By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — The surprising victory of Republican Leah Cole in the special election for state representative on Tuesday night suggests wide-ranging implications for Peabody.
While the triumph of a Republican in a solidly Democratic city was a blow to the Democrats, questions are being raised about the city’s future clout in a solidly Democratic Legislature and whether the Cole victory was more than a fluke.
The election was a three-way contest involving Cole, Democrat Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne and former Democrat David Gravel, who ran as an unenrolled candidate.
From the start, Republicans saw the possibility that in a low-turnout special election, Griffin Dunne and Gravel could split the Democratic vote, allowing Cole to win. As a result, GOP money and manpower arrived from across the state, while the candidate, a relative unknown in Peabody, pressed her opposition to new taxes.
The Republican hunch appears to have been a shrewd one.
Jarrod Hochman, a school board member and chairman of the Republican City Committee, even sees the possibility that Cole’s election represents a sea change in attitudes toward his party. Voters are beginning to realize, he said, “we can’t expect people who are struggling to continue to foot the bills for public spending. ... (Election) night was the beginning of that message.”
“It was a perfect storm,” said John McCarthy, a Republican candidate who had run unsuccessfully for state representative in the past. “With the governor’s big tax increase and his pipe-dream rail line and the government waste, which they’re not dealing with, her message is one of the reasons she won.”
He was less assertive, however, on the possibility that this election, where Cole got little more than a third of the vote, might constitute a breakthrough for Republicans.
“Republicans have done very well in these special elections,” he said. “We take the resources of the party and focus them on that one race.” But, he added, “It’s tough when everyone shows up.”
Mike Schulze, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, noted that all three candidates ran “bang-up” campaigns, with phone calls coming to his house from each, including a taped message on Cole’s behalf from former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.
“She really did a good job closing,” he said of Cole.
Her victory, however, has resulted in recriminations among Democrats. Schulze oversaw unanimous committee support for Griffin Dunne but declined to give her his explicit personal endorsement. Consequently, some party regulars are calling for his resignation as chairman.
Other Democrats who openly supported Gravel are also being criticized, Schulze said.
“I’m getting blamed for a lot of this,” he said, reciting all the aid that Griffin Dunne got from the party. (Griffin Dunne thanked the party on election night.) He believes the Democrats were undone by the low turnout.
“What do you want from us? The thing is (Cole) had 75 more votes,” Schulze said.
He predicts the 24-year-old nurse’s tenure on Beacon Hill will be brief. Moreover, he thinks the city will suffer with Cole in the Legislature.
Recalling election night, he said, “The poor mayor looked like his dog died. He needs someone who is going to go in and fight for grants. ... If she’s not going to be able to do that, we lose a year and half.”
But Mayor Ted Bettencourt thinks Schulze misread his reaction. If he was downcast, Bettencourt said, it was merely a sympathetic reaction to the hard defeats suffered by longtime colleagues Gravel and Griffin Dunne.
“My heart went out to the two of them,” he said.
Bettencourt was careful to avoid endorsing anyone prior to the vote.
As for Cole, he praises her campaign.
“She was out there, and her people were out there,” he said. “I look forward to working with her.”
He denies any misgivings regarding her clout in Boston and suggests that the Republican victory might not be all that surprising given Peabody’s past support for Scott Brown and Charlie Baker.
Democratic state Rep. Ted Speliotis, who serves Danvers and West Peabody, also dismisses such notions. He points to the recent decision of the School Building Authority to cofinance the new Higgins School as evidence that such things have little impact.
“A school is not a partisan issue,” he said.
Speliotis also invokes his own growing clout in the Legislature as an influential committee chairman.
“It’s my place to help the city,” he said, and pledged to work with Cole in doing so.