With such a crowded field in the northern Massachusetts district, we thought voters planning to cast their ballots in the Democratic primary could benefit from some information directly from the candidates themselves. So we asked all 10 job-seekers to submit answers on what differentiates them from the others; what one policy issue they're keen to work on; how they'd approach their role in a sharply divided Washington; and then, on a personal level, what book, movie or song has had a big effect on their lives.
The winner of the Sept. 4 primary will face Republican Rick Green in November. Independent candidate Mike Mullen has also qualified for the ballot.
Editor's Note: The answers below are unedited, except to comport to WBUR style.
Q: What differentiates you from the nine other Democrats running in the primary?
Jeff Ballinger: -- Only one who has organized workers 24 years, both in the U.S. and in Asia; severely criticized U.S. foreign policy in five debates; mentioned at least four U.S. corporations in each debate (calling for the establishment of a Corporate Crime Database at the Department of Justice); and lived a year in a war zone.
-- My research and campaign methodology [was] once featured in a front-page story in the Washington Post.
-- Won significant grants from [the] U.S. Agency for International Development, one of which quadrupled the number of strikes, helping Indonesian workers raise wages by more than 250 percent for 4.2 million formal-sector workers.
Alexandra Chandler: I am ready on day one to the whole job as our next congresswoman. I’m the only candidate with career national security experience — 13 years in the intelligence community under three administrations — and the only candidate with experience working across the federal government. I’m the only candidate to sign the Candidate With A Contract pledge to get big money out of politics, and I offer the most comprehensive policy platform — putting ordinary people’s issues first. I am a transgender woman who would be the first transgender member of Congress in history and a voice in Congress for all vulnerable people.
Beej Das: My experience is the most diverse in the field: constitutional lawyer, tech innovator, small business owner. Paul Tsongas wrote that “Washington politicians should … have their financial survival riding on a startup business struggling under the burden of the high costs of American capital.” I am the only one who has that experience and employs 75 people in the district. Voters want practice over theory, common sense over ideology, development over stalemate. I am the only candidate with the temperament and experience to deliver on those expectations.
Rufus Gifford: I am the only candidate who has worked at the top levels of federal government, both domestically and internationally. As U.S. ambassador to Denmark and senior aide to President Obama for 10 years, I have the experience and perspective that the district needs to deliver results on day one.
I believe the best way to stand up to President Trump is to stand for something, not just against something. I will oppose the Trump at every turn. But we can’t just attack Trump. We need to do more, which is why I’m fighting for a big, bold, positive and aspirational agenda.
Leonard Golder: I have over 28 years experience as an elected official in local government; that's more experience than practically all the other candidates combined. Every issue I have dealt with locally — education, the environment, economic development, public safety, housing, inclusion — translates to an issue on the national stage. For me working with other government officials, listening to constituents and making decisions and voting for what's in the public good, even if unpopular, is not just theory but practical reality.
Dan Koh: My family immigrated to Lawrence from Lebanon and Korea; today, Donald Trump would stop us at the border. This is personal for me: Donald Trump is directly attacking the American Dream that made my family’s story and millions of others possible.
We need a new generation of progressive leaders who will stand up to Trump’s disastrous policies and fight for universal health care and economic justice. As chief of staff to [Boston] Mayor Marty Walsh, I was on the frontlines in this fight. We fought back against Trump and achieved real progressive results. That’s what I’ll do in Congress.
Barbara L'Italien: I’m the only candidate with a legislative track record of progressive success. I haven’t just made promises, I’ve made laws to get more people health care, make public schools work for every student, and help seniors age with dignity. I was a leader in the fight to protect marriage equality in our state, and organized to successfully stop school privatization expansion and a fracked gas pipeline. I’ve gotten things done for working families. That’s why I’ve earned the support of Massachusetts’ teachers, nurses, firefighters, single-payer health care advocates and the only national women’s and environmental groups to endorse in this race.
Bopha Malone: I bring a unique voice as a refugee, working mom and community activist [who] hasn’t lived a politician’s life. At Enterprise Bank, I’ve invested in the Greater Lowell area, kept families in their homes, and built small businesses. I’ve also served as a community activist focused on helping immigrants and low-income communities thrive. I know how hard it is to achieve the American Dream. I’ve lived it coming to America from Cambodia at the age of 9 with nothing but the clothes on my back. I’ve dedicated my life to giving every person a chance at their own American Dream.
Juana Matias: My life story makes me unique in this crowded field. I grew up in the 3rd district and have committed my career to being of service to the people of this district. From my early days in the Haverhill Public Schools to my work as a social worker and then a Justice AmeriCorps legal advocate in the Merrimack Valley, the 3rd district is a part of who I am. This district gave me the opportunity to achieve the American Dream, and in Congress, I’ll fight to ensure that opportunity is available for generations to come.
Lori Trahan: I grew up in a working class family in Lowell. I understand the challenges of obtaining a quality education, and know it’s our best lever to take on income inequality. I learned how to deliver results for the district in a congressional office when I worked for Marty Meehan. My business experience means I know very well the barriers keeping more women from leadership in boardrooms and on Capitol Hill. I’ve lived in this district my entire life, and am now raising my family here. I’ll never forget where I came from or who I’m fighting for in Washington.
Q: What one policy issue are you most keen to work on, on behalf of the 3rd district?
Ballinger: We need to rebuild union power by reversing years of anti-union policies — first by reestablishing the National Labor Relations Board's Division of Economic Research. Our workplaces and the very nature of work itself is changing so rapidly that unions need to get reliable information about organizing targets and new opportunities for growth; our new workplaces and often-precarious employment relations need to be studied with an eye toward leveling the playing field for workers in addressing management prerogatives. Much can be done to increase skills training for low-income youths, but we need to define what types of resource training to provide.
Chandler: Every full-time job in our wealthy country must be a living-wage job. My first priority will be to increase the disposable income of many working class and middle class 3rd district citizens by up to thousands a year by repealing the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and multinational corporations, and replacing them with progressive taxation and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit. I will also work to enact a federal job guarantee to address long-term unemployment, and support a massive infrastructure program that will bring living-wage jobs to the communities that need them most.
Das: I will focus on the related issues of health care and the economy. There is no difference between cancer and terrorism. Both can kill you without warning. Yet the government wants you to pay out of your own pocket for one and not the other. Health care expenses, without the cost controls of a single payer system, will kill our economy, including small businesses and working men and women. The United States is the only advanced global economy where the responsibility for health care and health insurance falls upon employers and businesses. I will ensure we tackle this problem.
Gifford: One of my top priorities is creating green jobs in the 3rd district. These are good-paying, advanced manufacturing jobs in the renewable energy industry, building things like wind turbines. This is not just about saving our environment, it’s about revitalizing our economy in industries of the future. As U.S. ambassador to Denmark, I helped spur investment in renewable energy here in Massachusetts, and it’s that work I want to continue in Congress. As Massachusetts builds the nation’s first offshore wind farm, I believe the 3rd district, with our rich manufacturing history, can and should be a hub for green jobs.
Golder: There's a whole range of issues I'm concerned about: DACA, Medicare for All, increasing COLAs [cost of living adjustments] for Social Security recipients, repairing the Janus Supreme Court decision by allowing unions to deny contract benefits to members who refuse to pay agency dues for getting them benefits. One key issue I want to focus on is stagnant wages. I want legislation converting the tax cuts big corporations got to conditional tax credits for training, hiring, hiring over age 40, providing a living wage and onsite daycare for jobs that remain in America.
Koh: Democrats need to be the party of jobs again. I have a detailed plan to generate job growth and raise wages in the 3rd district. The plan includes supporting workforce development programs, investing in infrastructure projects, creating jobs in the clean energy industries of the future, and strengthening worker protections.
During my tenure as chief of staff, I brought people together to create good-paying jobs and get things done for the middle class. Instead of passing tax giveaways that further rig the system, we have to build an economy that actually works for our families.
L'Italien: I remember what it’s like sitting at my kitchen table, going over bills with my husband, and trying to figure out how we would afford basic care my son needed. No parent should have to live with that fear. I’ve been cosponsoring single-payer health care for more than a decade, long before anyone thought it was good politics, and I’m the only candidate in the race who has actually expanded health insurance coverage. I am prepared to make a difference on guaranteeing health care for all as a congresswoman. I am also eager to oppose the Trump-DeVos school privatization agenda.
Malone: If it weren’t for the great education I received from Lesley University, with much-needed financial aid, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my American Dream. As a trustee of Middlesex Community College and Lesley, I hear firsthand about the obstacles students face in achieving an education. Many students work and are still hungry. Those from immigrant families live in daily fear of deportation because of the Trump administration’s shameful policies. I will continue advocating to make college more accessible and affordable for all, including free community and state college tuition. It’s a smart investment for our future.
Matias: Too many Americans today do not have access to the opportunities that allowed my family and [me] to live the American Dream. I’m committed to ensuring that everyone in the 3rd district has access to meaningful economic opportunity. That starts with a quality public education for all students, regardless of their ZIP code. It also means access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans, because no one should be one illness away from losing everything. In Congress, I’ll work tirelessly to create and protect economic opportunities for working families like mine.
Trahan: We hear reports that our economy is booming, but many families in the district aren’t feeling that because they’re struggling to keep up with a cost of living that far outpaces their earnings. I’m ready to get to work to take steps that ease economic anxiety for working families — to make health care and prescription drugs more affordable, open up more lanes of education and workforce training to skill our young people, expand our investment in public education and college grant programs, and invest in infrastructure and green technology to create good jobs that also prepare us for the future.
Q: As a freshman member of Congress, how would you approach your role in a divided Washington and with regards to President Trump?
Ballinger: My organizing experience taught me to make winning economic/political arguments by getting great detail and explanatory information. I will use the AMSC (Ayer) case to show how Chinese (SINOVEL) intellectual property theft hurt American workers. [The] case was decided last January. [The] theft occurred in 2011. Court estimated damages: $800 million; AMSC settled for $57 million.
Didn’t Trump make IP theft a big issue? Where was he? Why were the Democrats unwilling to celebrate this Economic Espionage Act of 1996 victory?
By popularizing this case, we may get restitution for the 700 laid-off workers and expose Trump’s empty “worker-friendly” rhetoric.
Chandler: I’m uniquely prepared to both fiercely advocate for a progressive agenda and to work effectively in a divided Washington. I served 13 years in the intelligence community under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump. I successfully led analysts, represented our country abroad, and worked across government transcending political and cultural divisions. My service background, my lived experience as a middle-class mom who has known struggles and hardship, my optimism and my independence from big money politics has enabled me to build bridges with Republicans and Trump supporters in this campaign and will help me do so in Congress.
Das: Our constituents are just as divided as Washington. Many voters want to see an impeachment while a good number of voters who voted for him continue to support President Trump. My job would be to represent all of our voices so that we can seek progress on the issues that impact us and we agree upon while working to develop consensus where we disagree. I would create meaningful alliances both in my party and across the aisle. I've built bridges all my life; I will do it in Washington for the benefit of the people of the 3rd District.
Gifford: As a former diplomat, I like to say we need more diplomacy in politics. As ambassador it was my job for four years to sit around the table with nine different Danish political parties and find areas we could all agree on. That’s the same approach I would take in Congress. We have to get people around the table, talking, listening to each other. Too often, we score points for retreating to our own corners. We have to build genuine human relationships across the aisle, and that’s what I would focus on.
Golder: I have learned the importance of working with people with varied viewpoints and political parties. I want to see Congress work the way it used to without polarization. I'm opposed to the Patriot Act; so is Ran Paul, with whom I disagree on most issues. I can work with him on that issue. Conor Lamb is pro-life and protectionist. I'm pro-choice and for free trade. But we're both pro labor. I can work with him on reversing the Janus decision on union dues. My plan for tax credits for job and wage growth should get bipartisan support.
Koh: We are not living in normal times. President Trump is inhumanely separating parents from their children. He is attempting to take away health care from millions of Americans and giving tax giveaways to corporations. We must unequivocally stand up to his un-American agenda and never compromise on our values.
That being said, there are opportunities to work across the aisle on issues such as the opioid epidemic and infrastructure funding. I have worked with people of all backgrounds to help implement progressive change, and I’ll bring that same approach to representing our district.
L'Italien: I’ve been an effective progressive legislator for a long time. I know how to get things done without sacrificing my principles. Trump is wrong on so many issues, whether it’s health care, education, immigration, climate change, gun control or tax cuts for billionaires. I’ll fight him tooth and nail to defend our values. But I’ve been successful as a lawmaker working across the aisle on the kitchen table issues affecting every family in this district — especially for children with disabilities and seniors. I’ll work hard to develop good relationships with all my colleagues, and find common ground wherever I can.
Malone: I will stay focused on helping my constituents and the American people — and not be distracted by President Trump or the toxic environment in Congress. Too many of our political leaders are out of touch, having chosen money and power over making a positive difference. I refuse to become a part of that establishment. I’ve been effective in building trust and changing lives because of my ability to listen, observe, seek information, learn, never lose touch of where I came from, and stay connected to the people I serve. I will never lose sight of those principles.
Matias: I’ve learned during my time in the State House that as one member in a much larger body, your individual power is often limited. That’s why it is so important to be able to build coalitions and find common ground with others, including those with whom you don’t see eye to eye. I’m willing to have a conversation and try to work with just about anyone, but never at the expense of my values. In Washington, I’ll do what is needed to move the ball forward without sacrificing my progressive values.
Trahan: Now more than ever, under a president who so often implements policy that is counter to American values, we need Congress to break this partisan gridlock and lead. I believe Congress works best when sensible Republicans work with sensible Democrats to find common ground and get things done. We must find ways to work together to protect women, immigrants, working class families and the environment that are all under attack. The failures of the Trump presidency make it all the more urgent that new leaders build the coalitions needed to stand up to protect those hurt by his actions.
Q: What book, movie or song has had the biggest impact on your life?
Ballinger: As a labor activist in my late-teens, I was given a copy of the "Little Red Songbook," first published by the Industrial Workers of the World. I recall singing the songs in the evenings at labor events and campaigns.
America has had a very violent labor history, but not all the songs were about bloodshed, of course.
There were also good, rollicking songs that were quite lighthearted. It was a bonding experience that I will never forget and made my activism seem a bit more romantic by linking to a radical past. My sons remember me singing "Long-haired Preachers"!
Chandler: "Cosmos," by Carl Sagan. When my father gave it to me as a child, it opened my eyes to the enormity of the universe. "Cosmos" instilled in me a lifelong love of science, especially astronomy, and an appreciation of our responsibility to our planet — from climate change to preventing nuclear war, which became part of my work in the intelligence community. And as a then-closeted transgender child, the book — in combination with my personal faith — gave me comfort during many dark times, where I found solace contemplating the beauty and diversity of humanity, our planet and our universe.
Das: I was inspired by Lee Iacocca's autobiography, "Iacocca." His story is of the American struggle and triumph over adversity and long odds. He was a political free spirit who balanced belief in the American worker with corporate growth. He famously took only a $1 salary and protected his employees while he nursed his company back to health. When my business flooded and was closed for six months, I did the same for my employees. With proper vision and leadership, the 3rd District will rise. I am inspired to be the representative that can lead us there.
Gifford: "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" by Erik Larson. I read this book shortly after Donald Trump took office and I left my post as ambassador. It drove home the idea that we all need to speak out against political atrocities as they develop, and helped me make the decision to step up my own level of service and run for office.
"Star Wars." It was the first movie I saw as a kid and then I had Star Wars sheets on my bed for the next 10 years.
Golder: "To Kill A Mockingbird." Although Harper Lee's prequel portrayed Atticus Finch as less than a champion of civil rights, Atticus represented an African-American wrongly accused of raping a white Southern woman in a small racist town in the 1930s. At personal danger to himself and his family, he [was] a role model for his children as to what was just. And in the end his young daughter teaches him the importance of tempering justice with mercy. Atticus inspired future lawyers of my generation to pursue a legal career for the right reasons.
Koh: The movie "Glory" had a real impact on me. This incredible movie features the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. It reminds me of where we came from, the sacrifices made in the pursuit of justice and equality, and how far we still have to go.
L'Italien: There’s so many to choose from, so I’ll pick one that’s inspired me a lot recently: Eileen McNamara’s “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed The World.” Eunice Kennedy’s sister Rosemary was lobotomized and institutionalized for most of her life, and Eunice spent her life making things better for people like her sister.
She set up programs for people with intellectual disabilities to help move away from institutionalization, founded the Special Olympics, and inspired Best Buddies. She did her homework and got her brothers to step up — she was fighting for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities long before John F. Kennedy.
Her father didn’t believe women had a place in politics. She found her way to weigh in anyways.
It resonates with me as someone who became an advocate for a son with developmental disabilities, and seeing all she accomplished encourages me to keep working.
Malone: The book “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung has impacted me in so many ways. Because of the horror my parents experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime, they never talked about Cambodia and the darkest part of its history with us. Loung’s book helped me learn about my history, the trauma my parents endured, and the sacrifices they made for me to have the opportunity and freedom to achieve my American Dream. I will always be grateful for that.
Matias: "The Green Mile" definitely isn’t a feel-good film, but it opened my eyes to the complexities and inequalities of our justice system. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the law after an eighth grade career shadow day in the Haverhill court system, where I saw how your race and economic status impacted the outcome of your case. I’ve committed my life to fighting inequality and being a voice for the voiceless, and I’m eager to take that commitment to Washington.
Trahan: The song “Blackbird” by the Beatles has always had a special place in my life. There are different stories of what this song means, but all are a version of hope for better days. When my daughters, who are now 4 and 8 years old, were babies and would wake up in the middle of the night, this is the song I would sing to them. The lyrics “you were only waiting for this moment to arise” remind me of how blessed I was when they were born and how grateful I am every day to be their mom.
This article was originally published on August 23, 2018.