This is the second of four profiles of the Democratic candidates for state Senate in the 2nd Essex District. The nominee will be elected in the Democratic primary on Thursday, Sept. 6.
PEABODY — Mary-Ellen Manning is nothing if not passionate. She’s not afraid to speak up, not afraid to throw barbs, not afraid to ruffle a few feathers if she believes it is for a just cause and a worthy outcome.
“I’m always glad to be in the minority if my position is for decency, common sense and fairness,” said Manning, a civil rights attorney from Peabody and one of four candidates eyeing the state Senate seat now held by retiring Sen. Fred Berry. “The people of the commonwealth are tired of the go-along-to-get-along politicians they’ve sadly grown accustomed to.”
Manning, the local representative on the Governor’s Council, is the daughter of a former Peabody elementary school principal and the oldest of four siblings; her sister Anne is a Peabody city councilor.
Manning has positioned herself in this campaign as a budget hawk, someone who is fed up with government waste and has pledged to make the cuts she feels are necessary to preserve essential services. Her passion for efficiency was honed when, after graduating from Brandeis University, she worked at a consulting firm, traveling the country crunching numbers and helping businesses trim fat and stay competitive. One assignment at an AT&T factory in Shreveport, La., sticks in her mind.
“It was tough, but if the factory closed, the entire town would have gone under,” Manning said. “It’s very similar with state government, just on a larger scale. We need to set priorities so there is enough money available for the safety net, to build a sustainable economy, for the roads and public safety. We have to make some hard decisions.”
After four years as a consultant, Manning shifted her focus to the law.
“I was traveling five days a week, and I realized that (consulting) was not meaningful enough for me. I went to law school so I could protect people’s civil rights, take on discrimination cases and fight for people who cannot fight for themselves,” she said.
After earning a law degree from Northeastern University, she worked for a private firm, then started her own practice in Peabody in 1994. Her office is now in Salem.
During her career, Manning successfully represented one of the Framingham Eight, a group of women imprisoned for killing their partners after suffering through years of domestic abuse. The woman’s sentence was commuted.
On the Governor’s Council
Her interest in the Governor’s Council was sparked when she argued the Framingham Eight case in front of the board in the 1990s. Like many, she wasn’t familiar with the council, but immediately saw its influence. The council has many roles, but its main one is approving judicial nominations made by the governor.
Manning challenged then-Lawrence Mayor Patricia Dowling for a spot on the council in 1998 and lost, but succeeded in her second bid in the 2000 election. Manning described the council as a rubber stamp for the governor’s appointments when she arrived there in 2001.
“There are several councilors who haven’t met a candidate they didn’t like — and I’m talking in 15 years,” Manning said in a 2003 interview.
She set out to reset the culture of the council, in a role she describes as being the “loyal opposition.” She votes yes on three-quarters of the nominations, she said, but there is a legitimate discussion and investigation before any judge is accepted.
“I set things in motion, and now there is a groundswell of people willing to buck authority,” she said.
George Cronin, administrative secretary to the council for the past 25 years, said he agrees with Manning’s assessment.
“Her presence here has definitely led to a new situation where there are more (judges) being rejected or in danger of being rejected,” Cronin said, adding that she has also gone after unfair privileges for judges in the pension system. “She is an extremely diligent elected official. If she thinks something is not right, she will not let it go.”
For instance, she voted against the nomination of Judge Dennis Curran in 2002 because it took then-Gov. Jane Swift 14 months to nominate him after a vacancy, and Curran had made substantial campaign contributions to the governor during that time. In writing, Manning accused Swift of holding back the nominee to allow time for her to dangle “desirable courthouse appointments ... before scores of lawyers as attractive bait to produce election workers, fundraisers and campaign money.”
Legislation was later adopted forbidding judicial nominees from donating to the governor, lieutenant governor or governor’s councilors.
The Governor’s Council “brushes up against every aspect of government ... but it’s a limited role,” Manning said when asked why she is seeking a Senate seat. “... It is a frustrating position because you can’t have as significant an impact at the constituent level.”
When Berry announced he would not seek re-election, Manning jumped in headfirst.
Like her fellow candidates, she supports gay marriage and keeping abortion legal, though she believes her viewpoint on abortion is more conservative. On fiscal policy, she seems further to the right, but still holds many Democratic values when it comes to the need for social services.
“I’d say I’m a moderate. I’m willing to listen to various points of view. I am independent-thinking,” she said.
“My point of view is the point of view of most people. I want lower taxes, better and more jobs. I think the government is bloated, and I want to preserve essential services. It’s not something you can easily boil down to a bumper sticker.”
Manning wants to “unify the district and set priorities,” looking at each municipal master plan and harmonizing them and district’s goals “so we are speaking with one, independent voice.”
She is confident her life experiences will translate to effective leadership in the Senate.
“A senator has to be a leader who listens to the public and reflects back to the Senate what the constituents want out of government. I have the skill set,” she said, listing off tenacity, leadership and desire.
“The public can trust me to do what’s right.”
Staff writer Jesse Roman can be reached at email@example.com.