Before He Was Elected To The U.S. House Of Representatives In His Native Massachusetts, Democratic Presidential Candidate Seth Moulton Lived In Dallas.
The first time I heard of Seth Moulton, he was years off from being elected to the House of Representatives and some 15 years away from announcing his bid to become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States in the 2020 elections.
His reputation preceded him just the same, though. Mike, my best friend growing up, had just been alerted to Moulton’s resume shortly after starting to date the future congressman’s younger sister Eliza. As I recall it, Mike was pretty intimidated by what he’d heard. Seth was a graduate of two of the most prestigious schools in Massachusetts (Philips Andover for prep school and Harvard University for college) and, at the time, he was likely in his third of four tours that he ultimately would serve in the Iraq War as a decorated Marine. I was little help, and Mike got over it anyway: In 2010, he and Eliza got married.
The first time I met Seth Moulton was at Mike and Eliza’s wedding, where he gave the second-best toast of the night — shouts to Mike’s little brother Matt for still having the tops Best Man speech I’ve ever heard — and spoke adoringly of his little sister.
I remember sharing a brief conversation with Moulton at the reception, and being impressed to learn that he was in the process of earning a pair of Harvard graduate degrees at the time.
The first time I really met Seth Moulton was in 2011 after I found out he’d moved to Dallas to take a job with the Texas Central Railway. Since I’d been living and working in Dallas for a few years at this point, we exchanged information through Eliza. I think we might’ve met up for a beer once or twice; I really don’t remember. What I do remember is that when Mike and Eliza eventually came to Dallas to visit us both, Seth got really excited to lead us all on a trip to Fort Worth to visit The Stockyards. I distinctly remember us discussing Texas’ open carry laws while sipping on beers at the White Elephant Saloon. I more vaguely recall Seth geeking out later in the night about the bright future that would open up should the proposed Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail that his company was working on ever come to fruition.
I remember joking to Mike the next day that his brother-in-law might be president some day. Eight years later — after moving back to the Boston area, becoming a U.S. congressman in 2014, winning the two reelection campaigns that followed in 2016 and 2018, and serving six years in the House — he’s trying to do just that.
On April 22, Moulton announced his candidacy to become President of the United States.
I don’t think anyone who’s ever met Seth was surprised by that moment.
More surprising was how late into the election cycle this reveal seemed to be coming; by the time Moulton formally announced his candidacy, he was the 19th hopeful to do so. Former vice president Joe Biden announced his own candidacy three days later, becoming the 20th to enter the race. Somehow, additional candidacy announcements followed.
Moulton’s campaign has by no means sprinted to front of the pack. In June, he was left out of the first round of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate debates, which featured the top 20 candidates in the field in NBC and Democratic National Party polls spread out over a two-night period.
But Moulton sounded mostly optimistic about his campaign when I recently used the fact that I’m friends with his sister and brother-in-law to get him on the phone.
The campaign was going well, he assured me, and the polls would soon reflect the effort his team is putting in. Actually, he might be right about that: The most recent polls put the 40-year-old well inside of the top 20. Alas, CNN and the Democratic National Committee have not yet publicly announced any details for their planned July debates.
Still: Maybe this Moulton guy knows something the rest of us don’t?
See for yourself in our below discussion, throughout which Moulton and I discuss how his combat experience shaped his position on gun control, what he learned about private-public partnerships at Texas Central Railway and what he remembers most fondly about living in Dallas from 2011 to 2013.
First of all, can you just give me a little bit of insight into what the campaign trail has been like for you? How much of your life is planned in advance versus how much are you just going by the seat of your pants? How does it all work?
We have a pretty sophisticated planning operation. We actually have someone on staff who worked most recently for Michelle Obama, and we’re very lucky about that — he’s a very talented guy. He’s pretty sophisticated about trying to figure out where we need to go. But it’s a constant juggling operation between press opportunities, organizing opportunities and events. For instance, we had this week’s plan probably set, in theory, about three weeks ago — but it just changed today. I’m doing an interview in Washington on Friday afternoon that wasn’t what we had first planned to be on the schedule. And then I have to be back in New Hampshire on Saturday. So, we’re going to juggle things around to make that all work.
Is it fun at all? Are you enjoying it?
I am enjoying it. I’m glad to be doing it. I think it’s the right thing to do for the country. Y’know, I’m someone who just believes in serving the country. And if I thought there was a better potential nominee out there to take on Trump, I would just support him or her. But, I honestly believe I’m the best person we can put forward in this race. And it’s a race where I think it’s going to be harder to win than a lot of people think. This is going to be a tough election for Democrats, and that’s not what a lot of Democrats want to believe. So, knowing that I’m doing this for the right reasons — y’know, I really believe in our message to the campaign and everything, and that always makes a big difference — but I also do enjoy it.
It’s also not that different than what I’ve been doing for the last two years, because I spent a lot of time on the road supporting other candidates that helped take back the House. And I think we had a huge impact on that: About half the seats that Democrats flipped to take back the House were candidates that I directly supported, endorsed, campaigned for and, in some cases very, closely mentored. So we had a huge impact. But it was a lot of work. Running for president is a lot of work, too. And, yeah, there’s only so many hours in the day — and we’ve been working hard. But it’s not as big a change as it might be for some of the other people running.
Obviously, one of the major difficulties your campaign has faced is not getting into those initial NBC debates in June. How do you view that? As a major setback?
It wasn’t a major setback. In fact, it was something that I expected getting into the race so late — that there was a good chance that we’d missed the first debate. But the Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C., and the Democratic National Committee is not going to decide who wins this race — that’s up to the voters. And we actually had our best fundraising days since launch when the DNC announced that I wasn’t in the debate. So I think a lot of people appreciate the fact that I’m running against the establishment. And, if the establishment decides to keep me out of the debate, that’s not really a smart move for figuring out who can best take on Trump.
We probably won’t make the July debates either, just because there haven’t been enough polls between then and now. We actually hit one percent, which was the qualifying criteria in nine polls or something like that, but the DNC has chosen not to count those polls. So I don’t know what that tells me about how they’re reading this. The bottom line is that we’re doing quite well as a campaign despite having gotten in late. And obviously there’s a long way to go.
Your combat experience is obviously a big part of your story. I know how that experience informs your positions on gun control and various other issues, but how has it informed your presidential campaign at large?
First of all, I think it’s important to understand that I simply wouldn’t be in politics to begin with if not for my time in the Marines. I didn’t grow up interested in politics [or] study it in school, but I saw the consequences of failed leadership in Washington when I was in Iraq. I ran for Congress the first time to try to change that or try to prevent it from happening again. So it is sort of fundamental to why I’m running in the first place. As an infantry platoon commander leading troops on the ground in Iraq, the fundamental job I had was to take this remarkably diverse group of Americans from all over the country with different backgrounds and races and beliefs and religious convictions and get them all united behind the common mission to serve our country — and in a very divisive time, in the middle of a war that many of us, myself included, disagreed with.
That leadership experience of bringing a very diverse group of Americans together in very divisive circumstances is, I think, exactly the leadership we need for the next president of the United States. I have never seen the country more divided. And we can’t even win — we can’t beat Donald Trump — if we don’t assemble a diverse coalition of everybody in the Democratic Party, plus Obama and Trump independents and even some disaffected Republicans. That I’m the only person in the race with that particular leadership experience is part of the reason why think it’s so important for me to run.
As for guns: I’m sure there are some other candidates who have hunted, but I’m the only candidate who’s had to use a gun in combat. Guns have saved my life. But I’ve also seen the effects of gun violence firsthand. And it’s more than enough to convince me that we don’t need weapons on our streets or in our schools. I think approaching the issue with that credibility gives me a leg up in terms of dealing with this. I drew up the two most bipartisan gun bills in the last Congress. A lot of people talk about passing gun reforms by executive action, and I will if it’s necessary, but it’s more important to put gun laws through Congress so that they can’t be undone by the next administration.
Just to be clear on that, though: Those bills didn’t pass because they were never allowed to have a vote under Speaker Ryan.
Troubles with Speaker Ryan aside, you’re definitely a more moderate candidate than some of the Democrats who you’re running against, and it seems like a lot of this campaign so far has been a race to the left. Is your moderate history an advantage or disadvantage in this race?
I actually think it’s really hard to paint me. If you look at my positions on gun reform or climate, you’d say I’m very progressive. If you look at my record on the economy, you’d say I’m a Democratic Capitalist. It’s really hard to put me in a box because I just take an independent approach and independent view toward every issue. But I do think that there are candidates in this race who are moving to the hard left, and I think that’s going to make it harder to beat Donald Trump if one of them is our nominee.
Do you say that just because campaigns are won in the middle with the undecideds?
Well, that’s how we won almost every seat to flip the House. There were some candidates on the left who won primaries, but every seat that we took back from a Republican was won by moderates who could appeal to a broader swath of Americans — and by people who I just think are authentic and honest as leaders on their positions. Some of the candidates in this race have changed their positions on issues in order to move to the left. But I haven’t done so.
Before you moved to Boston and ran for Congress, you lived here in Dallas and worked for Texas Central Railway on the long-proposed Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project. When was that, exactly?
From the fall of 2011 until the winter of 2013.
Was it strictly the job that kept you here?
Yeah. Well, to be frank, I was also dating a Dallas girl at the time. But, yes, it was mostly for job. I was excited to work there because I believe in 21st century infrastructure. I don’t think we’re going to compete with China and the rest of the world by just adding lanes to highways, which was a smart infrastructure investment in the 1920s. Most countries are actually reducing lanes on highways right now to build high-speed rail and modern transit. And Texas has a great opportunity through Texas Central Railway to be a leader for the entire country in bringing the next generation transportation technology to America.
What was your formal role at Texas Central Railway?
My title was managing director. I was the project manager for the company, the senior person in the Dallas office. What we were doing at the time was providing the engineering, building the political coalition and securing right of way — all the initial things you need to do to get a project like this off the ground.
What’s your understanding of the current status of the project? It’s like this looming specter, almost — like, “It’s coming! It’s coming!” but it never does. It’s been 11 years now that I’ve been in Dallas hearing about this, and it’s still nowhere near done.
I know. It’s frustrating. I’m not keeping close tabs on it, but I am keeping tabs on it. I think your assessment is accurate, which is that it’s moving forward, just not at as high a speed — pardon the pun — as anyone would like.
I know that you’ve cited your experience with the Texas Central Railway at least once previously in your political career when talking about new plans for an underground rail in Boston. Has your time with Texas Central Railway informed you otherwise in your career?
Absolutely, in terms of investing in next-generation infrastructure, and the value of public-private partnerships, and the opportunities for taking the best of the public sector and the best of the private sector and combining them to do big things for America. As you know, that [Houston-Dallas high-speed rail] project is largely being funded by the Central Railway Company of Japan, which is great because we’re happy to see their money invested in Texas. But I hope we get to a point where America is selling the fastest trains in the world to the rest of the world — that’s where we need to be, and this is one of the consequences of being so behind on our infrastructure. It’s great that we know how to build really wide highways, but most parts of the world now recognize that as old-fashioned transportation.
Would you consider infrastructure to be a major part of your political platform?
It’s definitely part of my platform. I don’t know if it’s what people identify as far as setting me apart. But it certainly will be a big part of my administration if I’m elected. It’s about economic competitiveness. It’s about global competitiveness. It’s about creating good jobs. It’s about investing in the future of the country, not the past.
Just a couple more looks into your past, then. Looking back, was there anything else you learned in your time in Texas that you’ve taken with you beyond that the railway experience?
Well, most people know me as a proud New Englander. And I’m proud of where I’m from, given the historic revolutionary history of my hometown and all of that, but I have to say that I really loved living in Texas, and I wish I could’ve spent a few more years there. It’s just a great place, and a great example, as far as the independent spirit in Texas and the diversity that it brings to America, which makes us a more successful country. Y’know, I don’t agree with everything in Texas. I’m strongly supportive of a woman’s right to choose, for example, and Texas has certainly not been supportive of that as a state, certainly not compared to my home state. But I loved living there, and I love the authenticity that character of Texas, and I think it’s a great example of a place that makes our country as vibrant and as interesting as it is.
When you look back at your time in Dallas, do you have any fond memories of any specific places or restaurants or anything that you used to frequent on the regular?
Well, first of all, you should know that the first summer I actually spent in Texas was during college, and it was in Fort Worth. I am very fond of Fort Worth. I love Billy Bob’s. I have been there too many times to count. [Laughs.] I am a big fan. When my daughter is old enough, I look forward to one day taking her to Billy Bob’s and teaching her how to two-step.
When you lived in Dallas while working for Texas Central Railway, where did you live? Uptown, right?
That’s right, yeah. Right on McKinney Avenue.
Were you a regular on the Katy Trail back then?
Oh, absolutely. I went running on the trail all the time. I really loved the Katy Trail Ice House, too.
Does the campaign have any plans to bring you to Texas anytime soon?
We don’t have any immediate plans to come to Texas, no. But I still have a lot of supporters in Texas, and I’m very, very proud of that. Without question, I will be back. Don’t worry about that!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For more information on Seth Moulton’s presidential run, visit his campaign site.