It's not easy to find success as a Republican politician in Massachusetts, but a veteran state lawmaker thinks his achievements at the Democrat-controlled Statehouse make him the best person to break the 13-year famine of Republican congressmen from Massachusetts.
Richard Tisei, a 26-year veteran of Beacon Hill who ran for lieutenant governor last year, is no stranger to working with the other party — an attribute he hopes will be attractive to those tiring of the paralyzing partisanship of Capitol Hill.
"When you are outnumbered 35 to 5 and you have what you think are great ideas, you don't get beaten down," Tisei said.
Tisei most recently served a four-year stint as minority leader in the Senate. Now he is taking on another challenge as a Republican candidate for the newly configured 6th District represented by veteran Democratic Congressman John Tierney.
Changes in the district and the legal troubles of Tierney's wife and brothers-in-law make him the most vulnerable to a Republican challenge, according to some political operatives. Some big-name Democrats say Tisei's position may be strengthened by the politicking skills he learned from working with Democrats in the Massachusetts Senate and House.
Tom Birmingham, a Democrat who served as state Senate president between 1996 and 2002, remembers Tisei as a productive voice of the opposition party.
"I had a cordial, courteous, professional relationship with Richard, as I think most Democrats did," said Birmingham.
Raised in Wakefield, Tisei was the youngest Republican ever elected to the state Legislature when he won the 22nd Middlesex House seat in 1984 at the age of 22. The American University graduate first got interested in politics after a day visit to the Statehouse while still attending Lynnfield High School.
Now 49, Tisei left the Legislature to run for lieutenant governor on the 2010 Republican ticket with Charlie Baker. Tisei disclosed he was gay prior to the campaign, with little fanfare and even less reaction from his party.
Tisei says he was able to succeed at the Statehouse by offering productive alternatives while working on legislation.
"I learned how to work with people ... how to make my point in a way that wasn't divisive," he said.
While representing the Lynnfield-Melrose area at the Statehouse, Tisei was able to work his ideas into two bills mostly written by the Democratic majority.
An amendment authored by Tisei that made it easier for qualified candidates to become teachers became part of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.
"I offered the alternative certification proposal that was included as part of the law," Tisei said. "There were a lot of terrific people out there that could be teachers, but there were so many barriers to stopping them."
Democratic majorities on Beacon Hill also passed Tisei's welfare fraud amendment to the 1995 Welfare Reform Act.
"The anti-fraud positions were something that I offered and were adopted as part of the law," he said. "At the time when it was passed in Massachusetts, it was considered landmark for the rest of the country."
While Tisei was able to weave his fiscally conservative ideas into some of the statewide bills, most of the people who have worked with him first mention his constituent services.
Former state Rep. Paul Casey, a Democrat who represented Stoneham for more than 20 years, credits Tisei for his work on reopening the Stone Zoo, remodeling the Stoneham senior center and acquiring funding to turn a blighted area into the Stoneham Town Commons.
"As a good Democrat I should be waving the Democratic flag and saying only the Democrats work," Casey said. "But across the board people will say this: (Tisei) is someone that you can sit down with and get things done."
Richard Howard, the mayor of Malden, gives Tisei credit for securing money to rebuild the Malden school system.
"Richard was such a great resource for the city of Malden," Howard said.
Howard, a Democrat, wouldn't endorse Tisei over Tierney, but did offer that "as much I know about Richard, I can say he would be good at any governmental position."
Knew the ropes
Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan recalls how Tisei rescued an embattled middle school project from convoluted red tape after the state had revoked already guaranteed funding based on faulty calculations.
"If it wasn't for his patient ombudsmanship, knowing who to call in every agency, that school would have never gotten done," Dolan said.
Dolan, who got into hot water with the state Democratic Party after he endorsed Tisei for Massachusetts Senate, described Tisei as a sincere, pragmatic politician.
"He's always someone who's quiet, like Roosevelt said, but carries a big stick. He's not bombastic, but he's very good at building relationships where people respect him," Dolan said.
Democrats who worked with Tisei don't buy into all of his ideas — he is still a Republican, after all — but many described him as a different type of conservative.
"Unlike a lot of Republicans, I think that he actually believes in government," Dolan said. "He just believes that government needs to be pragmatic and make sense."
Right now Tisei believes the best way to maintain necessary government programs is by cutting the deficit and revitalizing the economy.
"We are in the 46th month of a downturn," he said. "Our problems are systemic in our economy, and if we can't get our economy going to start creating jobs again, anybody that depends upon the government in any program is going to be in jeopardy. That money isn't going to be there."
Is Tierney vulnerable?
Tisei is hoping his message will resound in the newly redrawn 6th District, which gained the swing towns of Billerica and Tewksbury, and part of Andover. Those towns all went for Republican Scott Brown in the special election for U.S. senator last year.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant, said the redistricting changes, the lingering legal issues surround Tierney's wife and Tisei's strength as a Republican candidate make Tierney's position vulnerable.
Tierney, who beat Republican challenger Bill Hudak with 57 percent of the vote in 2010, has been questioned about his involvement in a tax fraud case that led to a 30-day jail sentence for his wife last year.
"Any one of those things by themselves wouldn't matter, but together there might be a challenge," Marsh said. "In my analysis, that's the one seat Democrats should be worried about."
Tierney declined to comment for this story.
Tisei said he isn't daunted by running against an eight-term incumbent Democrat in a liberal state like Massachusetts.
"I had 10 percent registered Republicans in my district. When I represented that area, anytime I ran was an uphill battle. But I think that people appreciated that I was independent-minded and I did serve the district," Tisei said. "I represented the people."