SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 27, 2010

Cahill's strongest tie locally is through school building projects

By Chris Cassidy
STAFF WRITER

Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of stories exploring the North Shore connections of the governor's candidates. A story about Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick ran in Monday's edition, and a story about Republican challenger Charlie Baker appeared in yesterday's edition.

Tim Cahill has less than a week to make up what polls show is a monumental gap between him and front-runners Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker.

Still, he won't drop out of the race.

"He's not a quitter. None of us are quitters. ... Because he hasn't quit on the campaign, it shows he won't quit on the commonwealth in solving real problems," said Amy Birmingham, the chief of staff of Cahill's campaign.

Birmingham lives in Salem and has worked for Cahill since 2003, first in the treasurer's office, then as a campaign staffer about a year ago. For the last few years, she's traveled with Cahill to community events and campaign appearances.

Part of her job is projecting a tone of optimism for the campaign, even when the latest polls show few reasons for celebration. So far, Cahill is polling at less than 10 percent.

His North Shore ties are weak, compared to those of his two biggest opponents. Baker lives in Swampscott, and Patrick has been endorsed by a variety of local officials, including the mayors of Peabody, Beverly and Salem. Carrying the North Shore on Election Day is probably a long shot for Cahill.

Still, Birmingham said she believes Cahill is the candidate who best understands regular people's problems.

"He's a middle-class guy with middle-class values. It's what drives his employees because we identify with him," Birmingham said. "He knows what it's like to pay a mortgage. He knows what it's like to fill out financial aid forms for his kids. He cuts his own grass. That's what I admire about him. He reminds me of someone that lived on my street growing up."

On the campaign trail, Cahill frequently touts what he calls "the most comprehensive reform" to the state's school building program in 60 years. He says he helped craft legislation in 2004 that created the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which identifies and prioritizes school building projects worthy of funding. As treasurer, Cahill is chairman of the program's Board of Directors.

At the time, the waiting list of school projects seeking state funding had ballooned to more than 400.

Several North Shore schools have benefited under the new program.

Beverly became one of the first communities in the state to embark on a school building project under the new system. The new $81.5 million Beverly High School partially opened last month, and the state is picking up some $46.8 million, or about 58 percent of the total price.

The state funding couldn't have come at a more crucial time — the high school was on the verge of losing its accreditation over health and safety issues within the old building.

"I have to give them a lot of credit," Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon said. "They have vastly improved the program they inherited. And the result of it is that we're getting a much better product. The schools being built now are being built to last, to have less in the way of maintenance problems."

For the record, Scanlon has endorsed Patrick for governor, but he still believes that Cahill and — perhaps more so, the program's executive director, Katherine Craven — deserve praise for overseeing the reforms.

"Maybe the smartest thing he did was pick Katherine Craven, who's done such a terrific job," Scanlon said.

Initially, the Building Authority had agreed to fund a smaller percentage of the overall cost of the school.

"Then we got the support of the treasurer and Katherine Craven in getting those numbers modified somewhat," Scanlon said. "We built the school with probably the smallest contingency fund of any school project of its size."

Danvers Town Manager Wayne Marquis has worked with the Building Authority on two major projects over the past few years — a $79 million Danvers High School project and the $133 million megavoke, the merger of three technical school systems.

Under the new regulations, Danvers is being reimbursed more quickly, usually within 30 days, as it pays its architect and project manager on the high school construction, Marquis said.

"The idea is it reduces the need to borrow money," Marquis said. "That's certainly been a good thing."

But Marquis, like Scanlon, credits Cahill more for the personnel he hired to oversee the program, rather than any direct involvement in the specific project.

"He had to create a structure and hire a staff," Marquis said, "and that staff from my personal experience is highly competitive and very well-respected."

Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at ccassidy@salem news.com.