By Matthew K. Roy
SALEM — It was the refrain of the song that welcomed a jubilant John Tierney to the stage last night inside the Hawthorne Hotel's grand ballroom in downtown Salem.
"Still the one."
And despite an aggressive challenge from Republican Bill Hudak and legal troubles for his wife that surfaced in the last month of the campaign, Tierney remains just that in the eyes of 6th District voters. With 86 percent of precincts reporting, the Salem Democrat won an eighth term with 58 percent of the vote to Hudak's 42 percent.
Tierney, 59, stepped to the podium, his wife, Patrice, by his side, and thanked his cheering friends, supporters and campaign staff.
"It was a very difficult year electorally across the board," he said. "You have put us on your shoulders and carried us across the finish line and, for that, we are forever grateful."
Tierney won Salem, Peabody, Beverly and Danvers. He struggled in the North Shore's smaller communities, losing Topsfield, Wenham, Hamilton and Boxford.
"I have to admit I was a little nervous," Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said before Tierney took the stage. "It only makes the victory that much sweeter."
It was less than a month ago that Patrice Tierney pleaded guilty to four counts of aiding and abetting the filing of false federal tax returns. Federal authorities found that she was managing an account full of illegal gambling profits generated by her brother, Robert Eremian. Patrice Tierney faces sentencing in January.
The congressman was never implicated or investigated, and voters chose to stand behind him.
"Bill Hudak didn't realize that he was taking on the entire city of Salem and the entire North Shore when he decided to run against John Tierney," Driscoll said.
It's typically easier than yesterday was for Tierney.
After winning the 6th District seat in 1996, defeating Peter Torkildsen by 360 votes, he cruised to double-digit victories that, in recent elections, affirmed his popularity and strong hold on the seat.
He won by 40 points in 2004 against Nahant lawyer Stephen O'Malley Jr. and again by 40 points in 2006 over retired airline pilot Rick Barton. The margin was similar two years ago, when he bested Richard Baker Jr. of West Newbury.
Hudak, however, was far more invested in the race than his recent Republican predecessors. His campaign began in August 2009, when he seized upon opposition to the health care reform law and organized a well-attended rally outside Tierney's Peabody Square office. Hudak stood on the roof of his Ford Expedition and challenged the congressman to hold a town hall meeting.
The Boxford lawyer then worked 15 hours a day trying to unseat Tierney. He committed $235,000 of his own money to his campaign and, based on recent filings, outspent his opponent. Hudak dropped $628,739 to Tierney's $611,739, according to the website OpenSecrets.org.
But the rookie candidate had his share of missteps. In the wake of Scott Brown's election, Hudak had to apologize to the senator-elect and retract a press release touting Brown's endorsement of him because it included comments that were not made or approved by Brown or his staff.
He couldn't shake a connection to "birthers" first highlighted in a 2008 article in a local weekly newspaper article that asserted Hudak thought then-candidate Barack Obama was born in Kenya. And Hudak faced intense criticism for a pre-election lawn sign in 2008 that showed Obama made to look like terrorist Osama bin Laden.
In the final weeks, the campaign took on a nasty tone with both candidates producing negative ads attacking each other. Hudak filed and then withdrew a libel lawsuit against Tierney.
Last night, Tierney did not want to reflect on the difficulties of the campaign.
"Let's talk about the election," he said. "The people in this district have known what kind of representation they've got for 14 years. They know it's been honest. They know it's been with integrity and they know it's been with a passion for the issues that matter to them."
Tierney promised to go back to Washington and fight for the middle class, for "Main Street."
"Boy is this sweet," Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti said to the crowd. "You know, together we can, and together we can put that tea party to bed."
"Coming into this election cycle, I think all of us were a little bit nervous," state Rep. John Keenan said. "There was a tremendous wave throughout the country of anti-incumbent attitudes, but it didn't reach Massachusetts."