Toward the end of last month, Ihssane Leckey climbed the State House steps to greet nine hooded handmaids demonstrating in support of the proposed Roe Act. A week earlier, she launched a primary campaign against US Rep. Joe Kennedy in the Commonwealth’s 4th Congressional District; her familiarity with the protestors affirmed the fact that she is not new to grass-roots politics: “I have been advocating for the Green New Deal and for Medicare for All and for equity in schools for a long time before I decided to run.”
For Leckey, the politics of this particular issue—“abortion is a human right”—is deeply personal.
“As someone who had an abortion, an illegal abortion, at age 17,” she says, “I know and understand what it’s like.”
Leckey moved to the United States when she was 20. In Morocco, at age 17, she found herself “in a place where women are incarcerated if they were caught to have an abortion.”
“I was afraid I would be caught by the government, sent to jail,” she says. “I was afraid that my community would reject me. I actually lost a friend in that experience, because abortion is looked at as shameful, as sinful. And my life was on the line because I had the procedure in a little corner of a room of a doctor’s office. A little office, a little dark room. I thought I wasn’t going to come back from it. I was facing death.”
Leckey builds the case for her campaign by emphasizing the connection between her personal experiences and her policy positions.
“For me, my story and why I’m running are so intertwined. My story is that I’m a survivor, I’m an immigrant, I’m a Wall Street regulator, I’m a mother,” she says. These experiences “compelled” her, to use her word, to run for office.
So when Leckey tells the story of her own abortion, she connects her time in the dark doctor’s office to actual policies: “I don’t want that for America. I know in America we can do better. I know in our district we can do better. I know in our state we can do better.” Specifically, she explains: “Abortion is a human right and there’s no question about that. But we also have to have the health care system that will make it accessible for anybody. That anybody who wants an abortion can get it.”
Leckey followed the nine handmaids inside the building, to State House Room 222, where nearly 100 volunteers and advocates from Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and NARAL gathered to be debriefed on the proposed Roe Act and how to lobby their legislators.
The legislation, as Johanna Kaiser of Planned Parenthood explained, “will protect and expand access to abortion in Massachusetts.” Massachusetts’s particular impediments, she says, defy common perceptions about the state: “Too often Massachusetts relies on this idea that we’re a progressive bastion, but we really have these barriers that we need to start addressing here.” This legislation would do two things, according to Kaiser: First it would remove the “arduous process” placed on minors seeking an abortion; second, it would increase access to care for women “who have experienced a fatal fetal diagnosis.” Because of these restrictions, many “women in Massachusetts right now have to go out of state for care.” The Roe Act would change that, Kaiser says, because “a right doesn’t mean a whole lot if you can’t access it.”
Leckey mingled in this roomful of volunteer lobbyists, who Kaiser said came from “across the state.” “People are really fired up right now,” Kaiser explained, because they are “really anxious that Roe v. Wade is at risk.” Leckey signed in and took a photo with a statement reading, “As someone who had an illegal abortion at age 17, and as a mother, I understand.” She then headed into the halls of the State House to talk to her representatives.
During a tour around the building, from the House to the Senate offices, Leckey emphatically noted the lack of women represented on the walls, and the fact that when women were represented they were quite literally shoved into a corner. After the event, we met up over lunch to discuss her campaign to represent constituents in eastern Mass.
Growing up in Meknes, Morocco, Leckey’s mother was a farmer and her father was a public school teacher. Leckey’s mother left school in fifth grade to raise nine siblings: “And here she is, married this educator, who walked miles and miles to reach remote schools and advocate for girls to go to school.” When she was 13, Leckey’s father died due to a stroke; later she learned they did not have the money or access to treat his condition: “My mom told me he was not going to his doctor’s visits and that we did not have the speciality in proximity and we did not have the money.”
Leckey went to public schools and then immigrated at age 20: “I always had this idea that the US is the land of the free, the US is where I will have that safety, and where I will have the equal opportunity,” she says. “There were more opportunities than where I was in Morocco, but there were not equal opportunities. I came and became poor again.”
When Leckey arrived, she moved “five or six times in New York City in a very short period” and “wasn’t even able to apply for the green card even when my husband and I were married, because we both were poor.” She struggled to buy a $60 birth control pill “when my pay as a babysitter of twins was five dollars an hour.” Even in the United States, a place that promised “equal opportunity,” she explains, “I’m working two jobs, I’m working tips-only restaurant jobs, and yet not getting ahead.”
At first Leckey thought she experienced this hardship “because I was new here, an immigrant.” But later she realized that “the truth is, this is what’s it’s like here if you don’t come from privilege, period. It doesn’t matter where you were born, if you don’t come from privilege the system works to spiral you down, and not afford you the opportunities that are afforded to the top 1% in this country.”
In time, Leckey went to the Borough of Manhattan Community College and then Boston University before working at the Federal Reserve as a special examiner. She worked on “regulating the banks that were called ‘too big to fail,’ the very, very big banks that during the crisis took down the world economy.”
Her position gave her particular insight into the “revolving door in our regulatory agencies.” In other words, she continues, “you have somebody who today, they’re working at the Federal Reserve, and tomorrow, they’re working across the street at a big bank.” While private companies have employees sign “three-year no competes,” regulators, she says “can flip whenever they want.” Instead, she argues, “we need to protect our information and the people’s information.”
Her position at the Federal Reserve also gave Leckey front-row seats for “deregulation starting to happen.” Specifically, “when you get a new president, or a Congress, or a Senate, that’s working against the people,” she says, “that’s when they start to pluck the best of the regulators and replace them with those who want to deregulate.”
These moves toward deregulation made Leckey “shake my head and decide that my fight is bigger than that.” “I wasn’t going to go double my salary at some big bank,” she says, “I wasn’t going to sell my soul.” Leckey identifies these moments of deregulation, when “the power of the people was being taken away,” as “one of the things that compelled me to leave my job and run for office and especially to serve to serve my constituents in Congress.”
Leckey’s constituents are currently being served by Joe Kennedy, a well-liked, well-funded heir to Camelot. Congressman Kennedy’s 2018 response to Trump’s State of the Union had “Democrats swooning,” according to Vox, and his war chest holds nearly $4.2 million, according to Politico. (The Congressman’s spokesperson told Politico he “welcomes anyone who wants to run in next year’s election.”)
Put simply, Leckey wants to run “because I believe that people deserve better.” Take the issue at hand, Leckey says, abortion access: “I know that we have representatives who support abortion. But I also know that those same representatives take money from pharmaceuticals, and because of that they will not advocate for us in the same way I will advocate for us. I don’t take money from pharmaceuticals. And that means I want women, us, and my little girl when she grows up, to have that choice and to have the right to go to a hospital, decide for herself, and get the support afterwards and go home, just like any other procedure you get.”
There are other ways Leckey distinguishes herself from Kennedy. “When I see the representation we have in our district,” she says, “I see a representation that’s talking about ‘moral capitalism.’ And I say: There is absolutely no moral capitalism. There is democratic socialism. We see that in our country and we see that it works for us. What we have in our country is corrupt representation. We have a corrupt government and that is why we are not able to get to where we need to get.”
Leckey distinguishes herself by arguing that “we need to have a government and a representative who’s leading on the issues. We don’t have that in District 4. We have people leading on the issues, and I’m one of them.” She contrasts the work of advocates like herself with those elected officials: “We have invested our own time, that we need to spend with our children, with our families, to raise our children, on making calls and showing up at offices and lobbying that the representative that we voted in, thinking that he is progressive, when he’s not.”
The three issues she returns to through our conversation—issues for which Leckey counts herself as a long-time advocate—include universal education, the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All. As with her stance on a universal healthcare that includes access to abortion, Leckey connects her personal experiences to her policy poisitions, e.g., for climate change: “I am a mother and my child’s life is in jeopardy because of representation that does not act on climate change. In 12 years, my 7-year-old is going to be 19 and I am hoping that she will make it.” That means, for her, implementing “solutions that are bold and that are equitable.”
Similarly, Leckey’s education plan emphasizes universality that extends to childcare, a point she connects to her own experience: “I have a child myself; she’s 7. And it is really, really expensive to find childcare that is of high quality.” She points out that “30% of poverty in this country is caused by a family or a single person having that first child with absolutely no support.” Leckey envisions “universal childcare,” as well as “at least a year of parental leave, with pay and with a guarantee of their jobs back” to help families with young children.
Leckey’s education plan will cover all families equally. “When it comes to education as a human right, it shouldn’t matter what your zipcode is. You should have an excellent school education, everything that a child needs,” including, for instance, “meals” and “summer programs.” More specifically, in District 4, “the education that a child is getting in Fall River and Taunton,” she says, “should be the same quality education that a child is getting in Brookline, Newton, and Wellesley. We have to get rid of inequalities in our education and the only way to do it is through universal, fully funded education.”
To fund this idea, Leckey says, “My plan will tax the uber-rich—the high, 1% in this country and 0.01%, to be even more specific. We need to make sure that we’re not giving free money to big corporations.” She adds, “My plan is to alleviate the tax on the middle and lower class.” More generally, she points out that “we are wasting money on wars that are only hurting people more than doing anything that’s good. And if we can actually use that money and instead invest it in our people, that is my goal.”
“We’re not running to put a name up there or to try and get the incumbent to change his position on things,” Leckey says. “The incumbent had proved himself as somebody who is not progressive and this is a progressive district. We need someone who’s had the life experiences that puts them in a position to understand what the issues that people are living every day.”
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.