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WAKEFIELD, Mass. — With the hum of late afternoon lunchgoers behind him, Congressional candidate Richard Tisei weaves toward the door.
Here, at Brothers Deli & Restaurant, he chats up the patrons, many of whom light up when they see Tisei's familiar face. The former state Senator, who represented this town in the Legislature for 26 years, is like many politicians in Massachusetts. He comes from blue-collar beginnings, believes that the government has a responsibility to help those who can't help themselves, supports abortion rights and staunchly supports civil rights for the gay, lesbian and transgendered community. And he appears to genuinely enjoy interacting with people.
An older woman sitting at a booth near the exit locks eyes with Tisei and smiles.
"I hear you're a shoo-in," she tells him.
He would be, but for the fact that, unlike most credible aspiring Bay State Congressmen, Tisei is a lifelong Republican. And he's taking on an eight-term incumbent, Democratic Rep. John Tierney.
Tisei (pronounced TIS-say) would face a seemingly Sisyphean task in most of Massachusetts's blue districts and in most cycles, but the 6th district race in 2012 is unique.
Tierney has recently faced a barrage of negative press as his wife's family has been in court for charges related to her brothers' allegedly illegal gambling ring.
The district, which grew slightly less Democratic in redistricting, encompasses the North Shore region of the state. Fifty-eight percent of the voters in the new district voted for Obama in 2008, but voters here have shown openness to Republican candidates. In 2010, Sen. Scott Brown (R) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker would have comfortably won the district under the new lines.
Tisei, a fiscal conservative who says his political philosophy is "the government should be off your back, out of your wallet and away from your bedroom," believes he's a good fit to represent folks here.
He mounted a bid for state Representative when he was 21, running the campaign out of his dorm room at American University. He drove overnight on weekends to stump in a district that included Wakefield and neighboring Lynnfield. "I knocked on every door in both communities," Tisei told Roll Call between bites of chicken kabob. "And I ended up winning."
Tisei lacks the slick charisma and superlative public speaking skills of classic politicians, but he has an authentic aw-shucks charm. He served in the state House and later in the state Senate, where he was Minority Leader for four years. In 2010, he was GOP's nominee for lieutenant governor. That race was his first political loss.
Tisei, 49, is gay and has been with his partner for 18 years. They own a realty business together in Lynnfield and despite that, Tisei joked, still get along.
Local and national Republicans are excited about his prospects.
"I think he is a uniquely qualified candidate," said Brad Card, a Republican lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and Bay State native. He noted that for any Republican to have longevity in Democratic Massachusetts, they must be moderate and able to compromise.
Even though his views on social issues put him far to the left of the Republican mainstream, Tisei toes the party line when it comes to spending.
He campaigns against "Barack Obama and his allies" and paints Tierney, who voted with Democrats 99 percent of the time in 2010, as part of the "extreme rather than the mainstream."
But Tierney has more than rhetoric to worry about this year.
Tierney has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but Democratic and Republican strategists in the state agree that his political brand is suffering because of the legal troubles his wife faces.
Patrice Tierney recently testified at the trial of one of her brothers. She pleaded guilty last year to "willful blindness" in filing false federal tax returns for another brother's allegedly illegal gambling ring and served a month in jail. At the current trial, spousal privilege was invoked and she avoided answering some questions about her husband.
In an interview, Tierney insisted his wife's legal issues were fully aired: She pleaded guilty a month before he handily won re-election. As for the current trial, he thinks voters understand he's not responsible for his brothers-in-law. "You can't Google your family before you get married," he said.
Tierney said he plans to emphasize a national message and his constituents know "if you're going to vote for a Republican in the next race, you're going to be voting for Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio], for the partisan politics of all the pleasures they take to Grover Norquist." The Congressman says he is in tune with his district's political beliefs, calling himself "a passionate moderate with progressive values."
Tisei, who says he has never voted for a broadbased tax increase, has not signed Norquist's pledge. He faces a primary fight with attorney Bill Hudak, who was the GOP nominee in the district last cycle. GOP insiders believe Tisei will comfortably win the primary. Roll Call rates the race Leans Democratic.
Back at Brothers Deli, Tisei says he'll eschew the venomous partisanship if he gets to D.C. "I think you can stand up for what you believe in without being divisive and poisonous and pitting American against American," Tisei says. "I think most people understand that, too. They're tired of what's going on down there."