SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Fresh off the first debate of the campaign, Democrat Jake Auchincloss has landed what his campaign says is the first union endorsement in the race to replace Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III.

The National Association of Government Employees is backing Auchincloss because of his support as a Newton city councilor for “great public education, reducing income inequity, and making communities sustainable,” Dave Holway, the group’s president, said in a statement released by the campaign.

NAGE, an affiliate of SEIU, represents roughly 22,000 workers at over 60 state agencies in Massachusetts. Auchincloss said he has promised to “be a hardworking ally for working people in Congress” if elected.

“NAGE represents the essential workers in our cities and towns — those who keep us safe and those who ensure the functioning of our government and daily lives,” he said.

Auchincloss is one of nine Democrats who have filed to run for the 4th Congressional District seat, which stretches from the wealthy Boston suburbs down through the Attleboros and Taunton into the northern part of Fall River.

Auchincloss signaled his pro-labor instincts during Tuesday night’s debate, held at Boston College, in an exchange with fellow Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman, another 4th District candidate.

Responding to a question about proposals for tuition-free college, Grossman expressed concern about the high cost of higher education.

“Our public education system was designed at a time when we thought that K-12 was what you needed to prepare yourself to be able to enter the economy and to get a good-paying job. And undoubtedly, that is no longer the case,” Grossman said. “So we need to be investing at both ends of the spectrum.”

Auchincloss shot back a few minutes later, “I just don’t agree with that.”

Saying he had visited a group of building trades union members earlier in the day, Auchincloss continued, “Those gentlemen do not necessarily have college degrees. They have good careers, though, and unions have been an instrumental part of allowing people to achieve the American dream with jobs outside of the four-year liberal arts pathway.”

He added, “I’m committed to unions as part of the democratic process going forward.”

Grossman quickly clarified her initial comment, praising unions for “leading the way” in creating apprenticeship and training programs.

“I think that that is a model that we can follow and should be investing in and adding to,” she said, calling for “a menu of options.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook