By Alan Burke
---- — BOSTON — For all the pomp and ritual connected to the Massachusetts Legislature, new Peabody state Rep. Leah Cole didn’t forget why she went to Beacon Hill.
After she was sworn in by Gov. Deval Patrick yesterday, Cole made her maiden speech to the House, recalling her campaign in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Joyce Spiliotis last November.
“When I visited so many of my neighbors,” she said, “... they told me that they were concerned about taxes being raised again. These families’ budgets cannot be stretched any further. My plan is to roll up my sleeves and put in the long hours to find savings so we don’t have to raise the tax burden in the commonwealth.”
As a Republican, Cole is now part of a small minority within the Legislature, perhaps limiting what influence she might have on taxes. On the other hand, her swearing-in was a bipartisan affair. She sat on the rostrum prior to the governor’s arrival in the chamber chatting with Rep. Ted Speliotis of Danvers, a Democrat whose constituency also includes West Peabody.
Also looking on from the gallery was another Democrat, Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who explained that he’s already conferred closely with Cole about city issues, including a plan to move the chiefs of police and fire out of civil service, a plan needing the approval of the Legislature.
“Leah shows a lot of passion for the city,” Bettencourt said, “and that’s what I’m thrilled to see.” Cooperation is vital, he indicated, “for the city to succeed. ... I’ve sat with her several times now.”
Also watching was Peabody School Committee member Jarrod Hochman, chairman of the Republican City Committee.
“It’s nice to see the bipartisan effort on the part of our elected officials,” he said.
It was only because she was chosen in a special election that Cole was invited to make brief remarks to her colleagues, who filled less than half of the seats in the historic hall. Also sworn in at the event was Everett Rep. Wayne Matewski, who spoke of his election, which involved a recount.
Meanwhile, victory for the 24-year-old Cole, who had never run for office before, came as the Democratic candidate, Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, and the unenrolled candidate, a former Democrat, David Gravel, split a majority of votes between them.
Thanking her supporters, Cole recalled, “When it was cold and snowing and after putting in long hours at work, they kept me motivated to go out door-knocking no matter how bad it got.”
Those hours at work, Cole noted after the ceremony, will continue as she will remain employed on a per diem basis as a licensed practical nurse in Danvers. But she stressed that her first priority is to set up her office in order to provide constituent services.
“I’m just very excited, and I can’t wait,” she said. “My main focus is making sure I’m available for my constituents.”
In that effort, Cole has taken as chief of staff her former campaign manager, Ryan Chamberland of Blackstone, who retains his own position as a selectman in that Worcester County town. Previously, she had expressed an interest in finding a Peabody resident for the job, but Chamberland’s experience and success in the campaign recommended him.
“When she offered the job, I said ‘absolutely,’” he explained as Cole posed for pictures in the Statehouse lobby. “I interned up here, so I know my way around.”
Cole’s victory came with a remarkable level of support from outside Peabody. For example, the Marlborough Republican City Committee paid Chamberland’s salary as campaign manager.
Prior to the swearing-in, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo introduced the parents of the new representative, Chuck and Mary Cole of Peabody. While some saw Cole’s victory last month as an upset, Mary Cole is less surprised.
“She worked hard at getting her message out, and I’m proud of her,” she told a reporter. She added that even as Cole has no previous political experience, “She has always been one of the people who knows what’s going on.”
And if her campaign seemed a long shot, her mother was always confident that “If anyone can do it — she can.”