SALEM, Mass. — Rep. John F. Tierney may have successfully put a family legal scandal far enough behind him to win re-election in 2012, but he’s facing another test. And this time, the Massachusetts Democrat’s challenge is primarily political.
Last cycle, Democrats had all but written off Tierney as a goner, but he managed a 4,300-vote victory — about 1 percent — over the Republicans’ best candidate for the seat in years, the affable former state Sen. Richard Tisei.
This year, Tierney first faces a Sept. 9 primary challenge from Seth Moulton, a Marine with a stellar résumé. Tisei, who is openly gay, is aiming for a rematch and will face the Democratic victor.
CQ Roll Call talked with voters in the 6th District — which includes the swath of suburbs north of Boston, is peppered by coastal towns and curves all the way to the New Hampshire border — over the past two months. The picture that emerged is that voters know and like their congressman, despite his recent ethics issues and his family’s legal foibles.
On a chilly March morning as he courted voters at the Salem Democratic Caucuses, Tierney sported a charcoal blazer and pressed pants and appeared certain the storm was behind him. The coiffed congressman told CQ Roll Call he is confident that this cycle’s battle will be easier than his last. But his supporters, like Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, are more cautious.
“I think it’s definitely going to be a challenging race,” Driscoll said in the three-story Salem High School library reminiscent of 1985’s classic film, “The Breakfast Club.” “We had a lot more turnout last time. We’re talking about an election that had the president and Elizabeth Warren on the ballot. So you had just a lot more grass-roots effort going on, a lot of help in terms of field organization statewide.”
Tierney’s Next Trial Many top local Democrats say Tierney is favored to win, and a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee automated poll of primary voters released last week showed the congressman with a commanding 47-point lead over Moulton. The DCCC, which supports incumbents, found 59 percent of its survey respondents had a favorable view of Tierney. But turnout is unpredictable, thanks to a crowded and competitive gubernatorial field.
The nominee could emerge damaged — at least compared to Tisei, who has no primary challenge — and with fewer financial resources to take on the Republican in November.
Moulton was born in Salem, grew up in the area and attended Harvard. He recently moved from Texas and his military background appeals to this district, which boasts a high population of veterans.
His team is counting on his résumé, unpredictable gubernatorial primary turnout and a permeating “kick the bums out” sentiment from voters. “We did our homework, we knew the district was ready for change,” Moulton told CQ Roll Call. “The crux of my argument is change. We need a new generation of leadership in Washington.”
The clean-shaven 35-year-old told the 100 activists gathered at the caucuses that he’s the Democrat who would beat Tisei. “This is a blue district, in a blue state, and we shouldn’t have to fight that hard in this district,” Moulton said.
Tierney’s retort? “Apparently he missed the last election, where we won,” the congressman told CQ Roll Call following Moulton’s speech. “But we’ve had strong backing in this election — people who have stood with us through thick and thin. We expect to win, and to win by a good margin.”
So far, Moulton is on top in the money race, having raised more than Tierney through last year (first-quarter fundraising totals are due on April 15). He also hired a top flight of consultants to boost his bid.
Immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco is running to the left of both Tierney and Moulton in the Democratic primary, and could serve as a spoiler.
It’s a long five months until the primary, with plenty of time for Moulton to make up ground. But Tierney is known for turning out supporters along the coastal towns in his economically diverse district, from the bayside mansions of Marblehead, to the blue-collar voters in the congressman’s strongholds in Salem, Lynn and Peabody (or as the locals call it, “PEA-buh-dee”). That turnout operation is what saved his skin last time.
Water Under the Bay Residents are at least vaguely familiar with the ethical cloud that hung over Tierney’s last race. (“He’s that one, with the wife, with the gambling, right?” offered one server at a scenic dockside restaurant in Marblehead). After all, Tierney’s issues were widely reported in local press and broadcast over Boston’s airwaves in his last race.
In the end, the congressman was never implicated in any wrongdoing.
A judge ordered Tierney’s wife, Patrice, to spend a month in jail in 2011 for doctoring her brother’s taxes. The congressman’s brother-in-law ran an illegal online gambling ring from Antigua in the Virgin Islands.
In September 2013, the House Ethics Committee unanimously voted to drop its Tierney investigation, citing “inconclusive” evidence.
Tierney told CQ Roll Call he is “very comfortable” that the book is closed on the matter and that constituents support him. “I think we found out in the last election most people didn’t believe what turned out not to be true anyway,” Tierney said.
“I think what happened is people took a look at John’s voting record and forgave the missteps of his wife,” said Jim Moskovis, a 62-year-old retiree and Tierney backer. “There are some people who won’t let it go — that’s always going to be the case. And nobody is blaming John Tierney for gridlock in Washington.”
A Different Kind of Electorate In all likelihood, Tierney will prevail and face a tough challenge from Tisei this fall, as Republicans look to have a good year across the country.
This is the most GOP-friendly district in the state, despite its all-Democratic delegation. In 2012, Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown won the district while losing re-election. But President Barack Obama carried the district by 55 percent.
The Tierney-Tisei contest was 48 percent to 47 percent, with the congressional hopeful underperforming Brown. A libertarian candidate also got nearly 17,000 votes — three times Tisei’s losing margin.
“One thing I learned is that the national tide really affects your race — much more than anything I’ve dealt with before,” the mild-mannered Tisei told CQ Roll Call in between bites at a Taste of Metro-North event for local restaurants in late February. “The atmosphere is more conducive to change this time, compared to last time.”
In the expansive Reading Memorial High School gymnasium filled with 500 fellow grazers, supporters approached Tisei as they munched on bite-sized portions of bruschetta, white pizza and coffee cake. (Tisei mused the scrod casserole was “the healthiest thing” he could find to eat.)
Tisei said Tierney’s ethical questions “hurt me more than it helped me.”
“It became the central issue in the campaign, and it overshadowed to an extent, all of the things I wanted to talk about,” he said. “A lot of people have already made up their mind about him one way or the other.”
Seven months before the race, it seems as if the national tide will influence this contest once more. Will a Republican-friendly mood boost Tisei’s candidacy this time? Can he put forth a better turnout operation in the final week of the campaign?
Jeff Hodder, a 30-year-old Burlington, Mass., resident and Army veteran who attended the congressman’s job fair in Peabody, made clear he is voting with national consequences in mind: “Richard Tisei is not a bad guy, but if you vote for him, you’re also voting for John Boehner.”