NO ONE WOULD question the wisdom of a gambler who put money on US Rep. Stephen Lynch securing another easy win next year. Still, the odds are changing a bit, in part because the demographics of his district are changing and the Democratic Party in Massachusetts is moving away from him to the left.
Since his election in 2001, Lynch has never faced a serious challenge. His district includes South Boston, the neighborhood where he grew up, as well as downtown Boston and the generally white, middle-class cities and towns to the south.
But the district is becoming more diverse. Quincy has a burgeoning Asian-American population. Brockton is a majority-minority community. And the downtown Boston areas of his district are adding moneyed professionals, as is his own South Boston neighborhood.
Political novice Brianna Wu says she intends to run against Lynch in the Democratic primary, telling voters that the congressman is an old Boston guy in a new Boston. The video game developer says it’s time for new blood that better represents the region’s evolution. And she says she is more committed to meeting the demands of the Democratic base that wants lawmakers to stonewall President Trump and the Republican majority in Congress at every turn, just as Republicans did to then-President Barack Obama. That would ensure that Washington remains enmeshed in a permanent re-election campaign but, progressives believe, gives Democrats a better chance of taking back the House next year.
Lynch isn’t one to go there. In February, in fact, he stood up for Trump, telling WBZ NewsRadio that the media has been unfair to the president. Lynch has moved to the left over the years, but he still reflects the conservative Roman Catholic ethos of his upbringing. He rejects his Democratic colleagues’ focus on racial and gender identity politics, their attention to “elitist” issues such as climate change, and their neglect of the type of people who sparked Lynch’s own political rise, the ironworkers and union men he once worked alongside.
“I was an ironworker for 20 years,” he says. “It’s hard to get that out of your system and I don’t want to. I try to spend as much time as I can with blue collar” people.
The irony is that Lynch shares the impatience of the Democratic Party’s liberal base, but also seems vulnerable to its rage. Lynch was one of the first Democratic representatives to question the party’s House leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, when he told WGBH’s Jim Braude in April 2015 that Pelosi should give up her leadership post. He predicted, correctly, that she would not lead Democrats back into the majority in the 2016 election.
His views gained more adherents last year, after the Democrats’ election debacle, when 63 House Democrats, including Lynch, voted for Pelosi’s rival, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, in the election for party leader in the current Congress. Still, Pelosi won overwhelmingly and her advocates framed the rebellion as the outcry of a group of mostly white men against an increasingly diverse Democratic party.
It’s unlikely that Lynch will see his star rise in Congress as long as Pelosi is party leader and the Democratic caucus is dominated by progressive members. He’s a backbencher and will probably remain one.
This fall will mark 16 years in the House for Lynch. Even if Democrats were to win a majority, he’s still far from a committee chairmanship. Lynch is the eighth most senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, the fifth on Oversight and Government Reform. It was on the latter panel that he’s made the most noise in recent years, criticizing Obama administration officials for being insufficiently attentive to terrorist threats. It didn’t win him many friends on the left.
And Wu can make a case that Lynch is out of step with the party’s progressive activists.
He was one of 47 Democrats (with Bill Keating, Massachusetts’s 9th District representative) in 2015 to vote to tighten vetting standards for refugees from Iraq and Syria, despite Obama’s pleas to Democrats to vote no. He more recently opposed Trump’s efforts to curtail refugee admissions and explains that Trump’s order was a blanket ban, while he voted in favor of tighter vetting.
“There’s a huge difference in asking someone to wait a couple more weeks to come into the United States, versus saying you can’t come,” he says.
Lynch is one of three House Democrats still in Congress who voted against Obama’s 2010 health care law. Lynch says he didn’t like the absence of a government-run insurance option, as well as the law’s tax on high-cost, high-quality insurance plans offered by some unions.
Lynch describes himself as personally “pro-life,” even as he says he supports the Roe v. Wade decision.
He derides his party’s focus on climate change, arguing that it has detracted from Democrats’ appeal to Rust Belt voters.
For that, Wu, 39, intends to pillory him. “I think that climate change is the biggest challenge facing mankind and I think that the disaster we are running headfirst into is going to affect my generation and not Stephen Lynch’s and it’s deeply personal to me,” she says.
Lynch was beaten soundly in the 2013 special election to fill the Senate seat left by John Kerry when Kerry became secretary of state, losing to his House colleague Ed Markey by 15 percentage points in the Democratic primary. Markey, in that race, stressed his progressive credentials and hammered Lynch for his breaks with liberal orthodoxy. Lynch was always a longshot in a statewide race, but Wu is hoping to use Markey’s playbook in her challenge.
Lynch turned 62 in March. His once slick black hair is still neatly parted on the left, but is gray now. His ruddy complexion is marked by creases on his forehead and crow’s feet that extend deeply from his eyes outward. Exiting votes on the House floor, his shoulders are slumped. He looks like someone who worked as an ironworker for two decades.
In deciding whom to challenge, Wu said she looked at who in the delegation was least likely to give Trump and the GOP a tough fight. “I looked at who is going to fight for us the least and that’s very clearly Stephen Lynch,” she says.
A former Arlington resident, Wu was harassed after she publicly advocated for women in the video game industry in 2014 and, though she remains in Massachusetts, doesn’t want her current address made public. She says she plans to move to the 8th District when her lease is up in July.
Lynch rejects the idea that Democrats should oppose Republicans just for the sake of opposing them in the hope that the strategy will swing the next election their way. He’d rather take half a loaf on the issues that could help his constituents than hold out for the whole thing down the road.
Specifically, Lynch says he’s amenable to a deal that would allow US companies with overseas assets to bring those back to the United States at a reduced tax rate. Multinational companies based in the United States now stockpile money they earn abroad rather than bring it home and incur this country’s highest-in-the-world corporate tax rate of 35 percent.
Lynch expects a tax break, setting the rate at 10 or 15 percent for funds brought home, could generate the $1 trillion Trump wants to use to upgrade American infrastructure. “That’s a big deal and I think that’s doable,” he says. “If [Trump] ever veered towards the center and started to make some progress, or reach out to Democrats on the issue of tax reform or infrastructure, I would be willing to work with the administration on that.”
Late in March, however, Lynch revealed that as a moderate Democrat he had been invited to a meeting with Trump’s director of legislative affairs and had declined to attend. “I felt like they were trying to divide our party, so I declined the invitation,” he told the Globe in a statement. “I am usually someone who looks for middle ground, but Mr. Trump’s opening position, especially as reflected in his budget, has been so extreme that there is no middle ground.”
Lynch says he’s been busy with the new Congress and doesn’t sound particularly worried about Wu. He expects that shoe leather and door-to-door campaigning, always his strong suit, will carry the day.
Back home in Southie, the city has torn down the Old Colony public housing project, where Lynch and his five sisters grew up with their parents in what Lynch remembers as “one of the poorest predominantly white census tracts in America.” In its place are spiffy town homes that were named last November for Lynch’s mother, Anne.
The town homes sit across Columbia Road from Joe Moakley Park, named for the longtime US representative who personified the Irish Boston Democrat and whose death in 2001 opened up the seat for Lynch.
Despite all of Boston’s changes, Lynch, a Claddagh ring on his finger, still has roots that run deep in the city—and a political bearing that has been in tune with his urban-suburban district. He is betting any winds of change won’t be blowing too strongly through it.