By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Political newcomer and Republican Leah Cole has stunned the experts again by winning the special election to fill the state representative seat left vacant by the death of Joyce Spiliotis.
Cole, 24, did it in a three-way race that drew less than 6,000 people and where no candidate collected more than 2,000 votes. She beat two well-known Peabody challengers, school board member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, who had the backing of the Democratic Party, and City Councilor David Gravel, who had pledged to caucus with the Democrats.
City Clerk Tim Spanos released the unofficial tally at 1,878 for Cole, 1,805 for Griffin Dunne and 1,655 for Gravel.
“Leah! Leah! Leah!” packed supporters chanted as the victor entered Champions Pub.
Standing on a chair in order to be seen, Cole thanked her team and shouted, “We’re sending a message tonight to Beacon Hill.”
Explaining her victory, she said, “I worked hard. I met the people.” She acknowledged the odds she’d overcome, “I had no name recognition. I was a first-time candidate.” But despite that, she added, “My message resonated.”
That message, she declared, was first and foremost opposition to taxes proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick. “Plus the wasteful spending.” She cited news articles about the misuse of welfare benefit cards. “People are just getting tired of it.” Curbing the abuse of those EBT cards will be a prime concern as she takes her seat.
Cole has a daunting task ahead of her in keeping the seat, as it’s not likely she will again face a low turnout, three-way race featuring a Democrat and a former Democrat. But she expects to win over more voters in the weeks to come.
“My voting record will speak for itself,” she said. “I want to vote the way people want me to vote.”
As in her upset primary victory over Greg Bunn, Cole’s effort was supported by money and a fair number of people from outside Peabody, including campaign manager Ryan Chamberland, a selectman in Blackstone in Worcester County. Republicans saw the clash between Griffin Dunne and Gravel as a way to split the Democrat vote and pick up the seat.
Dustin Romiero, 17, of Douglas, who described himself as a friend of Chamberland, was a campaign worker and part of the celebration.
“I met her (Cole) three months ago,” he said. “I call her one of my friends.”
Closer to home, Peabody school board member Jarrod Hochman, chairman of the Republican City Committee, declared, “It’s a great night for the city and for the state. ... Now, she has to stand up for what she ran on.”
The Cole victory was a particular shock at Griffin Dunne’s campaign headquarters in the AOH. Tension grew as the numbers came in just after the polls closed at 8 p.m. and were recorded on a board. Then cheers went up as Griffin Dunne appeared to be taking a lead.
“All right,” she cautioned. “Every kid in college that’s taken math — add ’em again. ... It’s close. It’s close. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but hang in there.”
Managing to maintain a sunny exterior, Griffin Dunne thanked her supporters after announcing, “It looks like Leah Cole has won.”
While she all but ruled out asking for a recount, she indicated that she will try again. “In 2014, we’re coming right back here.”
“It is what it is,” Gravel said.
Friends streaming out of the Knights of Columbus Hall stopped to say goodbye and offer him consolation.
“Good for her,” Gravel said of Cole, while suggesting that much of her message, including low taxes, has little chance of success in a Legislature packed with Democrats.
“We worked as hard as we could,” he continued. “I don’t know one other thing we could have done. We ran a really positive campaign.”
He expressed a willingness to go right back to work on the City Council.