Desire to challenge Moulton in 2020 booms

Salem City Councilor Lisa Peterson is running for Congress.

SALEM  — City Councilor Lisa Peterson’s surprise announcement on Monday that she is running for Congress — and not for re-election to her Ward 3 seat — has left a lot of observers wondering.

Some are wondering who she is; the first-term city councilor is not exactly a household name in the 6th District, even in Salem. Still others are wondering why so many people are lining up to challenge three-term Congressman Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat who is making a long-shot run for president in 2020. Moulton has said he will run for re-election to Congress if he does not win the Democratic nomination for president.

Peterson is the second candidate to announce she will challenge Moulton in the Democratic primary. The first to announce was Jamie Zahlaway Belsito of Topsfield, a Salem State University trustee and advocate for maternal mental health issues.

At least six others have shown interest in running, a majority of them women.

Jim Thompson, chairman of the Beverly Democratic City Committee, said Moulton’s decision to oppose Nancy Pelosi’s election as House speaker “had an effect on his popularity,” and may have sparked some of the interest among potential challengers.

Moulton wound up voting for Pelosi for speaker, but only in exchange for concessions on eventual leadership changes to the Democratic House caucus.

Thompson found it interesting that Peterson is running. Thompson noted that it was Moulton who has been pressing the idea of change, so instead of generational change, “maybe its time we have a woman in that position.”  

Thompson, who is not aligned with any candidate, said he is curious to get to know Peterson and what she could do.

Peterson said she’s running whether or not Moulton, 40, runs for a fourth term.

“We need someone who is leading boldly at the top,” she said, citing problems she has seen at the local level, such as the lack of affordable housing and good-paying jobs, improved public transportation, and the need for national leadership on climate change the threats it poses for coastal communities such as Salem. 

Peterson said she has been afforded a “front-line view” of these issues, but they are too daunting to be tackled at the local level.

Peterson, 41, is a financial planner who has challenged an incumbent before: she beat incumbent Ward 3 Councilor Steve Lovely in 2017 to win a spot on the City Council. She is still serving her first term.

Peterson said she let her constituents know Monday about her decision not to run for re-election to the council this year. She is the only candidate who had pulled papers for the seat as of Monday morning. The last day to take out nomination papers is July 26, and the last day to return them is July 30.

On to the primary

As for Moulton, “Seth is a product of a primary himself and isn’t afraid of democracy,” said his spokesman, Matt Corridoni.  

Moulton, meanwhile, has been stumping in Nevada and New Hampshire in an uphill battle for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. Last month, he failed to qualify for the first set of debates in Miami.

He told ABC’s Martha Raddatz recently that he plans to stay in the race, though he is barely registering in the polls: “I’ve been in tough fights before, so I’m going to keep going,” said Moulton, a former Marine who served three tours of duty in Iraq.

Peterson said Moulton’s plans were not a “huge factor” for her, but they have been for some constituents she’s spoken with, who, she said, are asking, “Is he going to come back and take the seat because he didn’t get the prize he wanted?” 

But Corridoni said Moulton and his team are on top of what’s going on in the 6th District.

“Seth’s record of accomplishments in the district speak for themselves,” Corridoni said. “Both Seth and his team continue to work around the clock to successfully deliver results while he’s running for president.”

Longtime Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman of Marblehead said he doesn’t know Peterson, but he does know others who are seriously considering running. 

“It’s clear to me the reason is, if he was to come back from the presidential race, he does not want to be the congressman for the 6th District anymore,” Goldman said — or at least, that is the perception, “fairly or unfair.” 

“The 6th District needs a congressman who wants to be the congressman for the 6th District,” Goldman said. The perception is that Moulton has not been in office long enough to be looking for higher office. And though it’s no crime to be ambitious, he said the issue would be whether Moulton cares about the job he’s in now.

Kristin ten Bensel, who chairs the Ipswich Democratic Town Committee, said Moulton has “done a great job as our congressman,” and noted, “the field for president is rather large.”

She said it’s too early to talk about the other candidates, whom she hasn’t met, but said there appears to be more interest in women running, reflecting a trend of women wanting to enter politics. That speaks well for the democratic process, she said.

‘No one noticed’

Arthur Powell, a Democratic State Committee member from Beverly, was among many who were surprised by Peterson’s surprise announcement — by video — of her candidacy. 

The professionally shot video shows people shouting “I’m running for Congress!” before Peterson says: “I’m Lisa Peterson and we are running for Congress.”

Some of the scenes were filmed on Lynn Shore Drive or with her family on the Essex Street pedestrian mall. One shot shows people wearing a red T-shirts of the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“How did she end up filming a video and no one noticed?” Powell asked. “They were very smart about keeping it on the QT.” 

Powell noticed Peterson attending Democratic events around the district, including the Gloucester Democratic City Committee’s annual brunch back in April, shortly after Moulton announced he was running for president.

Also speaking at that event was Tierney, who said he was “keeping an open mind” about running for the seat he held for 18 years. Also there was Governor’s Councilor Eileen Duff, a Gloucester resident, who also said she might run for the 6th District seat.

Others who’ve expressed interest include Angus McQuilken, Topsfield resident and gun violence prevention advocate; Marblehead state Rep. Lori Ehrlich; and former state Sen. Barbara L’Italien of Andover. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has said she would explore a run for Congress if the seat were open.

Powell said potential candidates break down in two ways, those who plan to run against Moulton in the primary, and those who would run only if Moulton did not.

The other opportunity for potential 6th District candidates is after November 2020, if Moulton is reelected to a fourth term, and then he’s picked for a cabinet post or to be vice president.

“That’s when all bets are off,” Powell said. 

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