Tuesday could not have been the best of days for the tax-and-spend wing of the Democratic Party.
First, leaders in the state House and Senate came together before lunch to essentially reject Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to raise $1.9 billion in new taxes to spend on transportation and education issues, instead offering a relatively less expensive option of their own.
Then, that night, Peabody voters turned aside two political mainstays to elect Republican Leah Cole, a 24-year-old nurse making her first run for office. Cole, a relative unknown in Peabody, focused her campaign on opposing tax increases and fighting government waste.
“I had no name recognition. I was a first-time candidate,” Cole said after Tuesday night’s victory. Despite that, she said, “My message resonated.”
While there is evidence that the Massachusetts economy is growing again, the recovery is, as Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith put it in February, “excruciatingly slow and weak.” For many citizens, the recovery has yet to arrive.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray at least seemed to recognize that fact in unveiling their transportation spending plan Tuesday.
The $500 million proposal would use, among other measures, a 3-cent increase in the state gas tax and a $1 bump in the cigarette tax to address the state’s most pressing transportation problems. The idea is to close the MBTA budget gap without resorting to more service cuts or fare increases and allow the state Department of Transportation to pay employee salaries without borrowing. It would also boost state spending on local bridge and road repair by $100 million, to a total of $300 million.
Legislative leaders did not address the other part of Patrick’s initiative, which included major spending on early, K-12 and higher education.
Murray told the Statehouse News Service that Democratic leaders were reluctant to “further squeeze” the middle class with tax increases along the lines of the governor’s proposal.
“We consider the governor a partner in this,” she said. He put out a 10-year vision. We’re just saying maybe 10 years is too ambitious right away. ... It was hard to do the 3 cents, believe me, but we need to invest in our infrastructure and transportation. I think that’s doable. I think you can handle that.”
The legislative plan “addresses the most pressing problems by providing adequate funding well into the future without asking our residents and businesses to bear too much of the burden,” DeLeo said at a press conference Tuesday.
Clearly, Murray and DeLeo sensed a lingering suspicion of the economic recovery and a reluctance to increase taxes among their constituents.
Cole was able to capitalize on that hesitation in Peabody, beating School Committee member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne and City Councilor David Gravel.
It was an odd race in many ways. The seat opened unexpectedly, with the passing of longtime state Rep. Joyce Spiliotis in November, shortly after she was re-elected without opposition. Gravel ran as an unenrolled candidate, and he and Dunne helped open a path for Cole by splitting the Democratic-leaning vote. The special election drew less than 6,000 people, and no candidate collected more than 2,000 votes.
The fact, however, is this: Cole won, and her promise to fight higher taxes resonated with residents still struggling to make ends meet.