In a year that had its share of electoral shocks, local voters saw the departure of two family names that had been part of the region’s political landscape for a combined total of nearly a century. One departure was voluntary, the other the result of a candidate’s decision that still has many political observers shaking their heads.
For one of the few times in the memory of many of voting age, there will be no one named Kennedy representing any part of Massachusetts in Washington, D.C.
And, for almost the same period of time, a Poirier has been representing North Attleboro and environs on Beacon Hill, a tradition that also came to an end in 2020.
Joseph P. Kennedy III, scion of a storied Democratic dynasty, had represented the 4th Congressional District, including the Attleboro area, for four terms in the U.S. House. He had faced mostly token opposition in his re-election bids and seemed assured of another two-year term.
That’s why it stunned party stalwarts and pundits when Kennedy decided to launch a primary challenge against fellow Democrat Sen. Edward Markey, the state’s junior senator.
Initially observers gave Kennedy — who had never lost an election — the edge in the contest. But Markey launched a stout defense, positioning himself to the left of Kennedy on issues such as climate change and winning the endorsements of prominent progressives.
Kennedy, 40, had a record of strong constituent service and had taken the lead in standing up for Attleboro area nuclear workers who had faced health issues. But he had difficulty in articulating why he was primarying a fellow liberal with whom he’d been aligned on many issues.
In the general election, Kennedy carried Attleboro and much of the immediate area but the incumbent prevailed, 55-44 percent. Markey went on to an easy victory in the general election over the Republican candidate, Kevin O’Connor.
Kennedy’s loss — which set off a tsunami of commentary about the end of political dynasties — had a collateral effect. His decision to run for Senate set off a scramble by a wide variety of hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for the now open House seat that would have been unlikely had Kennedy been a candidate.
The field was eventually narrowed down to “only” nine candidates on the Sept. 1 ballot with progressive Jesse Mermell and former Republican Jake Auchincloss the top contenders in what proved to be bruising contest. All of the Democratic candidates in the primary were from the northern part of the district — Newton, Wellesley and Brookline — although Auchincloss was spotted on primary day campaigning outside Tex Barry’s diner in Attleboro.
While Mermell captured most of the Boston suburbs, Auchincloss prevailed among Attleboro area voters and eked out a 24 percent plurality to take the nomination. In spite of a narrow victory that followed a contentious primary, Auchincloss, 32, easily defeated his GOP opponent, former Attleboro city councilor Julie Hall, 61-38 percent, to become the district’s new congressman.
Poirier steps down
The departure of Elizabeth “Betty” Poirier from Beacon Hill has been much less contentious. Poirier who has represented the 14th Bristol District in the state House since 1999, announced in March that she would be stepping down. Poirier, who turned 78 in October, succeeded her husband Kevin in the post after he served for 17 years. (He is now North Attleboro’s town clerk.) She was mainly known, and much beloved, for her charitable efforts helping needy children and families and promoting the town’s food pantry through “Betty’s Angels.”
A member of the small Republican delegation, which fought to serve as a counterbalance in the heavily-Democratic House, as minority whip her “reliably conservative voice would often keep public policy from veering too far left,” The Sun Chronicle said in an editorial noting the end of her tenure.
Leaving an open legislative seat for the first time in nearly four decades did not spark a candidate stampede of the kind seen in the congressional election. North Attleboro town council member Mike Lennox was the initial GOP candidate. Former selectman Patrick Reynolds and Councilor Adam Scanlon ran a Democratic primary campaign without the usual round of door-to-door visits and coffee hours due to the limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Scanlon, 24, wound up winning by 50.8 to 49 percent over Reynolds, a difference of 118 votes. But his GOP opponent was not going to be Lennox. Lennox, who had no GOP opposition, announced on primary night that he was withdrawing his name from contention, citing health issues. Instead, John Simmons, a local attorney and yet another council member, would be the Republican candidate.
Simmons, 45, who had to put together a legislative campaign in less than two months, gained the endorsement of the town’s Republican Committee and the state party to get his name on the general election ballot.
He and Scanlon had to campaign with the burden of social distancing. They engaged in a fairly sedate televised debate for North TV where Scanlon emphasized his liberal backing and Simmons staked out more conservative positions.
Through the campaign the two swapped press releases citing endorsements from local and state figures.
In the general election — marred by an election night equipment failure that initially held up some results — Scanlon won 54 to 45 percent, flipping a House seat that had been Republican for nearly 40 years. Scanlon, who has resigned from the council, takes office next month.