Two candidates bucking the incumbents-rule rule

Political competition is a rare phenomenon in Mass.

WHEN IT COMES to the Massachusetts Legislature, voters won’t have a lot of choice this fall, either during the primary on September 4 or the general election in November.

Seventy-eight percent of the 200 candidates running for the House and Senate will face no opposition in the primary. Most of that group (55 percent) will face no opposition in the general election, either, meaning they’re as good as elected already. The other 23 percent will have an opponent on Election Day, but the challengers in almost every case will face long odds in taking on an incumbent.

Incumbency, with the advantages it brings in fundraising, media exposure, and institutional support, is a powerful force in Massachusetts politics. Where there are incumbents, there tend to be fewer, or no, challengers.

By my count, there are 25 races – 22 in the House and three in the Senate – where no incumbent is running. These races tend to attract a lot of interest from candidates because they feel they have a chance to win. For example, Sen. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell resigned her post in April to become the city manager of Lowell. Five Democrats and one Republican are vying to replace her.

What’s unusual is for a candidate of the same party not to wait for an opening and take on an incumbent in a primary fight. Only 20 incumbents – 17 in the House and three in the Senate – are facing challengers in the primary this year. In all but four of the races, the winner of the primary will win the seat because no one from the other party is vying for the position.

In today’s Codcast, we talk to two Democrats challenging incumbents from their own party – Samantha (Sam) Hammar of Melrose, who is taking on Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester, and Ted Steinberg of Needham, who is running against Rep. Denise Garlick of Needham.

Both Hammar and Steinberg are frustrated. Both were disgusted with the Legislature’s end-of-session hijinks, where so many bills that they hoped would become law failed to make it through the process. Hammar said Lewis is “fine” as a legislator. Indeed, she voted for him in the last election. What set her on her current course, she said, was his lack of empathy when she went to talk to him about the high cost of child care and preschool.

Steinberg, who is 24, said he is concerned about the concentration of power in the hands of a few in the Legislature. He said he respects Garlick for her years of service, but worries that she has become part of the problem as a member of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team. “This is supposed to be the people’s House, not the speaker’s House,” he said.

Both Steinberg and Hammar say the power of incumbency is real. Hammar said she has worked inside state government and at Boston City Hall, and has discovered that many of her old friends have no interest in her candidacy. Many of the state’s political interest groups have endorsed the incumbent without even seeking out her views on the issues.

“I have a little bit of a scarlet letter on my chest, but I wear that proudly,” she said.

No candidates have reported any campaign expenditures yet for 2018, but it’s a safe bet that Hammar and Steinberg are being outspent. Lewis served in the House from 2009 to 2014, when he won election to the Senate, replacing Katherine Clark, who left to run for Congress. Lewis started this year with $109,149 in his campaign account and spent $29,447 during the 2016 election, when he faced a challenger only in the general election.

Garlick was elected to the House in 2011. She started the year with $50,014 in her campaign account and spent $44,116 in the 2016 election, when she faced no opposition in both the primary and general election.

What Steinberg lacks in resources he said he intends to make up with energy. Hammar says much the same. Both say they are not deterred by the long odds.

“Loyalty perpetuates the status quo,” Hammar said. “If you stay loyal to the people in power, nothing will ever change.”

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