Would-be Kennedy successors could miss ballot as COVID-19 hampers signature push

SE Mass

SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Some of the candidates running to succeed Congressman Joe Kennedy III are in jeopardy of missing the ballot if state leaders don’t extend next month’s deadline to collect signatures because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a survey by WPRI 12, only one of the 10 Democrats campaigning for the seat — Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss — confirmed filing the 2,000 required signatures with city and town clerks across the 4th Congressional District. The House district stretches from the Boston suburbs down through Attleboro and Taunton into northern Fall River.

“We’re grateful for those workers who are currently validating signatures,” an Auchincloss aide said in an email.

The other candidates expressed varying degrees of confidence about their ability to get enough voters to put pen to paper between now and early May while respecting public health officials’ mandates on social distancing. Still, many are urging Beacon Hill to extend the deadline for all candidates due to the unprecedented public health emergency.

‘We’re confident we will have more than enough signatures,” said Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman’s campaign manager, Alex Vuskovic, explaining that her campaign has been “letting supporters sign and mail their petition signatures back.”

“We are confident we will reach the signature threshold and are grateful to all the voters across the district who have given us their signature,” said Zach Baum, director of operations for City Year founder Alan Khazei. “Nonetheless, given the profound impacts of COVID-19, and as many other candidates have also said, we are also calling on the state legislature and the governor to reduce signature requirements on all candidates.”

“We are still in the process of collecting but are well on our way to 2,000 and we have a plan in place that we are confident will bring us over the threshold while preserving the health of our staff, volunteers, and the public,” said Karissa Hand, spokesperson for former Brookline Select Board member Jesse Mermell. The Mermell campaign has also been mailing papers to voters, she said.

“While we have no doubt that Jesse will be on the ballot,” Hand added, “no candidate should face the threat of not making the ballot because they acted in the interest of public health and followed the guidance of state and local leaders by limiting in-person contact and shifting convenings to digital platforms.”

Ihssane Leckey — who entered the race before Kennedy announced he was moving on to run for U.S. Senate — currently has about 1,000 signatures, according to spokesperson Mohammed Missouri. He said she was more concerned about “the health of the public” than finalizing ballot paperwork.

“Sending out volunteers to collect signatures would contribute to spreading the virus further and risk lives,” he said. “While we continue to collect signatures via mail, we’re hopeful that the legislature and secretary of state will take the pragmatic measure of lowering the threshold or extending the deadline.”

A spokesperson for Secretary of State William Galvin did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday night.

Three other candidates — Ben Sigel, Chris Zannetos and Herb Robinson — also indicated they haven’t gathered the 2,000 required signatures yet. (They aren’t alone: U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s campaign aides acknowledged this week he doesn’t have enough signatures yet to make the ballot, though they expressed confidence he will in the end.)

“We will do everything necessary to meet the deadline but we are disappointed that the state hasn’t taken action to protect public safety by changing the requirements,” said Sigel spokesperson Ben Gubits. “It is clear the state is putting politics before safety.”

“It is unlikely I will make the deadline unless the rules are changed,” said Robinson. “Unlike some of the other candidates, I refuse to ask people to come to a common location to sign papers — I am not willing to risk anyone’s health just so I can get on a ballot.”

Two other Democrats, Dave Cavell and Tom Shack, are also running for the 4th District seat. No Republicans or independents have announced campaigns so far.

All the candidates acknowledged the coronavirus has transformed the political landscape just as it has other aspects of daily life, forcing them to alter their campaign plans in a race that was already unfolding in the shadow of the Senate bout between Kennedy and Markey. Many have been using virtual tools to try and connect with voters, hosting online forums and town halls featuring experts discussing COVID-19, while hoping the drastic measures are able to be lifted before long.

“‘Social distancing’ is perhaps the perfect antonym to ‘political campaign,'” quipped Yael Sheinfeld, the Auchincloss campaign’s communicators director.

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

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