By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Novice candidate Leah Cole shocked her establishment opponent Greg Bunn last night, taking the Republican primary for state representative by 52 votes.
Cole will go on to battle school board veteran Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, a Democrat, and unenrolled City Councilor David Gravel in the April 2 special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Joyce Spiliotis in November.
That was the good news for Cole. Less encouraging was a Republican turnout that failed to reach 1,000 voters (out of roughly 2,500 registered Republicans and vastly more eligible unenrolled voters).
Fewer Democrats voted, but even though she was unopposed, Griffin Dunne managed to garner more votes, 606, than either Bunn (460) or Cole (512).
City Clerk Tim Spanos set the overall turnout at a dismal 6 percent.
Cole’s campaign manager, Ryan Chamberland, made the victory announcement to a cheering group squeezed into Champions Pub on Foster Street. “I would like to officially introduce you to the Republican nominated for the 12th Essex District — Leah Cole!”
“I couldn’t have done it without you guys,” said Cole, whose small stature had her almost lost for a moment in the crush of winter coats. “We went out to the grass roots.” She credited hard work and door-to-door campaigning for her success, as well as a promise to fight tax increases.
“And a lot of people were very excited to see someone young running for office,” said Cole, who is 24.
It might be a concern for Cole that a good portion of her supporters came from out of town. Chamberland, whose work was financed by the Republican City Committee of Marlborough, hails from Blackstone.
“I like what she had to say,” said supporter Larry Sposato of Bellingham. He cited her interest in libertarian principles of low taxes, small government and her disinterest in social issues.
Also attending the celebration was former Navy Seal Gabriel Gomez of Cohasset, a Republican candidate in the June 25 special election for the United States Senate.
“It shows a lot of enthusiasm on the Republican side,” he said of Cole’s victory, downplaying the slim turnout.
In a special election, organization was and is considered crucial. But Cole dismissed the idea that her organization’s reliance on out-of-town support makes her vulnerable in the final election. She noted triumphantly that “enough people” in Peabody showed interest in her candidacy last night.
She added, “After the primary, it gets a little easier because you can get more support from the Republican Party.”
At Bunn campaign headquarters in an upstairs space on Walnut Street, a handful of grim-faced supporters sat on folding chairs, ignoring the blue sheet cake with the candidate’s name on it — just a few small slices were missing.
“I’m really proud of the way our organization conducted itself,” said Bunn, who pledged to support Cole. Bunn had had the support of the Republican City Committee chairman and had ties to former GOP candidate for governor Charlie Baker. Yet, he said softly, “We were heavily outspent. We created our organization. ... And we were only 52 votes off from someone who had the support of a national organization.”
Bunn’s campaign manager, Joe Walsh, had noted earlier that Cole was running with the backing of people previously allied with libertarian Republican Ron Paul.
“Turnout hurt us,” Bunn said.
For her part, Griffin Dunne was upbeat, while quickly adding, “Tomorrow, we’re back on the campaign trail.” She was well aware that she’d garnered more votes than Cole. “I’ve got good people helping me.”
Looking back, Griffin Dunne added, “Leah Cole and Greg Bunn have been very nice.” They’ve been nice to her and to each other, she pointed out. “It’s been a very good race so far.”
She expects nothing to change in the final.
Gravel, who wasn’t on any ballot last night, was cheered by Griffin Dunne’s prediction of a polite contest.
“I have a race to run on April 2,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work hard and knock on doors and go out to talk to the voters. I’m going to do my best to win this race.”
Republican primary results
Greg Bunn 460
Leah Cole 512