SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 21, 2014

Peabody rep surprised by help from both sides of aisle

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — When she goes to take her seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Leah Cole is careful to bring her ID. Sometimes, she’s stopped at the door, “because they think I’m an aide,” she said.

It’s a minor inconvenience for the 25-year-old Republican, who is one of the youngest members of the House, having taken office in a special election last spring following the death of Rep. Joyce Spiliotis. What’s more, she said, “It’s more than likely” she will seek re-election this year.

“It was a learning curve,” Cole said of her early days on Beacon Hill. She admits to moments wondering how she managed to find herself under the historic golden dome. “But I took it all in, and I had a lot of people helping me,” she said, mentioning GOP leader Brad Jones of North Reading, Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton) and Rep. Ted Speliotis, the Democrat representing Danvers and West Peabody.

While Cole’s election gave a boost to beleaguered Republicans statewide, she was surprised at “how much both sides do work together. I was prepared to be battling with the Democrats.” Instead, many issues are nonpartisan, she said, and Democrats have been almost as willing as her party colleagues to offer help.

After nine months on the job, Cole cited among her accomplishments winning $25,000 for Peabody to finance last year’s series of special elections.

“I was proud of that,” she said. She also supported the mayor’s successful home rule petition to remove the police and fire chiefs from Civil Service.

Both on and off Beacon Hill, Cole has opposed last summer’s bill allowing the gas tax to rise with the increase in inflation. To make the point, she’s been out collecting signatures for an initiative petition to repeal automatic increases.

“I just don’t think that’s right,” she said.

Cole’s election came partly out of a fortuitous alignment of the political planets. Last spring, a Democratic candidate and an independent split the majority of the votes in an election that drew fewer than 6,000 voters. That allowed Cole, a political newcomer who was virtually unknown in the city, to take the election with fewer than 1,900 votes. Additionally, she relied on strong support from GOP activists from outside of Peabody, particularly from U.S. Sen. Ron Paul’s Libertarian wing. Thus far, she has collected a war chest of $5,000 for next November.

With twice-monthly office hours at Brooksby Village and City Hall, Cole believes she is establishing a local reputation for constituent services. One-on-one meetings are arranged for those who miss the regular sessions.

“I don’t want them to think they’re not being heard,” she said.

For that matter, Cole believes Peabody residents from all parties are ready for her message. “It’s a city of hard-working Democrats. ... They just want to see an efficient government,” she said.

She said she’s worked well with Mayor Ted Bettencourt and is supporting his effort to gain 10 additional liquor licenses in order to attract restaurants to the downtown.

“I talk to him a couple of times a month,” she said.

She has critics. Former Democratic City Committee chairman Mike Schulze said, “We’ve seen her here at a few functions, but I didn’t see her at the mayor’s inaugural.” (Cole said she was on vacation.) Schulze acknowledged her support for the mayor’s agenda, but added, “She wasn’t alone in that.”

And he decries her outside supporters, suggesting they support extreme positions on issues like guns.

“She’s representing Westboro Republicans,” he said.

On the other hand, Jarrod Hochman, chairman of the Republican City Committee, said, “She’s done a phenomenal job.” She brings something that a Democrat would not, he said. “Her stand as far as reducing taxes is something she ran on and something she has advocated since being elected.”

Cole continues to work as a licensed practical nurse a few days a week and says it helps in understanding issues like health care. Ironically, one of  the youngest House members is on the Elder Affairs Committee. Moreover, the people who approach a representative with problems are often the same types she sees as a nurse. Her maiden speech supported an amendment calling for ways to reuse certain medical devices, such as crutches and wheelchairs. It was adopted.

Looking ahead, she is optimistic that Peabody voters will appreciate her efforts.

“I’ve done what I said I would do,” she said.

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.