Profile: U.S. Army Veteran Matthew Condon interviews Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, an Iraq War Veteran (US Marine Corps), and candidate for President of the United States in 2020. Lima Charlie World welcomes profiles of military veterans running for public office. Such profiles are not an endorsement of the candidates, their views, or the political party they represent.
Seth Moulton leaned back in his chair, the afternoon light filling the glass-enclosed conference room. His white dress shirt— the Congressional “uniform”— was unbuttoned at the top and the sleeves were rolled to his elbows.
“You know,” he said, looking out the window, “I was never a baby guy. Kids are fine, I like kids, but someone would ask if I wanted to hold their baby and I was like… are you sure you trust me with it?”
An easy smile formed as if his borderline phobia of babies is comical in a way he can’t describe. Now, if he has a day free from votes, meetings, or phone calls, he spends his days at home with his six-month old daughter, Emmy. “She doesn’t know how to complain yet when I sing to her,” he said, his smile growing to a small chuckle.
The three-term Congressman from Massachusetts— who announced his 2020 presidential campaign on Monday— broke onto the political scene in 2013, when he announced his campaign against John F. Tierney— a 22-year incumbent and Democratic favorite. Instead of distancing himself from his opponent through policy, Moulton used his military record and education to differentiate himself. Something he’s helped other veterans do since then.
Moulton first felt called to serve while listening to the Reverend Peter Gomes at Harvard’s Memorial Church. “He talked a lot about… how it’s not enough just to believe in service or support others who serve,” Moulton remembered, “you’ve got to go find a way yourself to give back.”
The Reverend Peter Gomes had gained notoriety as a prolific theologian and writer, particularly for his articles about the relationship between Church and State. Gomes became a Pusey Minister at Harvard in 1970 and a Professor of Christian morals in 1974, and quickly became one of the most popular figures on campus. In 1991, he publicly announced his homosexuality and became an advocate for equality both in the church and the country at-large.
During his undergraduate years, Moulton saw Gomes as the “moral guidepost for the university” and frequently sought his mentorship. “He made you think,” Moulton said, “about how we should all do something to serve, how we should all do something to give back.”
Through Gomes’s lectures and mentorship, Moulton determined he would serve his country in some capacity. As graduation approached in 2001, Moulton weighed his options and ultimately decided to join the Marine Corps.
“I actually went to go see [Gomes] once I made my decision,” Moulton said, “and he told me ‘I’m not thrilled that you’re joining the Marine Corps; but at least there’s not a war going on, because you’d probably get yourself killed.’”
A smile returned to his face as he thought about that meeting in the Spring of 2001, weeks before he reported to Marine Base Quantico for Basic Training and Officer Candidate School.
After four deployments to Iraq (2003-2008) and several close calls, Moulton left the Marines to pursue his graduate degree. He was torn between Princeton, and his alma mater and so he sought the advice of his mentor once again. “Princeton will like you,” Gomes told him, “but at Harvard you will be loved.’”
Moulton and Gomes stayed in contact until Gomes’s death in February 2011.
His words slowed and his head tilted slightly downward as he remembered his friend and mentor. “Peter is the greatest man I have ever known,” Moulton said, “a friend, a mentor, an inspiration.”
We need more people in politics who put the country before the party, or put people before politics.”
Running for office was never an aspiration for Moulton— he often jokes, “The first Congressman that my parents met was me.”
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) April 22, 2019
After graduating from Harvard in 2011 with a dual Masters in Business Administration and Public Policy, Moulton headed to Dallas to be the managing director of the Texas Central Railway.
Congress was the furthest thing from his mind.
Something happened during his time in graduate school and in the private sector, though: he missed serving. “I’d be sitting in the back of the classroom in business school thinking, ‘Wow, this is so selfish in comparison to what I was doing… but I didn’t really see a specific opportunity [to serve].”
The opportunity came with a phone call from New Politics founder and executive director Emily Cherniack. An AmeriCorps and City Year AmeriCorps veteran, Cherniack convinced Moulton to run in his home district against the incumbent Tierney. Her call came in June 2012, after Tierney’s brother-in-law alleged Tierney knew his wife and brother-in-law were committing tax fraud.
After helping to manage the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Alan Khazei — a former CEO of City Year — Cherniack looked to change the political climate and fix what she saw as a broken political system. Shortly after the 2010 election, Cherniack founded New Politics as a way to cultivate candidates with a service background, both military and non-military.
Moulton, she said, “was essentially the beta test for this whole idea of political change through leaders who have already served their communities. Through his [military] service he learned leadership skills that are missing in today’s politics.”
Though Moulton didn’t run in 2012, citing a lack of adequate time to mount a serious campaign, Cherniack continued to keep in touch with him. With her offices located just south of the district in Boston, Cherniack was able to keep her pulse on political issues and build a strategy around Moulton’s philosophy of service.
Eventually, she convinced him to run in 2014.
After a somewhat contentious primary, Moulton went on to soundly defeat his Republican opponent in the general election. A newcomer to politics and needing to gain the trust of his constituents, Moulton remembered something he’d learned as a young platoon commander in Iraq.
“Sometimes I’d just go out and smoke a cigarette,” he said, “you know, just shoot the shit… you can’t come to trust someone until you first can just relate to them.”
During his first term he held the most town halls of any Democratic representative, attempting to both learn about the issues important to his constituents and to find good ideas to take back to Washington with him. “One thing I’ve learned in life,” he said, “is that everyone has good ideas.” Moulton continues to maintain a robust town hall schedule both in his home district and in Washington.
As the conversation moved to politics and policy, Moulton leaned forward with his elbows on the glass table. His eyes narrowed slightly but his face held an easy expression.
“We need more people in politics who put the country before the party,” he said, “or put people before politics.”
An opportunity presented itself for Moulton to find more service-minded Democrats in 2018. The run-up to the 2018 Congressional midterm elections was fraught with predictions from politicians and pundits alike; some saying a “blue wave” was approaching, while others predicted a transition of power with a much smaller margin. Every Democrat in the House had one goal in mind: take the majority in order to check the President’s power.
Moulton’s goal was the same, but with a twist.
I decided to run because it’s the best way for me to serve the country right now.”
As the 2018 election cycle kicked into high-gear, Moulton started the Serve America PAC to help Democratic veterans run for Congress and in local elections. The idea behind the PAC is to elect younger Democrats with a proven track record of service.
“Not every veteran makes a good member of Congress,” Moulton says, “not every veteran makes a good school teacher, or whatever, but I think that veterans come with this experience of what true public service is all about.”
The PAC raised over $4 Million and helped elect 21 new congressional Democrats with a service background in 2018. Several candidates defeated incumbent Republicans in traditionally red districts, including Colorado’s 6th District which hasn’t elected a Democrat since its creation in 1983. That number may grow depending on the outcome of the special election in North Carolina’s 9th District, where Democrat Dan McCready was narrowly defeated in an election found to be fraudulent.
Before these badass women decided to run for Congress, they served our country. This is the leadership we need in Washington. Let’s show up for them in November! #WomenRising https://t.co/5OUIFH4L4I pic.twitter.com/KYXfXcc7gp
— Serve America (@serve_america) October 10, 2018
What sets Serve America apart from other veteran-focused PAC’s is its inclusion of non-military candidates. While organizations like VoteVets and With Honor focus exclusively on military veterans, Moulton’s PAC has chosen a different definition of “veteran.”
“When I say veterans, I don’t just mean military veterans,” Moulton said, “[I mean] City Year veterans, Peace Corps veterans. They haven’t all put their lives on the line for the country but they’ve certainly made sacrifices for America and they’ve served the country, in important ways.”
One of the several non-military veterans endorsed by both Serve America and Moulton himself is freshman Congresswoman Xochitl Torres-Small in New Mexico’s 2nd District. Torres-Small spent a portion of her high school career in Eswatini as part of the United World Colleges Program, an education foundation that focuses on bringing peace and sustainability to remote parts of the world. Service is a substantial part of who she is and what she has done. She surprised most pundits by winning her district by just over 4,000 votes.
This inclusion of non-military veterans is, in part, meant to help bridge what many have said is a widening gap between the military and their civilian counterparts. According to Moulton, the “shared ethic of service” will help “bind together veterans from many different backgrounds” and alleviate the division between civilians and military veterans.
Moulton and Serve America’s successes in the 2018 elections led the former to start a presidential run in 2020. “I decided to run,” Moulton said, “because it’s the best way for me to serve the country right now.”
First, this is a really cool use of technology to demonstrate the possible impacts of climate change.
Second, let's make sure this future never happens. https://t.co/BRA5VGhtvi
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) April 23, 2019
Moulton’s Congressional tenure hasn’t been without detractors and criticism.
Aside from policy differences with Congressional Republicans and the current administration, he’s been met with push-back within his own party. Politico and Slate have detailed the distrust between he and party leadership in the House.
“The American people,” Moulton said in an interview with CNN, “have been very clear that it’s time for new leadership.” This statement coming after Moulton and several other Democrats signed a letter seeking a break from what they see as the status quo.
In response, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on CNN said, “I think the American people are looking for a change in policies, not so much personalities or people.”
At times, even his own constituents have criticized his actions.
During a town-hall in Amesbury shortly after the election, Moulton’s calls for new leadership in the House were received unfavorably, according to Politico. Ultimately, Moulton’s attempts to unseat current Democratic leadership was unsuccessful and may have made him more enemies within the caucus than he anticipated. Something he’s grown accustomed to.
“[Moulton] doesn’t care about political ramifications,” Cherniack said, “he truly believes what he’s doing is best for the country.”
Many of his detractors have chalked this up to political cliche and a way to justify some of his less popular actions.
At first glance, Moulton’s rift with his party’s leadership and his calls for bipartisanship may seem like a good sound bite for a potential 2020 candidate. But upon closer inspection, his remarks have a theme that has stretched over several years.
In a 2007 documentary titled No End In Sight, Moulton discussed his concerns and frustrations regarding the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War—concerns he voiced while still a Captain in the Marine Corps. After the documentary aired, Moulton volunteered for a fourth deployment as a special assistant to then-CENTCOM commander David Patraeus.
After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011, the Marine Corps University published a series of essays about the policy, including one written by Moulton. In regards to implementing new policies for LGBTQ Marines, Moulton wrote, “[It] would have required that they be made hastily by an older generation of military leaders.”
Moulton set the example in 2018 by sponsoring a Department of Veterans Affairs reform bill with the controversial Florida Republican, Matt Gaetz. The bipartisan bill would allow veterans to discuss cannabis use with their primary care providers. It further directs the VA to study the effects of veterans’ cannabis use while partnering with medical universities already studying the drug. The bill is currently awaiting action by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
According to the Lugar Center — in concert with Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy— Moulton ranked 65th in bipartisanship during the 115th Congress. Among House Democrats, he ranked 16th.
Moulton’s repeated calls for new leadership, both in the White House and within his own party, are less about getting attention and more about getting bogged down in traditional ways of thinking.
For Moulton, his service in Congress and his presidential run in 2020 are motivated by more than just his need to serve. His motivations are tied to his daughter.
“I like being a father way more than I anticipated,” he said, “I’m not really a baby guy. It also makes you more invested in the future because you realize this isn’t just your future this is her future, she’s gonna be around a lot longer than you. That makes me more committed to this job.”
“I don’t want Emmy to grow up in the world we live in right now, I don’t want her growing up in a country as divided as we are now. We have to bring America back together again.”
Matthew Condon, for LIMA CHARLIE WORLD
Matt Condon is a former Army Captain and currently works as a freelance writer and photographer in Washington, D.C.
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