BEVERLY — When an arsonist was setting fire to barns and alarming the Centerville neighborhood in the late 1960s, Mike Cahill remembers his father heading out in the middle of the night to stand watch with other volunteers.
For Cahill and his five brothers, the sight of either one of their parents rallying to a community cause was hardly surprising.
Bill Cahill, a lawyer, was president of his church’s parish council, chairman of the Beverly Republican City Committee, a founder of the Centerville Improvement Society and a six-year member of the Board of Aldermen. Jeanne Cahill was a Cub Scout den mother, a Sunday school teacher and a longtime teacher in the Beverly public schools.
When her husband died of leukemia at age 44, she raised six boys by herself, while also battling breast cancer.
“Our parents really taught us to be involved and engaged in the community because that’s who they were,” Mike Cahill said. “It was never by word. It was by deed. If you want good things for your community, you have to be pitching in.”
Cahill said the example set by his late parents is one of the reasons he is making his second attempt to become mayor. After losing narrowly to Bill Scanlon two years ago, he is widely considered the favorite to ascend to the office he has long contemplated.
Cahill won last month’s preliminary election by more than 1,000 votes over Ward 2 City Councilor Wes Slate. The two are squaring off in the Nov. 5 final election for the right to succeed Scanlon, who is not running for re-election after a record 18 years in office.
Cahill, a 51-year-old lawyer who works as executive director of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs, has a long history of winning citywide elections. He won five times as the city’s Democratic state representative from 1993 to 2002. After a nearly decade-long absence from city politics, he returned to the ballot in 2009 and was the leading vote-getter in the City Council race, earning the role of council president.
Two years ago, he topped Scanlon in the mayoral preliminary, then fell just 353 votes behind in the final election.
Cahill said he didn’t know for sure at that time if he would run again. But when Scanlon announced his retirement in April, Cahill said, “I knew.”
From teacher to Beacon Hill
With his polished delivery and extensive campaign experience, Cahill might seem like a born politician. But when he was a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, his career counselor sat him down and told him, “You want to be a teacher.”
“He was right,” Cahill said.
Cahill spent 10 years as a teacher in the Beverly and Ipswich public schools and at Landmark School in Beverly. He also coached soccer and basketball, including a successful stint as the boys soccer coach at Beverly High, where he had played soccer and hockey.
“There was a point where I thought that was going to be my career path,” he said of teaching and coaching. “I absolutely loved it.”
Cahill said he started contemplating a political career in order to have more of an impact on issues that concerned him, such as education and the environment.
In his campaign literature, Cahill said he brought home “tens of millions of dollars” for Beverly during his time on Beacon Hill to renovate the city’s elementary schools, protect open space, and pay for special education costs and road repairs.
Carol Cleven, a former Republican state representative from Chelmsford who served on two committees with Cahill, described him as a dedicated state representative who was “very committed to the tasks of his particular committee.”
“Some people look at the surface of things and just go along with it,” Cleven said. “He delved into things a lot more than some people do. He had a wonderful personality. He was able to bring people around to compromises. He just plugged away and made sure they were done.”
The description of him as a plugger and hard worker goes directly against the image of Cahill being portrayed by Slate.
Slate has accused Cahill of being “distracted and not engaged” in the two years they served together on the City Council. It’s the same charge that Scanlon, who is supporting Slate, leveled against Cahill two years ago.
Councilor Jim Latter, who also served on the council with Cahill and is backing him in the mayor’s race, chalks up the criticism of Cahill’s work ethic to campaign strategy.
“I think Wes thinks he can do a good job, and he’s moving forward with a campaign that gives him the best chance to win,” Latter said. “I don’t agree with the negative pieces he’s put out, but he’s a big boy, and he put his name at the bottom of it, so he has to stand with that.”
Latter said it is more telling that Cahill has the support of his current employer in his job as executive director of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs. Among the people endorsing him in one of his campaign mailers is Jack Meany, executive director of the YMCA of the North Shore.
“If you look at the people who have had Mike’s full-time employment for the last several years, they’re overwhelmingly in support of Mike,” Latter said. “To me, that answers the question of Mike’s work ethic.”
After 10 years on Beacon Hill, Cahill decided to run for state treasurer in 2002. He finished last in the four-person Democratic primary, spending $75,000 of his own money, which is still carried as debt on his campaign finance report.
Cahill said that attempt at a state post “cured me of any desire to run for higher office.”
Out of political office for the first time in a decade, he eventually went to work for the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs. As executive director, he lobbies state legislators on health-and-wellness issues of concern to the state’s 106 YMCA branches.
As an example, Cahill said he is advocating for state grant money to help eliminate “food deserts” in poorer communities, where the nearest grocery store might be miles away for residents who don’t have a car. The grant money could be used for something like helping local stores buy more freezer space to store healthy foods.
“YMCAs do a lot of quiet work day in and day out in communities all over the state to help people live healthy lives,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave this job for much. It’s great work. But clearly I have been ready to leave it for this opportunity.”
As mayor, Cahill said he would emphasize transparency and collaboration. He said there should have been more public awareness of the Brimbal Avenue project, which has drawn strong opposition from neighbors who said they were not included in the decision-making process.
As an example of how he operates, Cahill said he helped form a committee of state officials, neighbors and business owners when the Beverly-Salem bridge was built in the 1990s.
“People want transparency,” he said. “This is the way that I’ve always done things. We’ll be a stronger community when the community is engaged in the process.”
Although Cahill has deep roots in the city and a history of electoral success, he said he is not taking anything for granted. He said about 5 percent of the city’s population turns over every year, meaning there are plenty of potential voters who know little of his days as state representative.
At 51, Cahill, who is single, is now two decades removed from his days as a youthful state representative. But with the 73-year-old Scanlon about to relinquish the mayor’s office, Cahill said his election would represent a “generational change.”
“It’s the next-generation leadership that’s helping to drive progress across the North Shore,” Cahill said, referring to Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt. “Our city is about to join that.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.