This is the first of two stories about the 6th District congressional candidates campaigning locally.
SALEM — As Congressman John Tierney strolls through the streets in his hometown, shaking hands and visiting small businesses, it’s easy to forget that he’s at the center of a political maelstrom — one of the testiest, nastiest and most personal congressional races in the nation.
At least on this morning, a recent overcast Friday, the heat of the campaign seems to be on the back burner and the congressman relaxed.
“Make sure you guys get out and vote,” he says with a smile, connecting a mutual elbow bump with one of the cooks in front of a heaping pile of home fries at Red’s Sandwich Shop.
Another woman, with a Tierney button fastened to her shirt, practically runs up to the congressman on Central Street to say hello and give him a hug. He’s stopped repeatedly throughout the morning by well-wishers pledging support, telling him to stay strong in the final weeks of what has been a brutal campaign.
One woman who says she’s a business owner in Beverly interrupts an interview to tell him, “I just want to tell you that I support you very strongly.”
It’s clear she doesn’t know Tierney personally, but most of those he visits and who stop him in the street seem to know him well.
“Hang in there, John. That was a good one last night,” says Alex Panos, the owner of Alex and Co. hair salon, referring to a heated and sometimes vicious debate the previous night on NECN.
“Hi, John,” Roy Tetrault, the co-owner of Bernard’s Jewelers, says nonchalantly when the congressman walks in, as if there’s nothing unusual about this visit. The two chat for a while, before Tierney tells Tetrault to “keep smiling” and the merchant wishes him “good luck, John,” as Tierney heads off again.
“We try to do this every couple of weeks during the year and every few days during the campaign,” Tierney said of his walking tours through cities and towns in the district, meeting with voters, business owners and city workers.
This easygoing guy is the Tierney you don’t see when he’s answering questions about his brothers-in-law’s illegal gambling business in Antigua or in fierce debates with Republican opponent Richard Tisei, for whom Tierney cannot hide his contempt.
The congressman is not the guy-you-want-to-have-a-beer-with type of politician, and he can often come across as defensive and guarded in interviews and on television. But strolling with Tierney on the campaign trail in his hometown — a location picked by the campaign for this media tag-along — it’s obvious that there are still many people who have his back.
His pleasant disposition is a stark contrast to the gloomy mailers sent out by the Republican opposition, casting Tierney as a shadowy, two-faced liar, if not a criminal, and his wife, Patrice, as a conniving and unsavory character.
“The people in the 37 cities and towns in this district know me and are turned off by it,” Tierney said of the negative ads.
The saga of Patrice’s legal woes has become so entrenched during the campaign that it’s almost odd to hear Tierney speak of his wife in different context — a normal one.
Tierney bites into a delicious-looking pastry at A&J King Artisan Bakers and laments, “I gotta stop.”
“I’m going to tell Patrice,” jokes Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who is accompanying Tierney on the walkabout today.
“Are you kidding? She’s an enabler,” Tierney says. “Last night, I get home after a really long day and she had ice cream. She can take a bite of one sweet thing and stop, but not me.”
Tierney admits it can be awkward walking into a restaurant or coffee shop, especially when he is accompanied by an entourage as he is today with Driscoll, Salem state Rep. John Keenan, his own campaign manager and communications director, as well as a Salem News reporter and a reporter and photographer from Roll Call, an online Washington, D.C., newspaper. But these random visits afford the congressman the chance to meet with voters firsthand to hear their ideas, concerns and struggles, and, of course, to ask for their vote.
Some of those he stops are happy to see him. Others are more interested in talking to Driscoll or Keenan, who are both popular in Salem. Some voters are polite, but clearly have no interest in talking to Tierney. No one mentions the scandal involving his wife.
The race with Tisei is a dead heat with less than two weeks to go before the election.
“Want to go get your cards read?” Driscoll asks Tierney as they stroll down Essex Street, awash with Halloween spirit.
But the eight-term Congressman doesn’t need tarot cards to tell him where he stands at this point.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve got a 50-50 chance these days,” he says with a grin.