LYNNFIELD — It was March 1981 when 19-year-old Richard Tisei caught the politics bug.
He had just been elected state representative for a day by his peers at Lynnfield High School and had gone, along with other student representatives from around the state, to the Statehouse in Boston. He sat in the House chamber, proposed bills, debated them and passed his first, albeit mock, legislation.
“When I came home that night, my parents asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be a state rep, because it was such a powerful experience,’” Tisei said from the Lynnfield office he now rents as headquarters for his run for Congress.
“My parents weren’t even registered to vote; my family was not political. They thought it was weird I was so interested.”
Interested enough that when he graduated from American University in 1984, he ran to represent the 22nd Middlesex District and won handily. At 22, he was the youngest Republican ever elected to the Massachusetts Legislature.
“I basically went out and knocked on 14,000 doors, and that’s how I introduced myself,” he said. “My district hadn’t elected a Republican in 20 years.”
In 1990, he moved up to the state Senate and won 10 more elections in a row.
Now Tisei is in the midst of a much larger challenge: attempting to unseat Democrat John Tierney in the 6th Congressional District.
The district has more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans; nearly every city has a Democratic mayor. Would voters here replace Tierney — one of the most liberal members of the U.S. House, whom they have elected eight straight times — with Tisei, who makes no bones about his desire to repeal Obamacare, extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and support portions of the Republican Paul Ryan budget?
And yet, just a week before the Nov. 6 election, that’s a distinct possibility.
As he did in 1984, Tisei would make history if elected: He would be the first openly gay, nonincumbent Republican to win a seat in Congress.
Tisei did not come out publicly until 2009, during his campaign to become the state’s lieutenant governor, though he says he wasn’t ever hiding the fact. His sexual orientation has added more national attention to his campaign but is not much of an issue in the district.
“It’s more of a curiosity in Washington and on a national basis,” he said. “People think it’s a bit odd that I’m not only a Republican from Massachusetts but a gay Republican from Massachusetts.”
At home, his sexuality has had “zero impact in the race,” he said. “The good thing is that people know me and judge my experience, my position on the issues, the fact that I’ve been around. ... On a day-to-day basis here in this district, the things people care about are jobs, the economy, whether or not their family will have economic security.”
Tisei believes his party, which passed the Defense of Marriage Act and voted overwhelmingly against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is simply wrong on gay rights.
Tisei doesn’t have a flawless record, either, voting in the 1980s against a law that banned discrimination of gays and lesbians in employment and housing; he also once voted to prohibit the state from placing foster children with gay couples.
When asked his biggest regret, he points to those votes.
“I got caught up in the argument that they were special rights instead of equal rights,” Tisei said. “That was 20-something years ago. I feel like I’ve more than made up for it.”
Since then Tisei has championed equal rights causes, including marriage equality in Massachusetts, filing anti-bullying legislation, and supporting bills to help the disabled and enhance individual rights.
Asked why there aren’t more gay Republicans, Tisei said it’s because the party of Lincoln has lost sight of its roots.
“The party in the last 20 years ... lost its way from what we were originally formed for and stood for for a long time,” he said, citing anti-slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights as past Republican causes.
“I would say I’m a traditional New England Republican — the whole idea that you can be fiscally conservative but also libertarian when it comes to social issues, that you believe the government should not be involved in individual decision-making when it comes to an issue like abortion.”
Tisei, 50, found the Republican Party, like so many his age, through President Ronald Reagan.
“I liked the fact that he exemplified traditional American values and free enterprise, individual responsibility, the emphasis on the individual instead of the government as far as decision-making goes, and a strong national defense,” Tisei said.
As a college student, he interned in the office of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. His duty one year was to organize Reagan’s 72nd birthday party in the White House.
“This is my prized possession,” he said, pointing above his desk to an autographed photograph of Reagan wearing a cowboy hat that Tisei and the rest of the staff gave him as a present.
“My hearty thanks for your birthday serenade,” Reagan wrote to Tisei on the photo.
A history of success
Despite seemingly long odds at the outset of this race, winning elections in Democratic districts is Tisei’s specialty. He won 13 straight elections in his Statehouse district, which included Stoneham, Wakefield, Melrose, Malden and Lynnfield, before losing a bid for lieutenant governor in 2009.
“The reason I think I was successful all those years in a place like Malden, which is only 6 percent registered Republicans, is because people trusted me, that I would have common sense and the right priorities,” he said.
Tisei has also capitalized on problems with Tierney’s credibility. The 6th District campaign narrative has been dominated by what Tierney knew or didn’t about an illegal gambling enterprise run by his brothers-in-law in Antigua. His wife, who managed a bank account for her brother, accepted thousands of dollars from him in gifts and served a month in jail for her role in helping him file false tax returns.
Tierney has not been charged with any wrongdoing and says he didn’t know the business was illegal.
Republican super PACs and other partisan groups have spent millions on ads attacking Tierney and his wife. Tisei’s own campaign hasn’t shied away from fanning the flames.
“I think most people look at this ... and just don’t believe him,” Tisei said of Tierney. “He has not been honest or forthright.”
Tierney, in turn, has called Tisei “shameless.”
Tisei’s liberal stances on social issues have earned him a moderate label, although his views swing substantially to the right when it comes to fiscal issues. The national debt is a chief concern for Tisei, who says spending cuts are needed. He wants to simplify the tax code, is open to restructuring social programs like Medicare to ensure their future viability and wants to reduce regulations on business.
He has said he would not vote for Paul Ryan’s Republican budget, but called it a good starting point for discussion. Tisei is against raising taxes and repeatedly voted against tax hikes in Massachusetts, receiving high marks from anti-tax groups during his time in the state Legislature.
Unlike many Republicans, however, Tisei has refused to sign Grover Norquist’s famous tax pledge, because he believes that closing loopholes and tax deductions to increase revenue is fair game.
Tisei’s face gets blood-red, and you can almost see the steam coming out of his ears when Tierney alleges — as he has repeatedly — that Tisei is a right-wing extremist.
Many ultra-conservatives consider Tisei a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and have criticized that national party for investing so much time and money to help him win election.
Tisei says he’s been criticized by the right “throughout my whole career, which is why it’s so amazing to hear John Tierney say I am a right-wing extremist. ... It doesn’t make any sense to the people that know me.
“I’ve taken 10,000 votes, so there are a lot of things policy-wise he could disagree with me on instead of painting a caricature of me as some nut.”
Tisei swears he will not be afraid to say no to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and has told him that to his face. He was independent-minded in the Legislature, he said, and will be the same in Washington. But Tierney says Tisei will be one more vote to empower Republican “zealots.”
“I don’t think he has a clue how the place works down there,” Tierney said in a recent interview. “It’s ludicrous to think a new member will go down there and sway that (tea party) crowd.”
But Tisei says that if he believes something isn’t right for the district, he’ll vote it down, despite the consequences it might have for him in his own caucus.
“The way I look at this, I’m not going to Washington to be there for 10 or 15 or 20 years, or to be there forever. I’m going for a specific mission. Whether it’s a couple terms, I’m going there to straighten out the country,” Tisei said.
“Say we improve the business climate, get the country’s fiscal house in order, and ensure that the programs most important to people are preserved for the next generation. In two or four years, if we’re able to do those things, I’ll feel like we accomplished some things and my mission will be complete.”