By Ethan Forman
---- — It’s the only race for state representative on the North Shore. It’s also the race that nearly wasn’t.
“It is a surprise campaign,” said state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, whose seat is now in play after not having an opponent during the primary season.
His surprise challenger, Danvers Selectman Dan Bennett, narrowly lost to Speliotis two years ago. During the primary season, Bennett declined to pull nomination papers to get his name on the ballot because he said he was busy with other commitments: He is the former chairman of the Board of Selectmen and is the lieutenant governor of Division 10 and 11 for the New England District of Kiwanis.
Over the summer, the two-term selectman had friends and supporters call him to ask if he was running, and Bennett said they were disappointed to learn he was not. Bennett, 63, a Danvers real estate broker with a long list of public service in town, decided to jump in a few weeks before the primary and run a sticker campaign to get 150 votes to get his name on the November ballot.
He said he was realistic about his chances of getting on the ballot, given that sticker campaigns are fraught with difficulties, since voters must correctly apply stickers to ballots for the vote to be counted.
Bennett said he gave residents a reason to turn out, and enough did during the Republican primary to force a rematch with Speliotis, whom he nearly unseated, losing by fewer than 500 votes two years ago.
Bennett has a formidable opponent, given that Speliotis, a 59-year-old former Danvers town moderator, is one of the longest-serving members of the House. Speliotis served as state representative from 1979 to 1986 before he was narrowly defeated. He worked in government affairs for Northeastern University, his alma mater, then was elected again in 1997, and he has served since then. For the past two years, Speliotis has served as co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.
Bennett also has a long résumé, not only as a selectman and a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Committee, but as a former School Committee member and chairman; a former Town Meeting member; a past president of the Danvers Educational Enrichment Partnership; a former chairman and present vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee; and present vice chairman of trustees for Essex Aggie, among other things. Professionally, he’s a former buyer for Almy’s and Rich’s department stores.
The only campaign-related event scheduled so far is a fundraising reception for Speliotis, planned for Oct. 12 at the Hong Kong Cafe in Danvers Square. Bennett said he does not have a similar event planned, but he does not rule out holding one.
Both candidates said they are working hard to get the word out, condensing what is normally an eight-month campaign into eight weeks. Bennett has been busy putting out signs and building his organization; Speliotis said Wednesday afternoon that he was busy delivering fliers to supporters to pass out.
“I’m working very hard,” Bennett said Wednesday. “I’m out getting signs up, all the stuff it takes to run a campaign.”
While Bennett said it would have been better to have a longer lead time, “every day is important.”
Speliotis said the shortened campaign means he will not be able to knock on as many doors as he would like.
“So it means we have to double our effort,” Speliotis said.
Bennett said he and his campaign were still framing stances on issues. In the two weeks since the primary, he has focused on talking with people, getting his signs out and raising money. He has a campaign manager and a captain in West Peabody.
“We’ve hit the ground running, and we are consolidating an organization into a lean, mean, working team,” said Bennett, who said both he and his opponent “have matured and grown in our roles.”
Bennett said he would be tireless in responding to constituents’ requests. Working in real estate, he is used to working at all hours.
“If they have a question, Dan Bennett will be there to respond,” Bennett said. “That’s exactly as I’ve been as selectman for the past six years.”
Speliotis said he is proud of his accomplishments over the past couple of years during what “has been our most difficult economic times in our lifetime.”
In this fiscal year, Speliotis said, Danvers received a 26 percent increase in local aid, approximately $1.8 million more. State aid to Danvers had been trimmed dramatically in recent years. The town saw one of the largest percentage increases in local aid on the North Shore, Speliotis said, with much of the increase for so-called Chapter 70 education aid followed by an increase in lottery funding. Speliotis said he and other lawmakers worked to change the local aid formulas to better account for Danvers middle-class makeup.
Speliotis was also proud of his efforts at winning a ruling from the state auditor that said funding for homeless student transportation was an unfunded mandate, leading to a line item in the state budget to handle those costs. In recent years, Danvers has been dealing with an influx of homeless sheltered in its budget hotels, which the state has been using as transitional housing.
The town will get approximately $100,000 more for these costs, and the Legislature funded homeless student transportation at $11.3 million statewide this year.
Speliotis said he also helped broker compromise on Right to Repair legislation to make it easier for consumers, service station owners and auto dealers to access repair codes while ensuring automakers’ proprietary information is protected. Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to pass such a bill, Speliotis said.
He added that his seniority will be important for the North Shore, which is about to lose some on Beacon Hill with the retirement of Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, D-Peabody, a 30-year state senator. Speliotis said he represents a good portion of the Senate district.
“I want to continue to help out,” Speliotis said.
For both Speliotis and Bennett, there is also the challenge of getting to know a new town. They have to introduce themselves to the voters of Middleton due to changes to the boundaries of the 13th Essex District. The redistricting essentially swapped Topsfield, which voted for Bennett in 2010, for a large portion of Middleton and a larger portion of Peabody.
“The demands have changed,” Bennett said, “without a doubt, Middleton is a wild card because they don’t necessarily know” either candidate.
Speliotis said that since he did not have an opponent during the primary season, officials there have been treating him as their future state representative. He even attended the groundbreaking of the new Howe-Manning School.
“I am looking forward to campaigning and getting my message out to Middleton,” Speliotis said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.