2020 Candidate for MA-6 Jamie Belsito Talks Democrats and Walking the Talk for Women
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
2018 was a historic year that saw more women run for - and win - positions in political office than ever before. Many of these women have become household names, known for championing "progressive" causes like universal access to quality healthcare, paid family leave, a comprehensive plan to neutralize the threat of climate change, and the like. In 2020, we've seen a renewal of these efforts both by first-time and returning women Democratic challengers. However, in the full-throttle roar of the political engine during a presidential election cycle, the stories of smaller campaigns get lost, and by extension, their nuance.
In the following interview with Jamie Belsito, who campaigned unsuccessfully to unseat three-term Democratic incumbent Seth Moulton and to represent Massachusetts' 6th Congressional District, Jamie and her campaign manager, Dawne Shand, reflect on the experience of running a campaign on "women's issues." It's a bold thing to do in the first place, primarying a sitting Democrat in a staunchly Democratic state. However, Jamie is a proud first-generation college graduate of Salem State who has worked on immigration and maternal healthcare policy throughout her career, so she's no stranger to uphill battles.
The first thing to know, she and Dawne inform me, is that Massachusetts is a state that does not elect women.
"Elizabeth Warren's race was the most expensive in the history of the state and it was against Scott Brown, who couldn't even tie his own shoes"
We're a little more than half an hour into the virtual interview when this zinger flies, and, not for the first time, I'm glad I was granted permission to record the session. These women are unapologetically feisty, albeit in different ways. Jamie brings the type of forthright honesty that has launched countless White men's political careers, while Dawne is softer in demeanor, but with a level tone that underscores her hardiness. It's easy to see why they worked so well as a professional unit.
For her part, Jamie is a first-generation Irish-Syrian woman whose background in politics dates back to working on immigration law for renowned Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley. She decided to run for the same reason most women decide to roll up their sleeves and do something: No one else was stepping up.
"It wasn't a 'Me Too', it wasn’t a 'we don’t have enough women', it was a 'God dammit, if I have to listen to one more wealthy White man who has no idea… then I can’t do anything but run,'" Jamie says matter-of-factly. I'm impressed with her restraint given the stonewalling her top issue, maternal health care services, faced throughout Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. When speaking to one former head of Health and Human Services and demanding to know why the rising American maternal mortality rates hadn't been addressed, his response was simple: "Sheer lack of political will."
That lack of political will is what brought Jamie and Dawne together one day in February 2019. Dawne is the founder of the North Shore Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, and Jamie was working as a maternal health care advocate. The women bonded over champagne and ice cream sundaes in a French Bistro that's no longer open, and Dawne came on board as a stand-in campaign manager until a more experienced one could be found. Unfortunately, the timing couldn't have been worse.
With political tensions and ambitions skyrocketing at the beginning of what promised to be one of the most dramatic presidential election cycles in modern history, no one was interested in a dinky congressional race in a surefire blue district
Fortunately, Jamie had been able to hire an experienced political consultant to help with campaign strategy - and also to keep the team focused on the important details, like getting on the ballot.
Over the course of the next several months, the Belsito campaign would become just one of two campaigns in the entire state of Massachusetts to receive more than 3,000 signatures, 1,000 more than the required threshold to appear on the state ballot. At the height of their operations, they had field teams in 30 of the 34 districts, a solid base of supporters swelling, and fundraising was just about to begin in earnest. Then, the pandemic hit.
"We just had to gut it out"
"Massachusetts is a little like Alabama," Dawne tells me, prompting an eyebrow raise. "There's no appetite for primary challenges," she explains. Especially this year. "It didn't matter if you were famous and wealthy [like Joe Kennedy Jr.] and had a good story to tell, it just didn't matter."
Jamie might have had a good story to tell being a woman unapologetically running on "women's issues," but she actually faced resistance from many women voters.
These women Democrats worried that Jamie was "too focused on women"
She also faced backlash for not being a lifelong Democrat. Jamie identified as an independent until 2016. This made her vulnerable to attacks by Rep. Moulton and weakened her platform when it arguably could have been an opportunity for voters to learn about the reasoning behind her lack of political party affiliation. Not that it would generally have been a problem, as over 50% of Massachusetts voters also decline to officially identify with one party over the other, but, as with most things, Jamie's gender blunted the public's receptiveness to her ideas.
Jamie had tried to prepare for this backlash by demonstrating her seriousness early on. She was the first to file her candidacy for the district, though she is quick to add that she is not exceptional in this. "All the women [running this year] felt like they had to put their names in there that early, just to get their names out there, and what ended up happening? Four million privileged White guys came walking through that door after they had done the hard work. They had done the hard work. And they were like “'thanks for setting up the party and food guys!'”
There was also the issue of both the Democratic Party and influential blue spheres refusing to acknowledge the Belsito campaign's existence. When Jamie tried to contact organizations like the National Organization for Women and Emily's List about her campaign, she was met with refusals because there was already a Democrat in the seat.
"And I was like, 'yeah but you’ve got a qualified female Democratic candidate...'" she says, visibly exasperated. "Women need to stand up and be like… I think you’re a great guy, but your time’s over."
I can't help but smile at the image of Jamie , with her loud Massachusetts accent and brook-no-fools bearing standing up on a stage and telling a sitting congressman that he's a great guy, but thank you, next
Did you ever get a chance to debate Seth Moulton? I ask. Yes, I'm told. And it was very strange and a bit exasperating. Over the course of time, his answers around the issues Jamie was running on seemed to mirror Jamie's. He began to speak about the need to not only address, but to prioritize the rising infant and maternal mortality rates, as well as the need to support women in politics - key points from Jamie's platform.
"We made a campaign that was historic during a pandemic and it was always about the people, so I would do it again"
In the end, Rep. Moulton won reelection with the lion's share of votes, with Jamie handily defeating the third challenger in the race. She is stout in her conviction that she will run again. "The pandemic to me highlighted every single thing that I’d been running on... Everything that I have worked for in my career has been taken from me because I am now home [with two young daughters] and I am now looked at to be in my traditional role again. And I think a lot of women are in that position.... [We] will always be underrepresented and it was an honor and a privilege to represent those populations."
In between now and 2022, you'll find Jamie throwing herself into her new role with the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance Team.