When Seth Moulton, the veteran of four tours of duty in the Iraq war and three Harvard degrees, launched his upstart campaign against nine-term Democratic incumbent congressman John Tierney in Massachusetts’ 6th District, he made a lot of familiar promises – he wasn’t going to become a Washington fixture; he was running to do things rather than be somebody; he wanted to shake up the system.
But unlike so many challengers, Moulton offered a guarantee: He absolutely would not become a typical congressman; if he did, his Marine buddies would step in. “It’s very important when you go to Washington to try and keep yourself grounded,” he explains. “I’ve asked a few guys in particular to in fact speak up and call me out if I become quote-unquote ‘one of them.’ “
Not being a standard, Washington-ready politician is still front and center in the concerns of Moulton, three months after vanquishing Tierney, who stressed his seniority on important committees, and a month after beating back a serious Republican candidate, former state Sen. Richard Tisei, who touted his 26 years in the Massachusetts State House.
That victory made Moulton one of the rarest of birds, the only challenger to knock off an incumbent in a Democratic primary, and a completely new voice in a state that prides itself on its long-serving House members. In besting Tierney, Moulton faced down not only Nancy Pelosi, but Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, Joe Kennedy III and most of the rest of the Bay State political establishment, which rallied around Tierney.
The reason was, enough people seemed to believe Moulton when he said he’d be different.
“I just don’t want to go to Washington to be the same congressman that everybody else is being,” he says now, tucked into a booth on the first floor of Charlie’s Kitchen, a legendary dive bar in Harvard Square. Bruce Springsteen played here once upon a time. Moulton’s been coming since the turn of the century, when he was an undergraduate, before the place had a beer garden attached to it. But at 36, he’ll be one of the youngest members of the 114th Congress, and to an impressive collection of Washington gray hairs — left, right, and center — Moulton represents something different: a new style of leadership that they hope will transcend the legislature’s vast dysfunction.
Despite Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey’s entreaty to former generals not to align with political office-seekers, Stanley McChrystal issued his first-ever political endorsement in August to Moulton. Moulton’s old boss David Petraeus is another backer. David Gergen, an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, has been a fan since the representative-elect’s days at Harvard College. Joe Trippi and Mark Mellman braved the wrath of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to become early advisers.
All were believers in the potential of a candidate with a sterling resume and a pledge that country came before party to effect positive change in the capital. Now, that candidate’s preparing for the reality of effecting that change as a freshman legislator in the minority party in an institution marked by partisan gridlock and a culture of seniority.
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Moulton’s facing a tall order, and at 4 p.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he’s ready for a burger and a beer. “I would love a day off,” he says. He’s subdued, but he’s also ready to preempt the most burning question of his career, which is about how exactly he plans to get anything done. Before ordering his first Sam Adams, he explains that he’s been holed up all morning around the corner at his second Harvard alma mater, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, working on that very issue.
He’d been huddling with advisers including Gergen and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, another rising star in Massachusetts politics, to discuss how he can be unlike other congressmen and women. One option they considered was a shake-up of traditional staffing structures. Moulton might, for example, appoint a staffer charged with facilitating economic redevelopment in Lynn (“the city of sin / You’ll never come out the way you went in,” according to a local jingle) rather than focusing on legislation. The idea would be to use the unofficial convening power of the office to bring together stakeholders in the down-on-its-luck city, where Moulton sees a leadership vacuum. There’s a thought. Something different, at least.
Walden Pond lies just outside Moulton’s district, and like Henry David Thoreau, he developed at a young age the confidence to step to a different drummer. He grew up the eldest of three children in the seaside town of Marblehead (hometown of founding father and original gerrymander-er Elbridge Gerry), one of ritzier zip codes in the 6th district, which also includes the hardscrabble fishing community of Gloucester, setting of The Perfect Storm. For high school, he went off to Phillips Academy Andover, alma mater of both George Bushes, before enrolling at Harvard College. From there, says Moulton, “I probably would’ve gone to Wall Street like most of the rest of my friends,” but instead he developed a relationship with the reverend of Harvard Memorial Church, the late Peter Gomes. Gomes preached the gospel of service to Moulton, who proved a willing convert.
“We live in a Western world dominated by contentment, and threatened by mediocrity,” Moulton declared to his fellow graduating seniors in a 2001 commencement speech. “The great challenge for us now is to make lives that are good, lives that are great. We have the capacity, but do we have the will, and the ambition, to achieve greatness?” Just after Sept. 11, he enrolled in the Marine Corps’ Officer Training School at Quantico and in 2003 was among the first Marines into Baghdad.
The move actually horrified his liberal peacenik parents. “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,” his mother Lynn told Boston Magazine in 2008, a quote that’s bound to resurface in Moulton profiles from now until the end of time.
Unlike his parents, the cameras loved it. In 2003, Moulton and his Iraqi translator briefly starred in a Moulton and Mohammed talk show on Iraqi television. The handsome and articulate marine also became a magnet for American media attention. It wasn’t all puff pieces. Moulton opposed the war from the start and grew increasingly frustrated with the bungling off the occupation.
He plays a central role 2007’s Oscar-nominated documentary No End in Sight, in which he expresses shock at the Pentagon’s inability to provide American troops with armored vehicles, criticizes the lack of combat service among the war’s civilian architects, and describes the private contractors swarming the country as “violent” and “short-sighted.” The film gives then-Lieutenant Moulton the last word: “And are you telling me that that’s the best America can do? No. Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don’t tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that that’s the best America can do. That makes me angry.”
Even after all that, Moulton returned to Iraq for a fourth and final tour at the personal request of Petraeus, leaving the Corps with the rank of captain. “He’s an exceedingly bright individual,” Petraeus says. “He works extraordinarily hard. He’s committed. He’s selfless, and I think that he will strive to make a difference, strive to contribute, strive to help Congress do what it is supposed to do.”
After his service, Moulton enrolled in a joint program at the Kennedy school and at Harvard Business School. At the Kennedy School, Moulton reconnected with Gergen, whom he had first met as an undergrad when the pair had struck up a conversation about rail infrastructure at a dinner hosted by Rev. Gomes. “He’s a big train buff,” recalls Gergen. After graduating in 2011, Moulton went to work for a company building a high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas.
In 2012, Gergen was talking Moulton up to Emily Cherniack, an AmeriCorps alum in the process of launching a nonprofit to recruit service veterans to run for office, just as Tierney’s brother-in-law was claiming the congressman knew about an offshore gambling business. (Tierney’s wife pled guilty to tax crimes for allegedly helping her brothers hide the gambling proceeds; the House Ethics committee looked into the matter and declined to open an investigation.) Cherniack approached Moulton, who publicly mulled a run for the seat but took a pass, and Tierney barely fended off a challenge from Tisei that November.
Last year, Moulton decided to jump into the 2014 race and quickly attracted interest from quarters far beyond the North Shore of Massachusetts. “We kind of knew he was special in the beginning,” says early backer Jon Soltz of the Democratic group VoteVets, referring not only to Moulton’s war record, but to his Harvard Business School connections, which have allowed him to tap deep pockets across the country.
The Democratic establishment was nonplussed, concerned that Moulton’s challenge would soften up Tierney enough to let Tisei finish the job in November. “Consultants who work for candidates who challenge Democratic incumbents in the primary unquestionably burn bridges with the committee,” anonymous DCCC sourcestold Roll Call last November in a story about Mellman’s and Trippi’s work for Moulton’s campaign.
In spite of party resistance, and with the help of $575,000 from VoteVets and a bunch of other outside money, Moulton prevailed in the primary. But even in deep-blue Massachusetts, Tisei, a gay, moderate Republican with high name recognition, made for a formidable general election opponent. Moulton scored a small coup in early October when Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC announced it would spend money on his behalf. He scored a bigger coup in mid-October when the Boston Globe discovered that he had been awarded a Bronze Star for valor and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal for valor and that he hadn’t bothered to tell the public, or even his own parents.
“There is a healthy disrespect among veterans who served on the front lines for people who walk around telling war stories,” he told the Globe.
The feel-good story got national press and contributed to Moulton’s reputation for high-mindedness and helped him to his 14-point win. Not that the former Marine was above throwing sharp elbows in the electoral scrum. Thomas Kelley, secretary of Veterans’ Services under both Mitt Romeny and Deval Patrick, called a Moulton ad that characterized two of Tisei’s budget votes in the state Senate as votes against veterans’ benefits, “willfully incorrect and cynical.” Tierney was sore enough after the primary race that he declined to endorse his fellow Democrat in the general.
And not everyone is convinced that once in Washington Moulton will buck partisanship and transcend politics as usual. “Are you kidding?” scoffs conservative talk show host and Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, who had Moulton on his show on the eve of the election and came away unimpressed. “Come on. He’s going to be one of the foot soldiers. When’s the last time anybody come out of Massachusetts who wasn’t a foot soldier?”
But you could ask when the last time was that a challenger out of Massachusetts beat an incumbent in a congressional primary. It was 1992. Soltz of VoteVets says Moulton’s independence has been bolstered by the Democratic Party’s initial resistance to his outsider candidacy. “Seth is beholden to nobody, because he had to do this on his own.”
Moulton is eager to elaborate on this theme: “I’m not a partisan person,” he explains. “I took out this 18-year incumbent by running to the center, not to the left.” Actually, Moulton a self-described “progressive Democrat” and Tierney hold “nearly identical political views” as the Globe put it in its primary endorsement of Moulton.
Still, he’s got what you might call a centrist temperament. He’s the kind of Democrat who cites New York Times columnist David Brooks. And he’s determined to make nice with Republicans. He’s already befriended GOP Rep.-elect Lee Zeldin, a fellow Iraq veteran, at New Member Orientation. Heck, he even hired campaign staffers named, no joke, Eric Kanter and Kevin McCarthy. “He’s not Joe Lieberman but there’s a quality of reaching across the aisle that I think will serve him well,” says Gergen, who’s been laying the ground for Moulton by talking him up privately to lawmakers in both parties.
Says Moulton, “I intend to be very proactive in reaching out to people across the aisle, because I believe it’s critical to getting things done.”
Soltz contends that a key to Moulton’s effectiveness will be his war record: “It won’t just be about Seth getting things done as a freshman in the minority this cycle. It’s about his ability to speak to national issues that very few people in the party have credibility on. The national shows will want to talk to him about national security, and if the president wants to put troops on the ground in Iraq, he has the potential to be a dissenting voice.”
As a voice, Moulton is already well honed. He holds forth calmly and confidently on a range of issues over his cheeseburger and beer. “If we just go back and solve the Iraqis’ military problems,” he says, pausing to take a bite. “We’ll be back again.”
On Ferguson: “Our experience in Iraq was that the way to provide security for a community is not always by using brute force, and the police in Ferguson are responding more aggressively to protests than my battalion often did in Iraq.”
On departed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki: “He rose to prominence as a talented analyst, not an agent of change, which the VA needs.”
On transportation policy: “I’m not a train enthusiast. I’m a serious student of the industry. I believe that high-speed rail would do great things for America.”
When it comes to legislating, the future is less certain. For committee assignments, he wants Armed Services and Transportation and infrastructure. “So much depends on how the Democrats receive him,” says Gergen. “The party has been moving left.” But Gergen’s optimistic that Moulton will make his presence felt: He cites the rise of Jason Chaffetz in the House and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate as proof that norms of seniority in both chambers are loosening.
And then there are his friends from the Marines. In private chats, by phone and on-line, the buddies keep each other grounded and share thoughts and concerns that others may not understand.
“I don’t think anyone’s called me out” – yet, he declares. “I think I’ve been free and clear so far. But they will. These are good guys. They care about our country.”