When Richard Tisei was a high-school senior, he went on a trip that would change his life: to the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit. He told National Review Online that being a youth delegate at the event where Reagan was nominated for president was “probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”
And that’s saying something. During college, he interned for a year in Vice President George H. W. Bush’s domestic office. When he was 22, he became the youngest state representative ever elected in Massachusetts. And now he’s challenging incumbent John Tierney in the state’s sixth congressional district — a race he actually has a shot at winning.
But none of that tops the excitement of that convention 32 years ago, according to Tisei. Still, the final weeks of the race should be pretty interesting. His opponent, Tierney, has been dogged by a scandal involving an illegal offshore-gambling operation run by two of his wife’s brothers. Tierney’s wife, Patrice, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for tax fraud related to her brothers’ dealings. One of them, Daniel Eremian, is incarcerated in the U.S., and the other is a fugitive in Antigua.
So far, Tierney has managed to dodge any political consequences from his family’s criminal activities by claiming he had no knowledge of what they were up to. But that defense came into question when, after his sentencing hearing, Eremian called the congressman “a liar” and said he “knew everything.” That comment might not end Tierney’s career, but it can’t help it.
“Tierney’s reaction to the scandal has been slow and clumsy at best,” Tim Buckley, communications director for the state GOP, told National Review Online. “He’s basically betting that voters will either believe that he knew nothing, or believe that he is withholding information. Banking on voters’ ignorance is never a good thing.”
That could be part of why Roll Call recently changed its rating of the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.” But even without Tierney’s family problems, the race would probably still have been competitive.
Buckley told NRO that the House hasn’t passed a single bill Tierney has sponsored since he entered that body in 1997, so he doesn’t have much of a record to run on. And Tisei has outraised him for the last two quarters. “I would have to go crack open the history books to find out the last time that happened, a Republican challenger outraising a Democratic incumbent in this state,” Buckley said.
So how has Tierney lasted for eight terms?
“For a Republican candidate to win here, he has to be Joe DiMaggio, that’s a given,” said former congressman Peter Blute, a Massachusetts GOP official. “But for a Democrat to win, you only have to be nearly Bob Uecker.”
And Tisei could be the Joltin’ Joe that Massachusetts Republicans have been waiting for. He describes himself as a “live-and-let-live Republican,” and will be the first openly gay member of his party in Congress if he wins. That fact alone has helped him with fundraising and name recognition. But he said that he doesn’t want that to characterize his political career.
“I hope to get to Washington and be an effective congressman who speaks out on a lot of issues and who just happens to be gay,” he said. “I’m not trying to be ‘the gay congressman from Massachusetts.’”
He has focused his campaign on the economy. As the owner of a real-estate brokerage, he knows very well how the country’s economic problems affect the families in his district. “I really think that there’s a huge disconnect between what’s going on in people’s lives and what’s going on in Washington. The government’s become dysfunctional,” he said. “I think I can make a difference.”
He hopes to work for smaller government, a less invasive regulatory climate, and lower debt, like Barry Goldwater, one of the most important influences on him. And he doesn’t think his social liberalism will hinder his ability to work with more traditional members of his caucus.
“What I’ve learned is that just because somebody has a different opinion from you, you don’t demonize them,” he said. “Everybody’s opinion on the issues is evolving over time. You have to respect that people have strong religious viewpoints, and you can’t have that be a litmus test to work with people on every other issue.”
If Tisei’s race keeps going in the direction it’s been, we might get a chance to see how well his brand of conservatism fits in Washington.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.