By Jesse Roman Staff writer
The Salem News
---- — This is the first of two profiles of the candidates for the 6th District congressional seat.
SALEM — It’s been a grinding, brutal campaign for the beleaguered congressman seated across the table.
John Tierney, who has represented the area in Congress for 16 years, feels railroaded, frustrated and tired of defending himself and his wife from a gambling scandal that has dogged them both for two years. So much so that, if he’d known, he’s not sure he would have run again.
“I didn’t know there would be $4 million spent attacking my wife when my opponent originally said he didn’t want to make family an issue,” Tierney said during a recent interview in a Salem coffee shop. “If I’d anticipated that millions would be spent to run this kind of nasty campaign, I would say it just wasn’t worth putting my wife through that.”
His wife, Patrice, spent a month in jail last year after admitting to being “willfully blind” to the true nature of her brother’s gambling business in Antigua and to helping him file false tax returns.
The congressman says neither of them knew the gambling business was illegal, and that his wife was trying to help her shattered family by using her brother’s money — up to $7 million funneled through a Salem bank account — to pay his mortgage and taxes and look after his children, his unwell mother and his estranged wife.
In return, prosecutors say, her brother gave her some $200,000 in gifts over the years.
Tierney has said his brother-in-law, who’d had legal problems before, had permission from the court to return to work in Antigua, at a position that everyone seemed to think at the time was a legal gambling business — so how could he or his wife have known?
He speaks endearingly and lovingly of his wife, and he is very protective. When a reporter points out that he has never had an opportunity to interview Patrice, the congressman says, “And you never will, either.”
There is real anguish when he speaks about what she’s endured in this yearlong 6th District race against Republican challenger Richard Tisei.
“It’s emotionally difficult to see your wife used as a political tool over and over,” Tierney said. “I never anticipated someone’s naked ambition would allow him to run such a campaign. ... It has been devastating to her.”
Tisei’s own campaign has largely stayed away from Tierney’s wife in its advertising, instead allowing Republican groups and super PACs to handle the job. Tierney doesn’t make a distinction, pointing out that Tisei hasn’t disavowed the attacks.
Tierney maintains that he doesn’t regret his actions, or his handling of the situation in the direct aftermath.
“We were open and honest,” he said, noting that he came to The Salem News for an interview when news of the scandal broke. “I’ve had over 100 interviews and meetings about this.”
“You cannot believe how frustrating it is,” he said, not just of the ads, but that no matter how he tries, some people are always going to think he is dishonest.
In it to win it
Although Tierney admits he might have erred in subjecting his wife to campaign attacks, his resolve to win has never been stronger.
By the time the mailings and ads began, not running was no longer an option. The campaign was too far along, and Democrats would have been left without a candidate, virtually ceding the race to Republicans, he said.
If Washington weren’t so toxic, if Republicans were more reasonable, Tierney insists that he would have thought harder about sitting out the race — he had a good life in Salem running his small law practice, he said. But now he is unwilling to stay idle and let the country’s future fall into the wrong hands.
Tisei would empower the people in Congress whom Tierney loathes — tea party Republicans like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor who, Tierney says, want to cut taxes for the wealthy, cut programs for the poor, cut education spending, introduce vouchers for Medicare and hurt the middle class.
“America doesn’t need that, and the people in the district don’t need that,” he said of the Republican agenda. “I owe it to them not to allow another tea party enabler.”
Tisei, who would be the first openly gay Republican congressman, is widely viewed as a moderate on social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, and conservative on fiscal issues. Tierney contends that, behind Tisei’s well-crafted veil of moderation, there is a right-wing Republican who will vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes on the rich and end Medicare as we know it.
“The press is not as nuanced on it as it should be on this,” Tierney said of Tisei. “If he’s gay, they say he must be a moderate. ... But if he is really against (the Republican agenda), he should not vote to put those people (Republican leadership) in charge.”
Tierney, who is 61, has spent 16 years in Congress, adhering to principles that could only be described as liberal. His main motivation to be in public office, he said, was the chance to help people.
“There is a real opportunity to do good, that’s what drove me to run for office,” he said. “That still exists.”
He has consistently voted against tax cuts for the rich.
He voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that lowered tax rates across the board and reduced treasury revenue by more than $1 trillion since then. In 2010, he voted against extending those tax cuts, bucking President Barack Obama and a majority of House Democrats. During that vote, Republicans threatened not to extend unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans unless the tax cuts were part of the deal. Despite pressure from his own party to take the compromise, Tierney stood firm in opposition.
Tierney has made education his signature issue, serving on the House Education and Workforce Committee. He is credited with helping write several bills aimed at making college more affordable with increased grants, reduced interest rates, loan forgiveness opportunities and incentives for colleges to lower tuition. The legislation also made it easier for graduates to pay off loans by capping their monthly loan bills at 15 percent of their incomes.
“Not everyone is born on equal footing financially, but everyone should have the opportunity to reach their goals,” said Tierney, who worked his way through Salem State and Suffolk University Law School.
On foreign affairs, Tierney notably voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, breaking with many of his fellow Democrats who, with Republicans, voted to give George W. Bush authority to invade. Tierney voted in 2007 to enact mandatory rest periods for soldiers between deployments in Iraq.
He also has been lauded for his work protecting veterans, including leading an investigation of subpar conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which led to reforms. As a member of the House Government Oversight Committee, Tierney has also been effective at weeding out fraud and waste in the military, investigating contracts and helping author legislation that led to creation of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.
Tisei has correctly pointed out that in 16 years in office, Tierney has passed just one bill through the U.S. House of Representatives with his name on it, a bill this year officially naming Salem the birthplace of the National Guard.
By comparison, some more junior members of Congress have not only gotten bills past the House, but signed by the president. William Keating, for instance, though just finishing his first term in office, has passed one bill into law: renaming a post office in Sagamore Beach.
Not surprising, Tierney said.
“Richard is being clever; most of the bills with a name attached are a post office renaming,” Tierney said, rattling off numerous bills that he has written that were eventually passed, but incorporated into larger bills. He said he has made major contributions to myriad other important bills, such as the sweeping Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Tierney takes credit for authoring the provision requiring insurance companies to use at least 80 percent of premiums on health care or to refund the difference. For the first time this year, insurance companies refunded more than $1 billion to the American people.
“I would compare my 16 years in Congress over his 26 years of obscurity any day of the week,” Tierney said, referring to Tisei’s time in the state Legislature.