IN THE Massachusetts congressional delegation, Stephen Lynch stands out for his lone-wolf stances. He voted against bailing out the financial system, in favor of the Iraq war, and, from vote to vote, was on both sides of the health care debate. In a delegation that prides itself on unity, he often goes his own way. In Boston, where he is one of two representatives to Congress, he has chilly relations with City Hall. In Washington, where most other Massachusetts House members either occupy leadership positions or exert strong pull with the speaker, he operates outside of his party’s leadership. He is a member of Barney Frank’s Financial Services Committee and also serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, from which he chairs the subcommittee overseeing the District of Columbia. For his Ninth District constituents, it’s a far cry from the power and influence wielded by his predecessor, Joe Moakley.
In his re-election campaign, Lynch touts his independence, saying it means that leaders like Nancy Pelosi “don’t take me for granted.’’ Lynch’s challenger, Mac D’Alessandro, a public-interest attorney and union activist, has focused on Lynch’s votes — especially on health care. But an equally important question is whether Lynch’s approach to his duties is paying off for his district. Sometimes, lone-wolf stances can be admirable. But after nine years in Congress, there’s little evidence that Lynch’s independent path has led to much more than a string of frayed relationships. There have been times when constituents cheered Lynch’s willingness to buck the tide; but on other occasions, those same constituents were left scratching their heads.
To his credit, Lynch has been a strong advocate for causes that are important to voters in his district, such as veterans’ benefits and the concerns of organized labor, except on health care. He’s also taken his position on Iraq seriously, visiting the country many times and schooling himself on national security. But there is no doubt that this district was better served in the past by a congressman who sought to gain national clout and deliver for his constituents, and there’s no reason why it can’t again.
D’Alessandro has a ground-level perspective on the district. A graduate of Boston College Law School, he dedicated himself to community activism, first though Greater Boston Legal Services, where he rose to legislative director and lobbied Beacon Hill for job-training programs, and more recently as political director of the Massachusetts Service Employees’ International Union. Clearly, SEIU’s anger at Lynch over health care motivated D’Alessandro’s challenge. But his quarrel with Lynch is also about style and energy: He argues that the district needs a more resourceful advocate, a representative who defines his priorities clearly and sets out to produce measurable returns.
On health care, D’Alessandro faults Lynch as much for failure of leadership as for his unyielding refusal to support the final reform package, despite urgent entreaties from Pelosi, Vicki Kennedy, and his Massachusetts congressional colleagues. From the start of the health care debate, while other representatives were striving to put together a bill that met the complexities of the challenge, Lynch held himself out as a critic. He was the only Massachusetts House member who refused to commit to a public option. But then he voted for a bill that had a public option, and whose near-universal coverage was funded by a surcharge on the wealthiest Americans. When that bill had to be changed to accommodate the Senate, he flipped again, opposing it on the grounds both that it lacked the cost-saving mechanism of a public option and that it was funded by a tax on expensive health plans.
That last vote especially rankled his fellow Democrats, who saw it as a once-in-decades chance to achieve near-universal coverage. The bill also included $11 billion for neighborhood health clinics, of which there are 14 in or near his district.
While Lynch’s votes are individually defensible, collectively they provide a mirror into his politics. When others saw opportunity for historic reforms, he offered skepticism. When others stepped forward to shape legislation, he held back. D’Alessandro would be quite different: More cautious about military interventions, including Afghanistan; more willing to do the necessary work of reforming the economy, even when it involves unpopular fixes like bailing out the banking and housing industries; more eager to be a leader both in extending health coverage and in bringing research dollars to Massachusetts.
Coming into Congress as a freshman, D’Alessandro would be at square one, but ironically would have more favor with his party’s leaders than Lynch. For nine years, Lynch has honorably followed his own path. D’Alessandro is an articulate advocate for working people who deserves a chance to show what he, too, can do.