Auchincloss faces tough questioning after endorsement ruckus
THE INTERVIEW Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman conducted with Jake Auchincloss had all the feel of a standard quizzing of a candidate as a newspaper weighs an endorsement, as she grilled him on past statements and asked him to explain aspects of his record. Except for one small detail: The Globe already endorsed the Newton city councilor in the nine-way Democratic primary for the open Fourth Congressional District seat.
The unusual spectacle that unfolded Monday afternoon on Zoom came after the paper’s July 31 endorsement drew fierce blowback from other candidates, Globe readers, and Newton residents who decried past comments Auchincloss made on race and religious issues as well campaign finance matters. Last week, four days after the endorsement, Venkataraman announced that she would interview Auchincloss publicly as part of the Globe’s “Op-Talks” series in order to probe more deeply concerns that have been raised about his record and the paper’s endorsement.
“It is an unusual Globe Op-Talk,” Venkataraman said, kicking off a conversation in which she was far more skeptical inquisitor than cheerleading booster of the candidate she and her editorial board colleagues concluded rose to the top of a crowded field with impressive backgrounds. “Our readers have been raising all kinds of concerns about your candidacy, frankly, and a lot of those concerns are legitimate concerns,” she told Auchincloss in a tone that seemed to convey a hint of buyer’s remorse.
She pressed the 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran on a 2010 Facebook post he wrote when Florida pastors threatened to burn copies of the Koran after a group of Pakistani lawyers had burned the American flag. “So we can’t burn their book, but they can burn our flag?” Auchincloss wrote in a post that Venkataraman said surfaced on the same day the paper’s endorsement was released.
Venkataraman said she called Auchincloss after the endorsement came out to ask about the comment. “You called it a misplaced attempt at sarcasm by a 22-year-old trying to make a point about tolerating freedom of expression,” Venkataraman said. But she seemed dubious of the idea that the comment was about free expression.
She also asked him about a 2016 incident in which he defended the free speech rights of students who drove through the parking lot at Newton North High School waving a Confederate flag. Auchincloss decried the flag as a symbol of bigotry, but urged the school superintendent not to take disciplinary action against the students.
Auchincloss said there were two competing issues at play — condemning the hate speech that the flag represents and defending the free speech rights of even those whose views you deplore. He said he should have more clearly emphasized the former, but said that is a tension Americans have been grappling with since the country’s founding.
“I will not claim to have fully figured out that right balance,” Auchincloss said.
Venkataraman asked him about a social media comment he made four years ago that a move by Cambridge to change Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day” was “taking PC too far.”
“We’re not always anchored to our past,” said Auchincloss, who said he’s done a lot of reading over the last four years and had recently cosponsored a resolution in Newton to make exactly the same change he mocked Cambridge for adopting.
Venkataraman said critics seem concerned that he has used his voice “to stand up more often for the powerful than for the marginalized.” Auchincloss pushed back on that, and referred throughout the conversation to his Newton City Council record, which he said includes advocating strongly for policies to welcome more affordable housing to the affluent suburb.
Auchincloss has been benefiting from outside campaign spending through a super PAC his family is funding. When Venkataraman asked him whether there was an inconsistency in calling for campaign finance reform but not disavowing the family-funded PAC, he essentially called her and her editorial board colleagues to his rescue, citing their defense of the spending when they endorsed him.
“As the Globe said in their endorsement,” Auchincloss said, “we have to operate in the system we have now, we all have to play by the same set of rules.”
When Venkataraman announced plans last week for the “Op-Talk,” it prompted media critic Dan Kennedy to speculate that the paper “appears to be getting ready for the possibility that it might revoke its July 31 endorsement.”
Venkataraman put that idea to rest, tweeting last week that the Globe was not reconsidering its endorsement. But the unusual post-endorsement interview may only have kicked up the dust caused by the paper’s decision to back Auchincloss, the son of a well-off family who was a registered Republican while working for Gov. Charlie Baker in 2013 and 2014.
“No amount of spin or prep time will change the fact that Jake Auchincloss has a deeply troubling record of being on the wrong side of the issues that matter most to the people of the Fourth Congressional District,” fellow Democratic hopeful Jesse Mermell said in a statement after Monday’s Globe interview. “His recent past as a Republican operative, opposition to policies that are essential to building an equitable future, like a $15 minimum wage, and several instances of offensive statements become clear with even a passing review of his background.”
Dave Cavell, another Fourth District contender, zinged Auchincloss for characterizing his Facebook post about the Koran during Monday’s event as “a stupid remark by a snarky 22-year-old.” “This process has shown just how many chances we give white men of privilege in this country,” Cavell said in a statement. “As a white man myself, you can trust me to fight for a more equitable America in Congress because it’s been the work of my career. When I was 22 I was teaching 4th grade in the South Bronx. I’m day one ready to focus on changing the future — and I don’t need to apologize for my past.”
The editorial board’s backing of Auchincloss even set off an unusual show of dueling endorsements within the Globe. Last week columnist Shirley Leung, who served as interim editorial page editor before Venkataraman’s arrival, wrote a piece that was not only a strong endorsement of Mermell in the race, but a scathing takedown of Auchincloss and the editorial board decision.
“Folks, this ain’t 1999 when all the rich kids get their way,” Leung wrote.
There has been some chatter in political circles that Globe managing director Linda Henry, the wife of publisher John Henry, may have played a role in steering the endorsement to Auchincloss. Venkataraman said the rumor is unequivocally not true.
“The Auchincloss endorsement choice was in no way steered or suggested by the Henrys; it came from a full editorial board deliberation that was then presented to the Henrys, who approved it,” she said in an email. As at many papers, Venkataraman said, the publisher has the right to weigh in and approve endorsements. “They did not suggest the candidate or tip the scales in or out of the candidate’s favor at any point in the endorsement process,” she said. “Linda Henry sat in on our deliberations in this race as an observer, as she does in other editorial board meetings.”
Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, didn’t think the session did much to assuage any doubts a voter might have had about Auchincloss. “I thought Auchincloss managed to lawyer his way through it, though without a shred of warmth or charm,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said there was “a certain awkwardness” to the interview, given that Venkataraman had declared beforehand that the endorsement will stand. “You could argue that the questions that have been raised about Auchincloss warranted the unusual forum the Globe gave him — but what about the eight other candidates?” he said.
By the end, there was almost a feeling that Venkataraman was telling Auchincloss, we’re stuck with each other, don’t let the paper down if you end up winning.
“The accountability kind of starts now,” she said in wrapping up. “We endorsed you, and with new information and new concerns from our readership, from voters this is the beginning of accountability. And if you do win the nomination, if you do win the seat, that accountability will continue on all of these issues, including issues around affordable housing and racial and economic justice, which were the basis for the endorsement.”