POLITICIANS DON’T TYPICALLY jump at the chance to mix it up in public with the chair of their state party. That should be doubly true for a young, no-name, first-time candidate making a run for Congress. But Seth Moulton didn’t hold back last year. He was locked in a primary fight against an entrenched Democratic incumbent, John Tierney, for a congressional seat representing the suburbs north of Boston. Moulton spied Tom McGee, a state senator from Lynn and the state Democratic Party chairman, at an event wearing a Tierney campaign sticker. Moulton couldn’t help himself. He buttonholed McGee, and insisted that the party chair shouldn’t be taking sides in a Democratic primary.
The confrontation might have seemed like an act of political self-immolation to some. But Moulton, a decorated combat veteran and political newcomer, doesn’t show much deference to political etiquette, whether it’s deference to a longtime incumbent, or caution around party officials. It’s one of the qualities that helped Moulton dispatch Tierney in September, and capture a congressional seat in November. It’s helped Moulton become one of the most intriguing new voices in Massachusetts politics. And, if Moulton falls on his face in Washington, it’ll likely be the fault of the same impulse that led him to buttonhole McGee about his Tierney sticker last year: Seth Moulton is not a political creature, and he’s now charging into the center of American politics.
Moulton, 36, is a vocal critic of the Iraq war who served four tours in Iraq. He’s intense, hard-charging, and unfailingly polite. He harbors no small ambitions. Moulton ran for office on promises to mend a dysfunctional legislative culture in Washington, and to spread a culture of service around the country. He’s also a rising political star who only reluctantly concedes that he’s a politician. “I don’t feel like it, no,” he says, when asked whether he counts himself as a politician. “I don’t. I guess I have to now. I guess I’m faced with the reality that everyone else seems to think I am. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be a politician. I don’t come at this job because I want to be a politician.”
Moulton pulled off a rare feat last fall, knocking Tierney out of his North Shore congressional seat. But two years ago, a run for Congress wasn’t even on Moulton’s radar. The Marblehead native was living in Texas, and working on a project to link Dallas and Houston with a high-speed rail line. Moulton was recruited to challenge Tierney because of what he did before landing in Texas: He collected three degrees from Harvard (undergraduate, Harvard Business School, and the Kennedy School of Government), and served four tours in Iraq as a Marine, despite being a critic of the war. Moulton’s unit stormed Baghdad in 2003, and he saw heavy combat in Najaf in 2004; he also served two tours as a special assistant to Gen. David Petraeus. Moulton came to politics through Emily Cherniack, who runs a group that recruits military veterans and individuals with strong service backgrounds to run for office, and Alan Khazei, the founder of Boston-based City Year. (Moulton and Cherniack both worked on Khazei’s 2009 US Senate campaign.)
The Moulton campaign attracted support from national figures like Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and former presidential advisor David Gergen. But in challenging Tierney for the state’s Sixth Congressional seat, Moulton essentially picked a fight with the entire leadership of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Incumbent congressmen in Massachusetts rarely lose re-election fights, especially in primaries, but Tierney had been deeply wounded by a family gambling scandal, and he only narrowly survived a 2012 challenge by Richard Tisei, a well-liked, moderate Republican. Even so, the state’s political establishment lined up strongly behind Tierney. Moulton spent much of 2014 running into the teeth of the state’s Democratic machinery, with Tierney backers trying to muscle off potential Moulton staffers, donors, and volunteers. “A 19-year old staffer was told she’d never have a future in politics if she worked for me,” Moulton recalls. But he appeared to relish the uphill run. Moulton wound up toppling Tierney by 11 points in the September primary and then, with the backing of party regulars like McGee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, sailed past Tisei by 15 in the November general election.
Both Moulton’s parents vigorously opposed the Vietnam war. His mother, Lynn, famously told Boston magazine six years ago that her first reaction when Moulton decided to enlist in the Marines was, “There was no career choice he could have made that would have made me more unhappy, except if he had chosen a life of crime.” Now, that career choice has given Moulton a legislative platform most freshman lawmakers don’t enjoy. He has honed a sharp critique of both the war he spent years fighting, and of the treatment of returning veterans by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. And he’s already a prominent voice against the lurch back toward military engagement in Syria and northern Iraq.
In late November, I sat down with Moulton at the Ugly Mug Diner in Salem, where he downed a double cheeseburger, a glass of milk, and several handfuls of French fries he pilfered from an aide’s plate, while parsing Washington gridlock, dysfunction at the VA, and the federal fishing regulations now crippling his new district’s fishing fleet. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
— PAUL MCMORROW
COMMONWEALTH: You just got back to town from Washington, right?
SETH MOULTON: Yeah, freshman orientation. It’s not unlike freshman orientation in college: We spent a lot of time in a room, learning all the rules, and then you go socialize with your new friends. It was a great experience. It’s exciting. But it’s also humbling. I recognize that it’s a tremendous honor to get elected, and it’s a tremendous responsibility.
MOULTON: About 50 to 55. The number still hasn’t been decided. [Recounts were still underway.] There are about 15 Democrats right now. A lot of the orientation was divided between Democrats and Republicans, which was disappointing. I was hoping they would treat us as a class. We had some events we did as a class. But, unfortunately, we were mostly separated by party. But I still made an effort to reach out to people on the Republican side of the aisle and get to know them, as well as Democrats.
CW: How would you describe the mood down in Washington right now?
MOULTON: You know, I hear talk about how the American people have said loud and clear, we’ve got to break out of this bitter partisanship. I’m not seeing enough done at a practical level to really change that. Here’s a perfect opportunity, with freshman orientation, to really let this freshman class break down that barrier. And yet, most of our events are separate.
CW: When you did get the chance to mix, who did you talk to?
MOULTON: I talked to Lee Zeldin. He’s a Republican. He’s a veteran. He and I were on NPR together on a show for Veteran’s Day. So I was happy to meet him, I sat next to him during the office lottery. I know he’s going to be in the same office building as me. He’s someone who wants to do work on veterans’ affairs. But we didn’t have many opportunities to really get to know each other, because we were all doing our separate things.
CW: Is that by design, or is it just the way it’s always worked?
MOULTON: Regardless of whether it’s by design, or whether it’s the way it’s always worked, the reality is that system is not working. So we should, by design, try to move past it.
CW: How does somebody in your position, a freshman in the minority party, start to turn the ship around?
MOULTON: One thing you do is, you pick an issue or an area where you can have an impact. With me, that’s veterans. It’s one reason I’m trying to get on the Armed Services Committee. I bring some credibility to the Congress, even as a freshman, that many other members don’t have when it comes to veterans and the military. I get my health care from the VA. I’ve been on the ground in Iraq. That perspective matters, especially at a time when veterans are not getting the care they need at home, and we’re talking about going into another war abroad.
CW: What’s wrong with the VA? You would think, if there’s one thing the government should make sure they do right, it’s taking care of veterans. Why is this so hard to get right?
MOULTON: It hasn’t been prioritized. We’ve never had fewer veterans in Congress. There just aren’t as many people who get this, as there were before. I think Washington is disconnected. They’re in their own little bubble down there. They’re not in touch with the realities of what veterans face every day. One of the questions I was asked this week was, are you going to keep getting your health care from the VA, or are you going to go through the congressional system? It’s a lot more convenient for me to go through the congressional system, but I’m going to keep getting my health care from the VA, because it’s critical to stay in touch with the people I’ve been sent to represent.
CW: What have your own experiences with the VA been like?
MOULTON: It’s mixed. There are areas where the VA has very good care. The VA in Bedford has gotten a lot of awards in the past couple years. They were terrible four or five years ago, but they’ve really turned it around and they’re doing great now. I went and visited them, and one of the questions I asked was, what are you doing to share your best practices with other VAs around the country? They said, no one ever comes to visit.
I happen to have a very good primary care physician. He went to a good medical school, he wants to serve veterans, he’s at the VA for the right reasons. But he’ll refer me to another specialist, and I’ll wait for months to get an appointment. Or, he’ll send me across the hall to get blood drawn and I could stand in line for two hours, and then get treated like dirt when I finally get to the front of the line. It’s very much a mixed bag. I think that points out that you need to have a management system that’s much more dynamic in being able to respond, to fire people who shouldn’t be there, to develop systems geared toward taking care of today’s veterans. The VA needs to have the flexibility to determine, gee, we need a lot more mental health resources right now. It seems pretty obvious. But traumatic brain injury wasn’t a diagnosis that existed 20 years ago, because if you got a traumatic brain injury, you died. Now, kids are surviving it, and we need to take care of them.
CW: What’s it been like to go from the grind of the campaign, to immediately transitioning to getting an office set up in a few weeks, and ramping up to do the job?
MOULTON: I haven’t taken a day off in a year and a half. So that would be nice. I would love to just get up to the mountains for a day, get up to New Hampshire. It’s been a grind. But, look, it’s not as hard as being in the war. I think it’s important to keep that perspective. But it was a hard campaign, we worked very hard, we all did. The whole team did. So it would be nice to get away for a day.
CW: It’s funny you said that, because you were the guy who was up shaking hands at the Salem train station at 6:30 in the morning the day after the election, the one day when most politicians can afford to sleep in.
MOULTON: I wanted everybody to know I’m going to work incredibly hard to represent them. Maybe that will be something that sets me apart. But I never got any favors in life. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. I didn’t come from a famous political name or anything like that. I didn’t have any family that served in the Marines. I didn’t have any family that went to Harvard. I didn’t have the money to go to Harvard. I’m still paying my college loans every month. I guess I’ve learned that hard work pays off. I’m going to take that view to this job, as well.
CW: What kinds of reactions did you get from people at the train platform that morning?
MOULTON: They were wonderful. People appreciated the fact that I was willing to get up and hit the ground running, that I wasn’t taking anything for granted. People realize there are a lot of people in government who don’t work that hard, who don’t get enough done. That’s part of why we have a dysfunctional government. It’s not the only reason, but it’s part of why we have a dysfunctional government. It would be good to get people who are going to work just as hard in government as they work to make a million dollars in the private sector or, to simply make ends meet in the private sector. People get up every single day and work from dawn until dusk, just to feed their families. Our public servants in Washington ought to work just as hard as them.
CW: Who are your political role models?
MOULTON: Senator Kennedy. Look, he was known as the liberal lion of the Senate, but he always worked across the aisle to get things done. He was so good at finding common ground. He never lost touch with the people he was there to represent, or the values and principles he held.
CW: Do you consider yourself to be a politician?
MOULTON: [Laughs] I don’t feel like it, no. I don’t. I guess I have to now. I guess I’m faced with the reality that everyone else seems to think I am. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be a politician. I don’t come at this job because I want to be a politician. This is the way I think I can serve. I miss serving. I miss that, from the Marines.
CW: How would you describe the state of service in the country right now?
MOULTON: It could be a lot better. The good thing is, there are a lot of young people who want to serve. It used to be everyone who graduated from places like Harvard just went to Wall Street, and now a lot of them go into Teach for America. That’s a good sign. But we can do a lot more as a country to capture that interest. Right now, only one of five AmeriCorps applicants actually gets a spot. So a lot of people who want to serve their country never have the opportunity. It’s one of the reasons why I’m such an advocate of national service. Not a mandatory program, but a program where, it’s so widespread, so good, not just for the country but for the people who take part in it, that it becomes almost a social expectation, that you do some sort of service. Gen. McChrystal is a big advocate for this, he was a big supporter of my campaign because of that. People assume I met Gen. McChrystal in Iraq. We met because of our shared interest in national service, after the war. He talks about getting to a point where everyone who applies to a job when he or she is 30, one of the first questions you’re asked is, where did you serve? I think we’d have a stronger country, if that were the case. It would be stronger from a sense of shared purpose.
CW: Why did you enlist in the Marines, as opposed to the Peace Corps, or Teach for America, or…
MOULTON: I looked at teaching overseas. I looked at the Peace Corps. But I just had so much respect for the 18- to 19-year-old kids who put their lives on the line for this country, that I decided…someone who had had the opportunities I had worked hard to earn, like going to a great school, we should do our part, too. There was a time when that was the case.
I also would not have joined the military without the influence of Peter Gomes at Harvard [the late chaplain at Harvard’s Memorial Church and a theology professor there]. He was a mentor and a friend. He was a minister, but I also took his course. He talked about the importance of service, how it’s not enough to believe in service and support those who serve, you also have to find a way, yourself, to serve. The most striking thing you see when you walk into that church in Harvard Yard, on the wall, the names of all the Harvard men who died in World War II, it’s a long, long list. Then you look across on the other side of the church, on the bronze plaque, and see the names of those who died in Vietnam, and it’s very short. We ought to go back to a place in this country where everyone feels an obligation to serve.
CW: So you enlisted right after graduation?
MOULTON: I graduated June 2001, and made the decision then to join. The fall [Marine Corps officer candidate] class was full. So I didn’t actually start my training until January. In the interim, September 11 happens. So I had no idea going into this that I would be…
CW: Did you ever have second thoughts?
MOULTON: No. So many people thought I was crazy for wanting to join the military, and then after September 11, there were lines outside the recruiting stations. I thought it was validating.
MOULTON: Yes. Yes, I do. I think there are a lot of people who are just content with the way things are. We talk a lot about inspiration in America. We hope people are inspired to do things, we hope young people are inspired, and whatnot. There’s a real important place for aspiration, too. People ought to aspire to do great things, not just do the minimum. That’s what I mean by mediocrity.
CW: Is it fair to say you’re a hard-charging person?
MOULTON: I think that’s fair.
CW: I heard this story on the campaign, where you ran into Tom McGee, the chair of the party, and he was wearing a Tierney sticker, and you confronted him about it. Is that story true?
MOULTON: In broad outlines, yes. He’s the chair of the Democratic party. He shouldn’t have taken a side in a primary. And, to his credit, he took the sticker off. One of the hardest things in public life is admitting you’re wrong, and I think he was wrong. You can ask him what his opinion of the story is. We haven’t talked about it since. But I have tremendous respect for Senator McGee. I consider him to be someone who will be one of my closest partners for getting things done in the district, especially for Lynn. My take is, he recognized he was wrong, and he was willing to admit it.
CW: It’s a telling anecdote. There aren’t a lot of candidates who would walk up and confront the chair of their party.
MOULTON: But, see, I’m not a typical candidate. If I’m someone who got to run for Congress because he worked his way up the party infrastructure, did all the party favors along the way or whatever, of course not, I would never have said that. We’ve had enough of that in politics. We need people who will ask the tough questions, and tell people when we need to do things differently.
CW: Take me back to when you first decided to get into this race.
MOULTON: I was happily running this high-speed rail project in Texas when I received a call from Emily Cherniack, the founder of this group New Politics, who’s recruiting service alums to run for office. She said, you ought to think about running for Congress. Look, this was not on my radar screen at all. I was living in Dallas. My initial answer was no. Thank you very much, but I’m not interested. But it’s an honor to be asked, and I thought about it, and, look, so much of my life in the past 15 years has been defined by this war that I think was largely a mistake of Washington. It’s a consequence of a Congress that didn’t know what they were doing when they got us into the war, and then didn’t have our backs while we were there. And, fundamentally, that’s not going to change unless new people run. Most of the guys I served with will never have the opportunity to run for Congress, but some of us need to step up and do that, so that the mistakes we saw in the war don’t happen again, and so that we can build a stronger country here at home.
CW: At what point in the campaign did it dawn on you that this was actually going to happen?
MOULTON: I would not have started this campaign if I didn’t think I could win. I knew it would be very hard, and I knew there would be a good chance I could lose. David Bernstein wrote this column, saying, oh, I thought Seth Moulton had this great plan to come in second place. I saw him a day or two later, and I said, I cannot believe you thought I would do this to come in second place.
CW: But among all the professional political talkers, that was the assumption.
MOULTON: Well, they don’t know me. Obviously.
CW: Take me through primary night.
MOULTON: I didn’t answer your question. I never knew I would win until election results came in. But you could feel it out on the trail. As I went around the district, I kept hearing this message, we need new leadership, we need change, passing one bill in 18 years isn’t enough. It was resonating.
CW: On primary night, was it a surprise things came to a conclusion as quickly as they did? The race was over by 9:30 pm.
MOULTON: That was a complete surprise. On election day, there’s not much you can do. You think, if we lose this race by 10 votes, I want to make sure I shake those 10 hands. But after the polls close, there’s nothing you can do, so I went for a run. I’m not going to waste my time, sitting and brooding about it. I go for a run, I come back and I’m folding my laundry. I have my phone plugged in, because it’s way too early, and I have to get the phone charged, because people are going to be calling later. And then I went to check on it and see if it was charged, and there’s a voicemail from a DC number. I listened to the voicemail, and it sounded like John Tierney, calling to say I won. I went and played it to [campaign aides] Aaron [Bartnick] and Scott [Ferson], and Scott starts to give me a big hug, and I shoved him off, saying, it’s too early. We’re not going to start celebrating until we know that we won.
CW: The version Scott told me was, you said, what do you think this means, and he said, it means you won.
MOULTON: Joe Trippi [the national Democratic consultant who also worked on the Moulton campaign] called, and I told him the same thing. I said, Joe, I just don’t think we can really make the call right now. I mean, I hear all the time about people who concede and then they have to go back on it. And he just said, Seth, you’re an idiot. You won. Again, I wasn’t surprised by winning, but I wanted to be sure.
CW: Charlie Baker won your district by a margin that’s similar to yours. What lesson do you draw from the number of people who split the ticket between the two of you?
MOULTON: I ran on a message of bipartisanship. I ran on a principle that you have to be willing to work with the other side of the aisle. From a political science perspective, that’s probably the most remarkable thing about this victory, because every primary these days is won by people going to the extremes. I met David Brat down in Washington this week. He defeated Eric Cantor. His was a typical primary win. Not typical in terms of who he had defeated, but Cantor was, uh, comparatively moderate, and Brat’s not. I ran to the center. That’s how I beat Congressman Tierney. Those people expect me to follow through. I met so many people who came up to me, sometimes they’d get in your face when they’d say, I am a lifelong Republican, I have never voted for a Democrat in my entire life, but I’m voting for you. And they’d say, make me proud. And I’m going to work hard to do that.
CW: What’s David Brat like?
MOULTON: He’s like any of the rest of us. We happened to be in the same group going through the White House tour, so we were always handing our phones off to each other. I’d take pictures of him and his wife, and he’d take pictures of me.
CW: Is he a guy you could work with?
MOULTON: I don’t know. That remains to be seen. But I’ll tell you what. He’s certainly a guy I could talk to. And if Seth Moulton can talk to David Brat, there’s certainly a lot more dialogue that could be happening in Washington.
CW: What do you hear from the folks in Gloucester on fishing?
MOULTON: I know these guys. I’m getting to know them better. I’m going out with Joe Orlando on his boat Tuesday. Joe’s whole family history has been fishing. He had to sell his boat when codfish collapsed 10 years ago. Then NOAA said it would be restored in 2014, so he bought a new boat, and he just had to sell that. His family has been devastated by this. A lot of people have heard these stories. It’s very serious.
There’s another piece that’s important to understand, too: At the end of the day, the vast majority of the environmentalists and fishermen want a sustainable fishery. It’s silly to think the fishermen want to just go around and fish all the fish until there’s none left. Then they’re going to lose their jobs as well, right? I think there’s a lot of commonality around the goal of having a sustainable fishery. It’s just a lot of debate about how to get there. And there are some serious issues with the science. I hear this from the fishermen and the environmentalists — the science is not good. The regulations, as a result, are not responsive. The fishermen go out today, they’re catching a lot of flounder and redfish. The NOAA prediction five years ago was that there would not be a lot of flounder right now. So they’re not able to take it. It’s just insane. Everybody seems to agree, there’s not much cod right now. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other species they could be catching.
CW: So it’s more about getting the regulations to meet the reality?
MOULTON: How do you get the regulations to be responsive to the conditions out there now? It’s not just about catching the fish that are in abundance. It’s also making sure we’re not catching the fish that aren’t in abundance, even though some five-year old prediction said they would be.
CW: What’s your long-term plan? Is this something you want to do for 20 years, or just a few?
MOULTON: If you had asked me three years ago whether I’d be running for Congress, let alone sitting here as a congressman-elect, I would have said you’re nuts. The long term plan is, I know what’s important in my life is feeling that I’ve helped serve other people. Right now, the best way I can do that is to be a good congressman, a great representative for the people of this district. And that’s what I’m going to focus on. That’s what I am focused on.