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As Primary Nears, Negativity Creeps into 3rd District Race

August 30, 2018

State Sen. and 3rd Congressional District candidate Barbara L'Italien on Boston Herald radio Tuesday. Staff photo by Mark Garfinkel Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

The crowded 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary race had been polite and optimistic for most of the cycle, but with less than a week remaining until the Sept. 4 election, antagonism has suddenly become more common.

A video with murky origins began circulating online Sunday, depicting past remarks by Rufus Gifford cut together to question his qualifications and connections to the district. In an interview with Boston Herald Radio on Tuesday, Barbara L’Italien argued that, because he met with an alleged sexual harassment victim shortly before she says she was demoted, Dan Koh did not do enough to combat harassment when he was chief of staff to Boston’s mayor.

And just hours after her remarks, Beej Das -- seemingly apropos of nothing -- put out a press release saying L’Italien’s campaign had contacted him last week asking him to spread the dirt on its behalf.

In-fighting has, to this point, been uncommon in the race, where agreements among the 10 Democratic candidates are common.

The anti-Gifford video was one of the first overt pieces of messaging against a specific candidate. It drew most of its traction on Twitter, where it was posted early Sunday by a Democratic consultant in California and then retweeted by Steve Kerrigan, of Lancaster, a former candidate in the race.

The video used different segments from the Danish documentary, “I Am the Ambassador,” produced in 2014 and 2015 when Gifford was the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, to criticize the candidate. Among highlighted sections were Gifford’s remark that he may know more people in Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. than Massachusetts and his high-profile connections thanks to his father, banking giant Chad Gifford.

“Can we afford to watch another reality TV phony do nothing in D.C.?” the video asks.

The video on Twitter disappeared and re-appeared before ultimately being taken down. Gifford’s campaign said it had violated the platforms terms of service by violating the Danish broadcasting company’s copyright, although neither Twitter nor DR, the company behind the documentary, responded to requests for confirmation.

“As I’ve said before, there’s enough negativity and divisiveness in our politics, and I won’t contribute to it,” Gifford replied in a statement Wednesday. “It’s disappointing to see what’s happened over the past few days. As I publicly pledged on Monday, I’m going to continue to stay positive until Primary Day, just as I have been for the past 10 months. That’s what voters deserve.”

On Tuesday, L’Italien publicly accused Koh of failing to support a city of Boston employee who alleged that she was sexually harassed by her superior, former city health and human services chief Felix Arroyo.

The woman, Hilani Morales, met with Koh, who was then chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, as part of her complaint process after speaking with representatives in human resources. Arroyo was fired the next day, and according to a complaint Morales later filed against the city and Arroyo, she was moved to a different position a day after that, an action she viewed as a demotion.

Koh’s exact involvement is unclear. He only appears in two paragraphs of the complaint, which describes that he met with Morales to discuss the situation and did not provide her an explanation of how the city would proceed. When she was reassigned, the lawsuit says, she was informed by the human resources department.

However, in an interview on Boston Herald Radio, L’Italien -- who, it is worth noting, was the first state senator to call for former Senate President Stan Rosenberg to step aside last year amid an investigation into alleged sexual harassment by Rosenberg’s then-husband -- argued that Koh should have done more.

“What do you do in times like that?” L’Italien said. “When you are called to stand up and be on the side of victims? That to me speaks volumes about people,” said L’Italien. “I think it speaks volumes about someone’s leadership. I think it speaks volumes about their moral compass. I think it speaks volumes about whether they have a backbone.”

In a statement, Koh campaign manager Rachael Goldenberg said the mayor’s office took the allegations “very seriously” and responded by placing Arroyo on leave, investigating him and then terminating him.

“It’s unfortunate that a few days after a UMass Lowell poll shows Dan in the lead, Senator L’Italien resorts to false personal attacks,” Goldenberg said. “That’s not what people want to see from candidates. Rather, Democrats should be united in working to oppose President Trump and his disastrous policies.”

L’Italien responded later Wednesday: ”... Dan Koh failed this woman, and he knows it. He isolated her in hopes that she would go away...

“Dan Koh met with her, and two days later she was stripped of her responsibilities and transferred to a do-nothing job, which we know from the lawsuit she filed in which Koh is a central player.”

L’Italien also blasted Koh and Gifford for their personal wealth and fundraising -- Koh has raised more than $3 million and Gifford more than $2 million -- as an attempt to “buy” the seat.

Her remarks set off an online flurry. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, an outspoken supporter of 3rd District candidate Juana Matias, tweeted that ”‘Sore Loser L’Italien’” was “looking for traction by throwing mud in an otherwise positive campaign.”

Just hours after L’Italien’s interview, Das published a press release on his campaign website alleging that the state senator’s campaign had tried to get him to make the accusations against Koh last week -- illuminating an opaque remark Das made at a Monday forum about one campaign trying to use him against another.

“Hit-and-run campaigns is the norm for political insiders,” Das said in his press release, using the opportunity to plug his own candidacy. “We must send a message to cynical career politicians that they can’t continue their dirty business as usual.”

L’Italien’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday on Das’ allegation.

To be clear, whatever tension exists has only emerged in recent days with a handful of candidates involved. No attack ads are running on television, and most of the field could be seen exchanging friendly embraces as recently as a Monday night debate.

But in a race where candidates for the past year have directed their anger only toward the GOP, the negativity is a new look.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski

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