By Jesse Roman
---- — This is the third 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.
SALEM — Plenty of elected officials are louder than Salem City Councilor Joan Lovely, but it would be hard to find one who works harder.
Less than 10 years ago, Lovely, a 54-year-old mother of three, didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. She is now a lawyer, arguably the most popular city councilor in Salem and a candidate for state senator.
“It’s just who I am; it’s my makeup. I do everything 100 percent,” Lovely said in an interview. “Every year in Salem before I put my name on the ballot, I ask myself if I am ready to commit to another two years. If I can’t commit myself to that level, I don’t do it.”
Now Lovely is trying to commit herself to a whole lot more. She is one of four Democratic candidates vying to take over for Sen. Fred Berry, who will retire at the end of the year after 30 years representing the 2nd Essex District on Beacon Hill. Lovely said she’s up for the challenge.
“Fifteen years on the City Council has really prepared me to go to the next level,” she said.
During that time, Lovely has forged a reputation as a relentless worker who listens to constituents and shows up for nearly every meeting — large or small — that happens in Salem.
She’s campaigning with the same gusto.
Since the beginning of the race, she has walked 500 miles and knocked on 7,000 doors, according to the pedometer she wears on her hip.
“She’s not going to be outworked by the other candidates,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who served with Lovely on the council.
Through her career on the City Council, Lovely has relied on her convictions and her constituents to guide her, she said.
In 1999, she voted to allow the Peabody Essex Museum to take over New Liberty Street for its expansion — an extremely heated issue that divided the public and council.
“I have lived with that vote for a while,” she said, calling it her most memorable. “People were upset, but in the long run I’m glad I voted the way I did. We have a world-class facility there now and a great anchor for our downtown. ... It was the right thing to do.”
In 2010, Lovely voted against the 0.75 percent tax increase on restaurant bills and a 1 percent increase on hotel taxes, then changed her stance, later casting the deciding vote in a 6-5 outcome approving the new taxes. She said she is against tax increases in general and that thinking led to her initial vote, but she was swayed by public opinion.
“I usually wait to hear from people before I say yea or nay, but it was surprisingly quiet; I received maybe three ‘no’ phone calls before the vote,” she said.
After the vote against the tax increase, however, “the phone rang off the hook with people asking, ‘Why didn’t you support that?’”
Constituents in Salem, a decidedly tourist-based economy, felt the tax would fall mostly on out-of-towners and would help keep down property taxes for locals, she said.
Lovely again bowed to public opinion in 2007 when she voted in subcommittee to approve a pay increase for the mayor — then the lowest-paid mayor on the North Shore — then voted against the pay raise two weeks later after a public outcry.
Later that year, Lovely went toe-to-toe with Driscoll over Salem’s controversial trash fees, voting to repeal the fees against the mayor’s wishes. Despite her opposition, the fees remain. Though they don’t always agree, the mayor said she has a lot of respect for Lovely.
“Joan is always fair and reasonable in the way she approaches issues, and she’ll be a good legislator for that reason,” Driscoll said. “She has a good feeling for what people are concerned about on the local level.”
Salem Rep. John Keenan, Lovely’s onetime opponent in a state representative race, has a similar opinion.
“In all my dealings with her, she is very thorough, she understands both sides of the issue, has all the information and makes her best judgment,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for her.”
Ideologically, Lovely has described herself as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” She is “very conservative on raising taxes” and supports abortion rights and gay marriage, she said.
Lovely’s political career arc is best described as a blip, a lull, then a boom.
As a child, she often helped her politically active father pass leaflets around her hometown of Beverly, supporting campaigns of mayors, congressmen and other local candidates.
She later married Stephen Lovely, a Salem city councilor from 1978 to 1986, affording her a “bird’s-eye view” of life in public service, including the late-night phone calls and the long meetings.
But it wasn’t until 1995, when she formed a committee to replace the woefully outdated Castle Hill playground, that she took over as the family’s political star. Lovely steered the committee from its cash-strapped infancy all the way through completion of a “beautiful, model play structure,” she said.
Lovely was then appointed to the Neighborhood Improvement Advisory Committee and soon after informed her husband of her intent to run for the council.
“He said, ‘Are you kidding me? Don’t you remember all those phone calls and meetings?’” Lovely remembers.
She won her husband’s old Ward 3 seat in 1998 and then in 2003 won an at-large seat, topping the ticket. She has been the leading vote-getter in the city in every election since.
A little more than a year before he retired, longtime Salem state Rep. Michael Ruane hired Lovely as a legislative aide. That post in the Statehouse, she said, “afforded me the opportunity for a look at that fishbowl and what happens inside.”
When Ruane decided to retire in 2003, Lovely decided to run and threw herself into the campaign, knocking on hundreds of doors and canvassing the neighborhoods in Salem, just like she once had with her father in Beverly.
After a hard-fought campaign, she was soundly defeated by Keenan, losing by more than 20 percentage points in the Democratic primary. Though disappointed, “the loss made me more committed to what I was doing to serve the community,” Lovely said.
She didn’t slow down. She went back to council work and her real estate career, finished her long-awaited bachelor’s degree in political science at Salem State, then earned a law degree in 2009 from Massachusetts School of Law.
Now, almost a decade later, she’s in the thick of another race and trying to reach as many voters as possible with a message that her experience on the council, work ethic and fairness make her the best candidate to represent the district in the state Senate.
“The decisions made at the Statehouse affect us here in our communities on a local level. I get that because I’m here doing it. I’ll be a very good partner with the local communities and get things done,” she said.
“I am ready to roll up my sleeves. I am ready to hit the ground running.”
Jesse Roman can be reached at email@example.com.