By Alan Burke
---- — Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series of articles profiling Peabody’s state representative candidates.
PEABODY — It was by chance that Dave Gravel found himself running for state representative without a party. A Democrat, he had only recently declared himself unenrolled when Rep. Joyce Spiliotis died unexpectedly in November, resulting in a special election.
That’s why the April 2 special election is a three-way race between Gravel, Democrat Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne and Republican Leah Cole.
Gravel, 56, insists that dissatisfaction with the party was not behind his decision to leave it.
“I was on the City Council. The City Council is nonpartisan. I didn’t need that designation. I didn’t want it to get in the way of anything.” He can’t remember voting for a Republican in recent years and adds that he will not only caucus with the Democrats if elected — “You have to caucus with someone,” he says — he will re-register as a Democrat.
Of course, being a Beacon Hill Democrat brings other questions.
Asked about the lamentable streak of three consecutive Democrat speakers of the Massachusetts House convicted of crimes, with one sent to federal prison, Gravel separates those leaders from the representatives who voted to elevate them.
“Sometimes people fall on the wrong side of things,” he says. “That doesn’t mean everybody up there has problems or issues.”
Further, he rejects the criticism that individual state representatives are given little independence by the leadership.
“My job is to do what’s best for Peabody,” he says.
For that matter, his first declaration of independence might be on Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to raise nearly $2 billion in taxes for programs including high-speed rail.
“I just don’t think it’s a good time to increase taxes on anybody,” Gravel says, suggesting, rather, that increasing employment ought to be encouraged to stabilize state finances.
Instead of railroads, Gravel wants to help seniors and increase the state aid keeping city roads serviceable. “Chapter 90 (road money) is underfunded,” he said. “More and more, the cities and towns are asked to make up the difference.”
Likewise, he worries that state funding for the schools needs to be maintained. In both cases, he pledges to work closely with Mayor Ted Bettencourt to keep the money coming.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. But Gravel points to a history in business, in politics, in schools and in city government as key selling points.
Gravel’s father was a self-employed upholsterer from Quebec.
“I still bump into some of his customers today,” his son says proudly, recalling Dad’s fine workmanship.
Born in Winthrop, Gravel moved to Peabody at age 4 and never left, attending Peabody High School, where he met future wife Cathy Peterson.
They married in 1979.
Gravel earned a degree in business administration from Salem State and a master’s in finance and technology from Babson College. At the start of his working life, he longed for a career as a teacher, but after a temporary stint at Higgins School, his plans ran afoul of 1980’s Proposition 21/2 cutbacks.
With no teaching job or offer, he went into the state Department of Education, working on grants and budgeting in the service of the children of migrant workers. He left to join a company pioneering in the field of technology by renting computers.
He didn’t grow rich. But he learned. By the time that company was sold to GE, Gravel had worked himself up to vice president of finance and chief financial officer. By 1984, he was ready to strike out on his own, establishing GraVoc in Peabody Square, a consulting firm aiding businesses in their use of technology.
“Our focus is on solutions,” Gravel says, referencing a client list of small and midsize companies. His wife and three of his children are also part of the effort. “It’s a family-owned and -operated business.” Family involvement, he adds, allows him to leave a lot of the responsibility behind and pursue a political career.
“As far back as I can remember, I was involved in politics,” he says. As a child, he admired President John F. Kennedy and was shattered by his murder. “I remember that like it was yesterday.”
By 1995, politics drew Gravel to a successful run for School Committee. “I always had my hand in education.” Sitting with the widely respected Mayor Peter Torigian, he found another role model for what an elected official should be. Additionally, he took a post negotiating with the department’s several unions.
In 2007, Gravel made the step up, winning an at-large seat on the council.
A great reader, Gravel is reluctant to name any writer as a major influence. He begins a list of favorites with Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.”
“It’s a little sad people are putting away the humanities these days,” he says.
A Catholic who attends St. Anne’s, Gravel is quick to separate church teachings from public policy.
“Everything in life is an evolution,” he says.
Finally, he invokes a favorite sentiment which speaks to a willingness to fight for Peabody. It comes from another politician who left his political party — Teddy Roosevelt:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly .... so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”