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Jake Auchincloss swings left in Congress amid lingering progressive skepticism

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 2/15/2021 Liz Goodwin
a man wearing a suit and tie: Jake Auchincloss spoke to reporters on Nov. 3 after winning the race for Massachusetts' 4th Congressional District. © Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff Jake Auchincloss spoke to reporters on Nov. 3 after winning the race for Massachusetts' 4th Congressional District.

WASHINGTON — In Representative Jake Auchincloss’s first few days in Congress, he survived an insurrection, voted to impeach the president, and attended Joe Biden’s inauguration inside a militarized zone, alongside colleagues wearing tactical vests.

But even in normal times, a freshman honeymoon period would not be in the cards for the 33-year-old former Marine, who came to Washington after narrowly winning a Democratic primary in which several more progressive candidates sliced up his solidly blue district’s votes.

Auchincloss sworn in as Massachusetts’ newest US House member

Liberals in his district, which stretches from the Boston suburbs to Fall River, are hungry for a rematch. That is putting pressure on Auchincloss, once a registered Republican who worked to elect Governor Charlie Baker, to quickly prove his progressive bonafides.

In an interview last week in his office, which is lined with portraits and books featuring towering figures in US history from Lafayette to Lincoln, Auchincloss says he is up to the challenge.

“I think they’re going to see in this term that I have the opportunity to define myself,” he said of his progressive detractors back home. “What my constituents are going to see is that I am a full-throated advocate for liberal priorities.”

Since being sworn in Jan. 3, Auchincloss has lost no time beefing up his progressive resume. He cosponsored two separate impeachment resolutions, two efforts to censure Republican colleagues in connection with the insurrection, and one to expel another Republican member. He’s also signed onto bills that would raise the minimum wage, admit Washington D.C., as a state, and commute the sentences of death row inmates. That last piece of legislation was written by Representative Ayanna Pressley, who endorsed one of his top rivals in the primary.

Auchincloss names four senior staff members

Auchincloss used the phrase “racial justice” five times in the half-hour interview, from its importance to transportation policy to what his constituents expect him to focus on in Washington.

“Over the course of my own campaign I promised I was going to represent this district’s values on issues from racial justice to climate change to ending the authorization for the use of military force,” Auchincloss said, referring to congressional authorization for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “And in this first month I’ve done that, I’ve kept that promise.”

The flurry of progressive action represents a new direction for Auchincloss, who pitched himself as an “Obama-Baker” voter during the primary to succeed Joseph P. Kennedy III and declined to embrace key progressive priorities such as Medicare for All and ending qualified immunity for police. His rivals pummeled him as out of step with the progressive priorities of the district’s influential northern cities and towns, and derided some of Auchincloss’ past comments as racially insensitive.

As a Newton city councilor, Auchincloss criticized public schools that wanted to ban the Confederate flag or punish students for brandishing it, saying he believed that would violate students’ free speech rights. He said he believed condemning, not banning, the Confederate flag was the better option, and in 2017 when up for reelection, touted that position as proof he would ignore “political headwinds” when making decisions.

Auchincloss later reversed himself, saying he sees the issue very differently now, and explained that evolution through the lens of the attack on the Capitol.

“Look at what happened on Jan. 6,” Auchincloss said. “We had a group of almost entirely white protesters parading a Confederate flag through the Capitol in a violent way and who were really allowed to breach the Capitol steps. As one of my colleagues in Congress had pointed out, imagine if they had been Black protesters what the response would have been.”

When his fellow freshman, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, was criticized for spreading QAnon conspiracy theories and encouraging political violence, Auchincloss immediately called for her expulsion.

“We have to grapple with the fact that there is a virulent strain of white supremacy within the Trump movement and it cannot be allowed to be a part of our normal political and civic dialogue,” he said.

Still, progressive leaders and activists in his district are skeptical of the depth of his commitment and say Auchincloss is all but certain to face a primary challenge from the left. Several people closely involved in district politics said activists are encouraging former Brookline selectwoman Jesse Mermell to consider a rematch against Auchincloss, to whom she lost the September primary by roughly 2,000 votes. Mermell declined to comment.

“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a great deal of apprehension,” said Ryan Black, a progressive organizer from Brookline, even as he acknowledged that Auchincloss has just started his first term and there’s very little to evaluate. “People were thinking to 2022 the second [the primary] was called for him.”

Auchincloss won the crowded primary with just over 22 percent of the vote and that has led some observers to believe he may be more vulnerable to a primary challenge than the average incumbent, particularly if progressives rally around one candidate next time.

“He’s got a very short amount of time to prove himself,” said Raul Fernandez, a member of the Brookline select board who supported Mermell in the 2020 primary.

Several progressive activists said Auchincloss’ past comments on the Confederate flag leave them little optimism that he can lead on racial justice issues in the way many in the district want to see.

“[We want] somebody that can go much deeper, that didn’t just pick up a book on how to be an antiracist and then is ‘Okay, I’m ready,’” said Fernandez.

Yet incumbency is a powerful force in Auchincloss’ favor. He has been tapped to serve on two committees — the exclusive Financial Services Committee and Transportation and Infrastructure, which puts him in a good position to deliver to his constituents. And Auchincloss demonstrated formidable fund-raising ability during his crowded primary, significantly out-raising his opponents.

Auchincloss also has shown himself willing to adapt politically — his critics say, opportunistically — to better align with his constituents’ views. As a city councilor, he opposed raising the minimum wage to $15; as a congressman, he has cosponsored legislation to do so. He was one of just a few Newton council members to vote against a resolution calling for Trump’s impeachment in 2017; but labeled himself as “one of the first Democrats to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment” during the primary and then quickly signed on to two such measures when he got to Washington.

He’s also already won over some who didn’t support him in his primary. Representative Ritchie Torres of New York, who backed Mermell last year, said Auchincloss has become one of his closest friends in Congress after they connected over Zoom before orientation. “He’s particularly passionate about the need to reverse climate change and invest in sustainable modes of transportation, and as a person of color I appreciate his commitment to putting racial equity at the center of his policy commitments,” said Torres, a Black freshman lawmaker.

Auchincloss has questioned the strength of the progressive opposition in the district, suggesting it is mainly an online phenomenon. “You can always find someone on Twitter to say something mean about me,” Auchincloss said. “And I think what my campaign and what someone like Joe Biden’s campaign has demonstrated is Twitter is not real life.”

For now, Auchincloss said he plans to join the Future of Transportation caucus, cofounded by Pressley, and keep his main focus on COVID-19 relief and combating climate change. He’s still adjusting to commuting back and forth to Newtonville, where he lives with his wife Michelle and their ten-month-old son Teddy. Like other freshmen, he’s struggled to build in-person relationships with other members due to COVID-19 restrictions, and is still wrapping his mind around the violence of Jan 6.

“Oh my gosh, I cannot imagine a harder way to begin your congressional career than January of 2021,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose, who’s been mentoring Auchincloss.

But despite or even because of the turmoil, Auchincloss is benefiting from a Democratic Party that is unexpectedly united. Many internecine battles over Medicare for All and other issues are delayed as members rally around a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and pick up the pieces from the insurrection stoked by Trump.

“When the other party is wrestling with whether QAnon is a good idea or not it becomes a little easier to feel united with your own members,” Auchincloss said. “Democrats have always been a big tent party.”

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