive result that could've translated into a victory had her race received more attention from progressive groups and elected officials..


In North Cambridge, Baker and his conservative allies scored a victory in the renomination of four-term state representative Dave Rogers, who was backed by the Massachusetts Majority PAC. Non-profit leader Jen Fries mounted an impressive challenge to Rogers, running on a platform that included support for single-payer healthcare and universal pre-K, and even secured the endorsement of Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. Fries's campaign centered on Rogers's poor track record on transparency issues, and following a spirited campaign received around 44% in the two-way primary. Though Rogers's stated policy positions are largely progressive, this bears little relevance to his legislative conduct. Meaningful progress in Massachusetts will be inhibited as long as Democratic legislators are unwilling to stand up to Baker, including those who publicly affirm their support for progressive goals while deferring to a party leadership unwilling to challenge the Republican Governor's agenda.


First elected in a 2011 special election, there are few Democrats in the state house more conservative than Watertown's John Lawn. Watertown was one of the municipalities in the state won by Elizabeth Warrenindeed, Sanders actually received second place, placing ahead of statewide primary winner Joe Bidenand a progressive primary challenger to a police union favorite backed by Baker's PAC would've been welcome. Instead, Lawn received a challenger in the form of moderate city councilor Alison Leary of neighboring Newton, a supporter of ex-Republican and city council colleague Jake Auchincloss's congressional run. Leary held Lawn to a narrow 53% to 47% victory by running slightly to his left on matters such as policing policy. It would simply be shameful if Lawn goes without an opponent committed to crucial progressive policies such as single-payer healthcare in 2022.


If there's anything nice to say about John Lawn, it's that he isn't state representative David Nangle. First elected to represent Lowell in 1992, Nangle is an opponent of reproductive rights who supported Republican Scott Brown's 2012 Senate run and Charlie Baker's 2018 reelection campaign while in office. What doomed his 2020 reelection bid, however, was not his right-wing politics, but rather his arrest by federal agents in February on corruption charges. A former member of the state house ethics committee, Nangle has since been indicted on ten counts of wire fraud, four counts of bank fraud, nine counts of making false statements to a bank, and five counts of filing false income tax returns.


Despite this, Nangle still managed to garner an alarmingly high 32% of the vote versus two challengers. Unfortunately, the winner of the race was not the progressive candidate, single-payer advocate and Solidarity Lowell activist Lisa Arnold. Instead, the victor was Vanna Howard, who works in government relations for a local hospital and ran with the endorsement of former Representative Niki Tsongas, her former boss. Though she'll surely be an upgrade to Nangle by default, her policy positions remain largely unclear, and her defense of Baker's pandemic response is cause for alarm. Arnold's campaign was largely neglected by progressive organizations and elected officials, an unfortunate development given the clear opportunity to elect a champion for workers in the cradle of American industry.


The fact that Colleen Garry did not receive so much as nominal opposition this cycle is disconcerting. The 25-year incumbent is a vehement racist who has accused Black Lives Matter protestors of terrorism, referred to the concept of structural racism as a "fraud", and opposed an even modest restriction of no-knock warrants after Breonna Taylor's murder. There's no question that defeating Garry would prove a monumentally difficult task. After all, Garry handily won renomination in her Dracut-based district in 2018 after endorsing Baker's reelection campaign. Nevertheless, the presence of Garry, a staunch opponent of reproductive rights and a favorite of the National Rifle Association, in the Democratic caucus is an abject disgrace.

Containing Boston and three surrounding municipalities, it's unsurprising that Suffolk County is a hotspot of political activity. In the open 12th Suffolk district, many feared that a split in the progressive vote would allow for a disgraced former police officer who almost won the seat in 2018 to triumph. Fortunately, the nightmare scenario did not come to fruition here: Public defender Brandy Fluker Oakley won the primary by near-double digits and faces no Republican opponent in this heavily-Democratic Dorchester-based district.


Oakley is a supporter of statewide single-payer healthcare and universal Pre-K and has advocated for a nationwide cancellation of student debt. Endorsed by groups such as the Boston chapter of the Sunrise Movement, Oakley's grassroots victory was immediately welcomed by socialist state representative Nika Elugardo. Political observers would be wise to pay attention to Oakley, who could very well prove to be one of the highest-profile progressive leaders in Massachusetts once in office.


Aside from Oakley's exciting victory, many of the contested primaries in Suffolk County ended in disappointment. One of the races that garnered the most attention was the primary showdown in the 2nd Suffolk district, comprising the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown and most of adjacent Chelsea. Moderate incumbent Daniel Patrick Ryan's vulnerability to progressive challenger Damali Vidot, a Chelsea city councilor, was obvious from the start, leading Baker's Republican allies to intervene in his favor.


The race was marked by stark geographic disparities, with the candidates both representing opposite sides of the Mystic River. Vidot, herself from Puerto Rico, serves on the city council of a Latino-majority city with a median household income of approximately $30,000 as of 2010, around a third of that of the Boston neighborhood that Ryan calls home. Vidot's platform included support for single-payer healthcare, universal public transit, and tuition-free public college, among other progressive priorities. It was the issue of policing policy, however, that served as the focal point of the race, with Vidot hitting Ryan hard on dragging his feet in a vote to end qualified immunity. In the end, however, Vidot came up short, losing to the incumbent with around 42% of the vote.


In Allston-Brighton, longtime incumbent Kevin Honan faced an impressive challenge from attorney and local activist Jordan Meehan. Honan, who has served in the legislature since the Reagan era, was held to a narrow 54% to 46% margin of victory despite minimal institutional support for his opponent. Meehan, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), was not endorsed by the Boston chapter of the organization, nor was he endorsed by Mike Connolly, the sole DSA member in the state legislature.


One of the foremost champions of housing justice on Beacon Hill, Connolly partnered with Honan on an eviction moratorium bill in 2020. When asked why he was supporting the incumbent, Connolly cited Honan's recent support for rent control legislation and the Boston DSA's decision not to endorse Meehan. There's no doubt that Honan, who during his long career has previously been a favorite of real estate interests and supported punitive three strikes legislation as recently as 2012, has shifted left in recent years on matters of housing policy and criminal justice reform.


While Honan's political evolution is a welcome one, there are few communities in the state more partial to progressive candidates than Allston-Brighton, and the 17th Suffolk district can and should do better than Honan. Running on one of the most comprehensive progressive platforms put forward at the state level, Meehan's policy program included support for public ownership of energy systems, fare-free public transit, the immediate construction of the long-delayed West Station proposal, a state conservation corps, an end to exclusionary zoning, and a statewide rent cap. Despite running to Honan's left across the board, some activists were hesitant to support Meehan over his support for Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 presidential primary. There's no question that Meehan winning would've proven a seismic shock in state politics, and the loss of a member of Robert DeLeo's leadership team would've served as a stark rebuke to the Baker-enabling state house speaker.


In 2018, civil rights lawyer Gretchen Van Ness held incumbent Angelo Scaccia to a relatively narrow 40% to 26% margin of victory in a split primary field. With Scaccia's retirement, progressives hoped that Van Ness, a single-payer supporter, would win the open race to succeed him in the 14th Suffolk district. During the campaign, Van Ness was endorsed by a number of progressive leaders, including state senator Becca Rausch and Boston city councilwoman Lydia Edwards. Unfortunately, Van Ness ended up losing to moderate former councilman Robert Consalvo, a favorite of both Charlie Baker's Republican allies and organized labor, by a larger margin than she lost to incumbent Scaccia in 2018. Assuming that the district is constituted similarly following redistricting, it would be wise for progressives to support a Black candidate capable of making inroads in Hyde Park while maintaining and building upon Van Ness's margins in Roslindale.


Located in the north end of Suffolk County, the city of Revere is one of the most diverse in the country, hosting one of largest Moroccan communities in the United States as well as a sizable Brazilian population. Predominantly working-class in character with a population that was 27% foreign-born as of 2010, Revere unsurprisingly voted in favor of Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary. After moderate incumbent RoseLee Vincent chose to retire, many progressives saw the open 16th Suffolk district as a prime opportunity.


Joe Gravellese, a political staffer who ran on a largely progressive platform, was able to receive support from progressive organizations like Sunrise Boston as well as a number of labor unions. In the end, however, it was not Gravellese who emerged victorious in the primary to succeed Vincent, but rather Jessica Giannino, a moderate city councilor who happens to be the cousin of the incumbent. Backed by the Baker-linked Massachusetts Majority PAC, Giannino's financial advantage over Gravellese proved insurmountable, and won the primary by over twenty percentage points.

The marquee race in Essex County ended in disappointment. Conservative in his general outlook, it is the issue of public education where Lawrence's Frank Moran holds perhaps the most retrograde views. Backed by the erroneously named right-wing front group "Democrats for Education Reform", Moran was one of just a handful of Democrats to back ballot Question 2, a failed pro-charter school referendum pushed by Charlie Baker in 2016. Moran's support for the Republican Governor's education agenda understandably antagonized unions while allowing him to receive support of the Baker-linked Massachusetts Majority PAC in his 2020 reelection bid.


Facing him this cycle was Marianela Rivera, a local school committee member who ran on a progressive platform that included support for single-payer healthcare and protecting public education in the face of charterization proposals. While labor unions in Massachusetts generally hesitate to endorse progressive primary challengers, Moran's backing of right-wing education proposals resulted in Rivera receiving endorsements from the state AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The decision of these powerful unions to intervene in the primary suggested a close race, which is why Moran managing to win reelection by a 65% to 35% margin came as such a shock.


A longtime staple of Lawrence politics, former acting mayor and city council president Marcos Devers was first elected to represent the 16th Essex district in 2010. This cycle, Devers won renomination without an opponent, which is a shame given that one would be hard-pressed to find a more obvious target for a primary challenge. After all, he already had lost his seat to a primary opponent, losing his 2016 renomination bid to progressive immigration advocate Juana Matias. When Matias chose to forgo a reelection campaign in order to run for Congress, however, Devers managed to successfully stage a comeback. Devers has long been a favorite of anti-abortion groups, and during his cumulative tenure has accumulated one of the worst records on LGBTQ+ rights of any Democrat in the legislature. It would be simply unconscionable if Devers avoids a primary challenge in 2022, either in the form of Matias or another progressive committed to reproductive rights and protecting the LGBTQ+ community.

One of the Democratic caucus's staunchest opponents of reproductive rights, Norwood's John Rogers is especially noted for his opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. Explicitly arguing against gay marriage as late as 2013, a decade after marriage equality arrived in Massachusetts, homophobia has defined the bulk of Rogers's legislative career since his initial election in 1992. The outcry he received in response to his 1998 proposal to ban Massachusetts did not stop him from serving in house leadership from 2005 to 2009, and during the 2010s he went without receiving a single primary challenge in his safely blue district.


In 2020, LGBTQ+ activist and Norwood Democratic Town Committee member Michael Dooley decided to mount a long-overdue challenge to Rogers. Running on a platform that included support for the Fair Share Amendment and single-payer healthcare, Dooley was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and the state affiliate of the Sierra Club. Aside from these organizations, Dooley's campaign was largely ignored, and was never able to compete with Rogers on the fundraising front. In the end, Rogers, who was one of the conservative Democrats identified at being at risk of a primary challenge by Republican front Massachusetts Majority PAC, managed to win reelection by a wide margin.


Few would describe Sharon, a largely affluent Boston suburb that voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential primary by a comfortable margin, as obviously fertile ground for the Left. Nevertheless, it is still disappointing that the open race for the 8th Norfolk district, consisting of Sharon and parts of Mansfield, Stoughton, and Walpole, did not feature a single progressive candidate. The race ended up a two-way battle between an economist opposed to statewide single-payer and rent control, Andrew Flowers, and a career staffer, Ted Philips, whose campaign was supported by Republican front group Massachusetts Majority PAC. In the end, the latter emerged victorious.


In the 2nd Plymouth and Bristol District, three-term state senator Michael Brady faced a serious challenge to his left from Moises Rodrigues, the former Mayor of Brockton. Rodrigues's campaign mainly focused on Brady's legal troubles and the need for increased representation in positions of elected office. On matters of policy, Rodrigues's platform included support for a millionaire's tax and universal Pre-K, though on matters of healthcare he took a more moderate tone. In the end, Rodrigues's candidacy fell short, garnering around 43% of the vote versus the incumbent. In 2022, a challenge to Brady from a supporter single-payer healthcare would be welcome, especially if they announce earlier than February of the year the election is taking place in.

The high profile race in the 1st congressional district, featuring the incumbent Mayor of Holyoke and the former Mayor of Springfield, naturally drew attention to political developments in Western Massachusetts. Even as Richard Neal's primary victory marked a setback for the progressive movement in Hampden County, the aforementioned victory of Springfield city councilor Adam Gomez over an incumbent state senator shows that the Left is alive and well in the region. Indeed, compared to the rest of the state, the primary cycle in Western Massachusetts actually proved one of the brighter spots for progressives.


In Springfield, three-term incumbent's Jose Tosado's decision to retire put the 9th Hampden district up for grabs. Running on a platform that includes support for single-payer and a moratorium on facial surveillance technology in policing, former councilman Orlando Ramos will likely be one of the more progressive freshmen members of the state house come 2021. In Ludlow, scandal-plagued conservative incumbent Tommy Petrolati decided to retire after serving in office since 1987. School board member Jake Oliveira won the primary to replace him by acclamation, and, unlike the Baker-endorsing Petrolati, has signed on in favor of statewide single-payer legislation. In Holyoke, fears that a split field would allow for the election of anti-abortion city councilor did not come to fruition, with Pat Duffy, a mainstay in local progressive politics, winning the open state house seat just under 10%.


The "Taxachusetts" of Past and Present

Massachusetts has long been considered a bastion of liberal politics in the United States. From the mid-20th century onward, the state produced politicians such as Senator Ted Kennedy, the "liberal lion", and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, both of whom were often lonely voices for the causes of universal healthcare and workers' rights in D.C. The sole state to vote for George McGovern's ill-fated presidential bid in 1972, "Taxachusetts" became ingrained in the conservative conscience as the emblem of failed liberal economic policies, just as the Bay State became viewed by liberals as a bulwark of progressive values. In the 21st century, the state has been at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, becoming the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage in 2006.


But as tends to be the case with all popular political narratives, the truth about Massachusetts's famed liberalism is a bit more murky than generally depicted. Much has been written about the state electorate's affection for "moderate" Republican politicians in the mold of Charlie Baker and Mitt Romney. Indeed, even as Democrats have controlled both houses of the state legislature since the late 1950s, six Republicans have served as the Commonwealth's chief executive over the past half-century. Less discussed, however, are the ways in which home-grown conservatism has influenced the Massachusetts Democratic Party.


While Kennedy and O'Neill remain celebrated in the liberal mainstream, the likes of former Governor Ed King, a staunch conservative who later defected to the Republican Party, and former Senator Paul Tsongas, a staunch moderate who hit Bill Clinton as a pandering left-wing populist during his 1992 presidential run, have largely been forgotten. While Massachusetts Democrats have been recognized for leading the way of issues like LGBTQ+ rights, the pension reform scheme of Deval Patrick, the last Democratic Governor, which raised the minimum retirement age for state employees from 55 to 60, went without mention during his brief presidential bid. Bob DeLeo, the state house speaker who pushed through an effort to weaken collective bargaining rights, remains in power to this day, and efforts within the Democratic caucus to challenge his rule have led to the ostracization of his progressive critics.


The Left will not have another opportunity to make inroads in the state legislature, in the state's congressional delegation, or in contests for statewide executive positions until 2022. In the meantime, progressives will have an opportunity to shake up state politics in the 2021 Boston mayoral election. Michelle Wu, a city councilor whose candidacy has already received national attention, is mounting a historic bid for the mayoralty, running on a comprehensive progressive platform that includes support for a municipal Green New Deal, fare-free public transit, and ending food insecurity in Boston. The importance of municipal politics cannot be understated, and a victory by Wu would be a major rebuke to the local and state Democratic establishment. There are a litany of opportunities to build progressive power in a state famous for its liberalism over the next few years, and acknowledging the mistakes made this cycle will prove critical moving forward.

Aidan Smith (@Aidan_Smx) is the founder and political director of Labyrinth. He has contributed to an array of publications, including The Nation, Current Affairs, and Salon.


Artwork and design by Tia Wagh. (@Tia_Wagh)

Note: the initial version of this article included a misspelling of "Somerville", which has since been corrected.