The Challenges Begin

By Jim Ellis

July 3, 2017 — Action late last week emanating from Massachusetts could be a harbinger of what we can expect in the coming months. The Boston Globe reported that Cambridge City Councilman Nadeem Mazen is not seeking re-election to instead launch a significant Democratic primary challenge to veteran 10-term congressman, Mike Capuano (D-Somerville).

Mazen has not yet announced his congressional candidacy, though he has previously made public his decision not to seek re-election to the Cambridge Council when he seat comes before the voters later this year. He did tell the Globe, however, that he is “beginning to focus on campaign plans for 2018” but wants to talk to community leaders, elected officials, and “potential allies” before making public statements about any future political plans.

Mazen, the first Muslim elected to office in Massachusetts, was originally elected to the council in 2009 and, at the time, pledged to only serve two four-year terms. He has worked to activate Muslims to join the political process and run for office. Professionally, Mazen founded a film company that produces animated content.

Though this may not be a typical primary challenge where a person from either the left or right of the current incumbent enters the primary race because the member is not suitably ideological, it is may arguably be the first of what is likely to be many significant nomination challenges in both political parties.

On paper, Massachusetts’ 7th District looks to be a good playing field for a Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders type of primary campaign. Massachusetts proved to be a microcosm of the national Democratic nomination battle that saw Clinton barely defeating Sen. Sanders. In the Bay State, she won 49.7 – 48.3 percent.

In practice, however, it is unlikely that the congressman will draw the ire of the Sanders’ activist base. He has voted decidedly liberal during his long tenure in the House, and in one session actually tied with other Democrats as having the most liberal voting record.

Therefore, how vulnerable is Capuano? He was elected in 1998 after then-Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D) retired from Congress, leaving the seat that had elected his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Capuano was an upset winner in the 1998 Democratic primary, defeating the early favorite, Raymond Flynn the former Boston mayor and US ambassador to the Vatican. Since then, the congressman has had very little in the way of opposition, and never received less than 80 percent of the vote, running most of the time unopposed.

Capuano did show vulnerability, however, when he ran in the 2010 special US Senate election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. He finished poorly in the Democratic primary, losing a landslide to then-Attorney General Martha Coakley, who would famously turnaround and lose the special general election to Republican Scott Brown. Coakley would return to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2014, but lost to current Gov. Charlie Baker (R).

Though this seat may be an unexpected kick-off to a mounting incumbent primary challenge trend, the district doesn’t set up particularly well for Mazen, even though he may well become a credible candidate in terms of financial resources and grassroots support. Because Cambridge – a place where Mazen attracted more votes for the at-large city council position in 2013 than any other candidate – is split between two congressional districts, the 7th and Rep. Katherine Clark’s (D-Melrose) 5th District, the city’s portion of the Capuano district is only 7 percent of the total CD population.

The 7th is an irregular-shaped district that begins at Logan Airport, then moves counter-clockwise to host the cities of Chelsea and Everett before taking in the Congressman Capuano’s home town of Somerville. It captures the southern section of Cambridge, crosses the Charles River into Boston’s Back Bay, and stretches south to annex places south of Boston such as Dorchester and Mattapan before ending in the town of Randolph just north of Brockton.

Though this challenge may not fit the prototypical ideological model we are sure to see, the impending Capuano-Mazen contest could transform into a significant campaign, and one that could eventually prove no incumbent is immune from receiving political competition of a particular sort. It will certainly be a rather interesting race to watch.


  1. Correction: Mazen pledged to serve no more than three terms (terms in Cambridge are three years). He is choosing not to run again after finishing two terms.

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