BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — John Keenan was sitting at the breakfast table the other day when he told his 12-year-old daughter he was not running for re-election, after serving as Salem’s state representative for the past 10 years.
“Do you have another job yet, Dad?” his daughter asked.
Keenan laughed when he told the story yesterday because he said his future plans are “not definite.” All that is certain, he said, is that he has decided not to run for higher office and will step down at the end of his current term in January 2015.
“Quite frankly, all the stuff we wanted to get done is completed,” he said during an interview yesterday.
The final order of business was the Salem power plant, which he said appears on solid footing now that Footprint Power, the New Jersey developer that runs the current plant and has proposed building a natural gas facility, reached a settlement last week with Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that filed legal challenges against the $800 million project.
“I am thrilled that this project finally has a path to success now that a settlement has been reached,” Keenan said. “The looming question about what would happen to this site has been in the back of my mind since I served as city solicitor, and really one of the driving forces in wanting to run for office and get involved. I hope that the citizens of Salem are as happy as I am that for the first time in over half a century, this site is on track to be cleaned, repowered, redeveloped and open for public enjoyment.”
Keenan tried to put to bed rumors that he will take a job with Footprint Power.
“That is absolutely untrue,” he said. “I have to believe the ethics of it bars me for life and, if it doesn’t, then it should.”
Keenan, 48, was both praised and pilloried for his support of Footprint, in particular legislation he filed, and later withdrew, that would have blocked further appeals of the project.
“Yeah, that was pretty aggressive,” he said yesterday. “(But) I think it sent a message, and when it was no longer needed, I withdrew it.”
At the time, a top official at CLF called Keenan’s move “unconstitutional and unconscionable.”
“I had skirmishes with (CLF),” Keenan said yesterday, “but I do believe, at the end of the day, a good project became a better project.”
Keenan, who was chairman of the House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said he sought that powerful role because of the importance of the power plant to his hometown. He also pushed for the creation of the Salem Harbor Station Task Force, a state committee charged with studying the redevelopment and reuse of not only the Salem power plant, but coal plants slated to close in other communities.
In his role as state representative, Keenan also helped Salem secure a guarantee the state would cover any lost tax revenue from the plant through 2019.
Keenan said he fought hard for the new power plant because he was convinced it was “the right thing for Salem.” He added that he “would do anything in my control to make it happen.”
Keenan got high praise from Mayor Kim Driscoll, who worked with him on a number of key projects over the past eight years.
“He’s been a terrific partner,” she said. “... As someone who was a former city solicitor here in Salem, he had a firm grasp of what the issues were and was just phenomenal to work with.”
She credited Keenan for his work on the power plant, the state courthouses, the waterfront and the commuter rail station.
“He has definitely left his mark on Salem,” she said.
An official at The Salem Partnership, a government/business lobby, applauded Keenan for a number of efforts to help revitalize the city and downtown.
Keenan also formerly chaired a House tourism committee, another key role for the city.
“It will be a great loss,” said George Atkins, chairman of the Partnership. “John has been a terrific public servant.”
Atkins praised Keenan for taking sometimes unpopular stands, such as his current support of a National Grid transmission upgrade through downtown streets against the wishes of some residents and business leaders, who were pushing for a more costly, but less disruptive, route under Salem Harbor. Several years ago, he also backed the homeless shelter’s move to the former St. Mary’s church property despite strong neighborhood opposition.
“There’s no question he was candid in his public positions,” Atkins said. “And that’s the way I think the job should be done. He took some slings and arrows with that approach, but I think it was the right one.”
Last March, Keenan issued a press release announcing he was weighing a number of options, including running for attorney general or Essex County district attorney.
Although he said he has a campaign war chest of about $150,000, Keenan said a statewide campaign for attorney general would have been difficult, and he abandoned any thought of running for district attorney when DA Jonathan Blodgett indicated he is running for re-election.
“Had he not run, I would have run,” Keenan said.
Keenan ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 1994 against incumbent Sen. Fred Berry and defeated then-City Councilor Joan Lovely (now the state senator) a decade later in a primary fight to succeed longtime state Rep. Mike Ruane. He breezed to victory in the final election against Republican and Green-Rainbow challengers.
He has been unopposed in his last four campaigns.
For the next year, Keenan said he plans to keep working as state representative and as a lawyer in the Salem office of Tinti, Quinn, Grover & Frey. After that, he said he could wind up in the public or private sector.
“I really don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s equal parts trepidation and equal parts excitement.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.