Lynch’s left flank

The Southie Congressman may have pushed progressives too far this time.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 2, 2010

US Representative Stephen Lynch has held Massachusetts’s ninth congressional district since 2001 — a fact that has irritated the state’s liberals ever since.

From the start, they bristled at his conservative stance on abortion and other social issues. In 2002, his vote to authorize the Iraq War prompted another round of Lynch-bashing. In 2008, he voted against the TARP bank bailout. And, finally, this month Lynch voted against the health-care-reform legislation that barely squeaked through for passage.

Overall, these votes have been exceptions to a center/left record well within Democratic Party norms, if not as liberal as some of his fellow Bay Staters. And yet some local progressive activists wonder if Lynch’s health-care vote suggests he is now consciously shifting rightward in response to US Senator Scott Brown’s recent success — perhaps in preparation for a 2012 Senate race against Brown himself.

Up until now, the left’s disaffection has had no political consequences for Lynch. He first won the seat in a special election (following Joe Moakley’s death), taking 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote, while the more liberal candidates split the remainder. Since then, his most serious challenge has come from anti-war Democrat Phil Dunkelbarger in 2006 — who Lynch crushed with more than three-quarters of all ballots cast.

Most observers believe that this year will be no different. Lynch has well more than a million dollars in his campaign account, and his only declared opponent is Dunkelbarger, who this time is running as an independent.

But on the heels of the health-care vote, some progressives think that Lynch could be ripe for the picking, as evidenced by a small groundswell of support for Harmony Wu, a Needham activist who is considering entering the Democratic primary.

A “Draft Harmony Wu for the 9th Congressional District” Facebook page quickly attracted more than 900 members, and some prominent progressive organizers say they are willing to volunteer and contribute if she runs. “We need a better Congress,” says Wu. “Not just getting rid of Republicans, but getting better Democrats.”

The argument for Lynch’s vulnerability goes as follows. First, the primary will be dominated by die-hard Democrats, who are big fans of health-care reform. Second, many of the district’s high-voting conservative Democrats — such as those in Lynch’s home base of South Boston — no longer think of themselves as Democrats, and may skip the primary. Third, anti-incumbent sentiment could play against Lynch, especially in outlying parts of the district, like Bridgewater, Norwood, and Walpole, where Brown beat Martha Coakley two-to-one. And fourth, Lynch has had a complete breakdown of his relationship with labor — his core Democratic constituency, which in the past made him invulnerable, despite the displeasure of the liberals.

Last fall, when Lynch, a former ironworker, prepared to run in the special US Senate election to succeed Ted Kennedy, state labor leaders, unhappy with Lynch’s reluctance to back a public option in the health-care bill, would not commit to him. Lynch had to pull the plug on his campaign.

Lynch was furious, according to people who were close to the discussions. But those same people suggest that Lynch’s vote against the health-care bill served to widen that rift. Last week, long-time Lynch friend Jay Hurley, district council president of New England’s Ironworkers, publicly criticized Lynch for his vote, in a Peter Gelzinis column in the Boston Herald.

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