This is the last of four profiles of the Democratic candidates for state Senate in the 2nd Essex District. The nominee will be elected in the Democratic primary on Thursday, Sept. 6.
PEABODY — Many people with Statehouse aspirations face long odds, but John Slattery’s odds were perhaps longer than most.
His parents divorced when he was very young, and his father died when he was 10. The divorce and his father’s death led to two stints in a public housing project in Lynn when he was a youngster. His mother, a high school dropout, worked as a house cleaner to support the family.
Later, he contended with the death of a brother, who died at the age of 29.
Despite those personal and financial hardships, Slattery worked his way through college and then law school and is now a successful attorney. He is also a former state representative from Peabody.
“Everybody’s character was shaped in part by their childhood,” said Slattery, who is one of four Democrats running for state Senate to replace Sen. Fred Berry. “It helped shaped a lot of my convictions but was not the sole determining factor.”
Still, it might come as no surprise that Slattery the elected official has a penchant for looking out for working-class families, the underprivileged, and folks trying to pull themselves up and achieve success.
“I’m running to ensure that the middle class is not squeezed out of the American dream,” he said in an interview. “As kids, we are told that if we work hard, we can be whatever we want. It should be no different today.”
Slattery has made education a hallmark of his campaign. He advocates for full-time kindergarten, smaller class sizes and a re-examination of the way the state doles out education aid. He also wants to better fund the state’s higher education system, which has fallen victim to budget cuts in recent years.
“It’s a struggle for people who lack education to make ends meet. I want a better quality of life and opportunities for all of the middle class,” he said.
Over the course of the campaign, he said, he has heard over and over again that people feel their opportunities are shrinking.
“Almost everyone with children approaching college age is asking, ‘How can we afford it?’” Slattery said. “I hear from seniors who are living on fixed incomes and are forced to choose between necessities in life.”
“Public service allows me to help people on a grander scale,” Slattery said of his desire to serve.
His political career was one of rapid ascent, followed by some disappointment.
Slattery won election as councilor-at-large in Peabody in 1994 and served just one term before running to represent Peabody in the Massachusetts House. In the election, he bested three other candidates in the Democratic primary and cruised unopposed in the general election.
Slattery immediately established himself on the job.
“I think John was not only effective and well-respected, but seen as a leader in our group,” said Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat who served with Slattery for eight years in the House and was also one of the 30 freshman House representatives in 1994.
Slattery was the lead House sponsor on an assault weapons bill in 1998, which banned certain types of weapons, increased penalties for violent crimes committed with firearms and made it tougher for children to get guns.
He also championed a bill that allowed older teachers to retire early if they paid more into the state pension system; the idea helped inject more younger teachers into the profession.
“Leadership in the House opposed both bills, but I met with individuals, discussed the pros and cons, and built a coalition strong enough to pass them into law,” Slattery said. “A legislator needs to work well with others, and I have demonstrated the capacity to do that.”
Slattery has been criticized by his opponents as a tax and spend liberal. His many endorsements from local unions on the North Shore have fanned those flames.
But Slattery said he would pay for his proposals by looking through the state budget and finding other areas to cut, though he is not specific about which.
“It’s a matter of examining the budget,” he said.
Slattery has also contended that he supported “one of the largest tax cuts in state history,” referring to a ballot initiative in 2000 that would have rolled back state income taxes from 5.75 to 5 percent. But he admitted to being foggy on the details and in fact voted against it along with most other Democrats.
In 2002, he voted to freeze the income tax rate at 5.3 percent and in that bill advocated successfully for doubling the child tax deduction for parents, saving families money.
‘Matter of conscience’
The issue for which Slattery is known best, however, is undoubtedly capital punishment.
After a wave of violent crime in the state, many top officials started clamoring in 1997 to adopt the death penalty. In the initial House vote, the legislation passed 81-79, with Slattery voting in favor. When the finished bill came up, however, Slattery voted no, defeating the bill by a single vote.
Slattery became known as the man who killed the death penalty in Massachusetts.
Slattery said the legislation had changed in conference committee, making it possible to put juveniles to death, and after more investigation, he began viewing the death penalty as prejudicial, prone to court error and more expensive than life imprisonment.
“I could not support that bill,” he said this week, calling the fallout difficult to describe. “Many people were pleased, many were not. I am comfortable with my position. It was a matter of conscience.”
In 2002, he ran for lieutenant governor but finished third in the Democratic primary with just 23 percent of the vote. After some time away from politics, he emerged again in 2005 to challenge incumbent Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti. He lost by about 10 percentage points.
After a seven-year hiatus, he is back in politics again and into the Senate race because, he said, he wants to continue fighting for the middle class.
“We’re losing a very powerful voice for the district with the retirement of Sen. Berry, and it’s coming at a time when many of our communities are facing fiscal challenges,” Slattery said. “My success on Beacon Hill will allow me to hit the ground running and provide effective representation to meet those challenges.”
“Experience in the House is very helpful in terms of being a successful senator,” he said. “John has that kind of experience — debating big issues on the floor to making tough decisions — and it’s reflected in his record.”
Staff writer Jesse Roman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.