By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Just when you were done with politics.
The Massachusetts House has set a date for a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Joyce Spiliotis last November. A general election is set for April 2, with a primary election on March 5. Candidates will be expected to file 150 signatures by Jan. 22, according to Brian McNiff of the secretary of state’s office.
”They can’t waste time,” he said, noting the already-looming deadlines.
The district is exclusive to Peabody, although it includes only wards 1, 2, 3 and 4 and precincts 1 and 3 of Ward 5, McNiff added. Areas of West Peabody, including Ward 6 and the remainder of Ward 5, are part of the district represented by Ted Speliotis of Danvers.
Veteran School Committee member Dave McGeney, who once ran for mayor, predicts that despite the deadlines, the race is likely to draw as many as seven candidates.
”It’s a wild card race,” he added. “There will be a very low voter turnout.” That gives those with an existing campaign organization a tremendous advantage. “Whoever can identify their voters and get them out.”
A few thousand votes could be the difference, McGeney explained. He pointed to Dave Gravel, a former school board member and at-large city councilor, along with current School Committee member Beverley Griffin-Dunne, as examples of candidates having an edge because both have previously won citywide elections.
On the other hand, McGeney predicts that one or more of the candidates will be someone who’s name isn’t even being considered.
”I’m in and I’m on my way to City Hall,” said Dunne Thursday afternoon. A Democrat, she expressed the hope of following in the footsteps of Spiliotis, known for her hands-on work on behalf of constituents. “Running for Joyce’s seat is difficult. ... She was a very dear friend.”
Dunne stressed her intention, if elected, to follow Spiliotis’ example in keeping close touch with Peabody officials and always determining what activities on Beacon Hill best suit the city. Having fielded a lot of supportive calls, she promised an energetic winter campaign. “I’ll be wearing out boots instead of shoes.”
Gravel, meanwhile, already had his papers by afternoon. “I’ve formed a committee,” he said. “I’m going to be holding a kick-off event on Jan. 25.” Gravel laughed when it was noted that he will have to have his signatures back before the kick-off. “I was surprised to see the date come so early,” he said.
Unenrolled, Gravel will be running as an independent. That likely assures him a place on the final ballot but could deny him the support of members of the majority party. If elected, he said, “I would obviously caucus with the Democrats.” He was a party member until recently.
Former ward councilor Jim Moutsoulas described himself as just about ready to throw his hat in the ring. “I’m interested in the job,” he said. “I’m putting a committee together. That’s what I have been doing for the past month. And I will make an announcement shortly.”
He added that he was confident of raising enough money to be competitive.
Another potential candidate, with a citywide victory under her belt, is at-large City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin. In fact, Manning-Martin ran for the seat against Spiliotis a decade ago, losing in a tight, hard-fought race.
Currently, she has not decided to give it another try. “I am humbled by the number of calls, texts and emails I’ve gotten encouraging me to run,” she said. “Some of them from well-known power brokers. ... It’s a good feeling.” Stressing her intention to put the people of Peabody first, Manning-Martin notes that she has a campaign organization and is confident she could get operational at short notice.
On the Republican side, longtime activist Kosma Evangelidis could not be reached for comment. West Peabody resident Gregg Bunn has been mentioned by some as having an interest in running as a Republican.
Also thought to be potential candidates are two former contestants for the office. John Slattery won it and held it in the 1990s, but he’s since suffered defeats in runs for lieutenant governor, mayor and state senator. Former mayoral aide Sean Fitzgerald, now the town manager of Plaistow, N.H., gave an incumbent Spiliotis a tough fight in 2006. Little more than a year ago he lost to Mayor Ted Bettencourt in the contest for mayor.
Neither Slattery nor Fitzgerald could be reached for comment.
City Councilor Tom Gould said he gave the race strong consideration. Scooping ice cream at his store, Treadwell’s on Margin Street, he explained that the demands of business, the council and family were such that he had decided against running.
For his part, the man with the best citywide organization, Bettencourt, declared himself only a spectator to all this, backing no one at this juncture. “I expect to see a robust number of candidates,” he said.