ATTLEBORO - The Winter Night Festival attracted cheery families who braved the blustery chill to mill about food stands, historical exhibits, and a giant inflatable slide erected in the center of this small city on the Rhode Island state line.
Walking unnoticed among the revelers that recent evening was a slender, youthful-looking man with close-cropped light brown hair. Only the blue, white, and yellow sticker attached to his windbreaker identified him, and his purpose: Sean Bielat for Congress.
Bielat stopped to gaze silently at a large bonfire. He chatted briefly with a Mary Todd Lincoln reenactor. He watched as his sole campaign volunteer on the scene gathered a signature. It was not until he wandered into Scorpio’s Italian Eatery and Pizzeria that someone finally recognized him. Then it was back out into the dark and cold.
“There’s not much here,’’ Bielat said, cutting short his campaigning for the night. “People just aren’t thinking about this stuff yet.’’
They will soon enough.
Two years after he emerged from obscurity to gain national attention for his strong challenge to 16-term incumbent Barney Frank, Bielat stands to face off against a Democrat with nothing like Frank’s record but with a storied name - Joseph P. Kennedy III - in what could be one of the most-watched congressional races in the country this year.
But first, the 36-year-old Republican must reacquaint voters with his own name. Soon after the 2010 defeat, Bielat disappeared from the spotlight, and briefly last fall moved to Pennsylvania during his wife Hope’s second pregnancy to be closer to her family. While he was gone, the 4th District changed, adding a swath of communities in which he had never campaigned.
Now Bielat is engaged on a town-by-town effort to reintroduce himself, and hopefully gin up the kind of grassroots support - 1,700 volunteers, more than 20,000 individual donors - he enjoyed by the end of the 2010 race.
He is realistic about the odds.
“There’s going to be a group of people who will just never consider voting for a Republican, there’s going to be a group of people who would never vote against a Kennedy, and then there’s everybody else,’’ Bielat said in an interview after a meeting with about two dozen Republicans at Primavera Ristorante in Millis. “And so I have to try and convince as many of those everybody elses as I can.’’
In restaurants, firehouses, classrooms, and street festivals from Brookline to Attleboro, the soft-spoken Marine Reservist is casting himself as a man of the people, a citizen-legislator who can boast a resume that the 31-year-old Kennedy cannot match.
“Yes, he has some advantages. I don’t think they’re insurmountable,’’ Bielat said. “My background is going to resonate a lot more with people around the district than Kennedy’s background. As we see more of him, as he becomes less of a myth, and more of a man, people will see.’’
Bielat presents himself in quiet, articulate, and straightforward sentences, and chats with authority on subjects such as taxation, defense reform, and global energy policies. He punctuates his thoughts with humorous quips and off-the-cuff digressions and comes across as personable rather than fiery as he ticks off his accomplishments.
He mentions Kennedy’s name only when he compares their backgrounds and life experience.
In a conference room at the Hopkinton Fire Department building, Bielat told an audience of about 20 likely Republican voters that one of his grandfathers worked in a factory that produced shovels, the other was a prison guard, and his father served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War era.
Kennedy, on the other hand, “is the one percent of the one percent,’’ Bielat said, drawing titters of approval. Bielat described working his way through college at Georgetown and earning master’s degrees at Harvard and the Wharton School. He touted his service in the Marine Corps: He was on active duty from 1998 to 2002 - he was not deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan - and since then has been in the Marine Corps Reserve, where he holds the rank of major.
“I’ll take the Marine Corps over the Peace Corps any day,’’ he said, to applause, a reference to Kennedy’s own postcollege service.
He also contrasted his business experience to Kennedy’s brief tenure as a prosecutor for the district attorney’s offices in Barnstable and Middlesex counties.
From 2006 to 2009, Bielat was an executive at iRobot Corporation in Bedford. There, he described leading a $100 million business line that built robots that have been used to destroy roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time, he also led an international team of NATO experts who studied the potential for use of advanced reconnaissance technology in urban warfare.
He left in late 2009 to launch his first bid for Congress.
Bielat’s recitation of his background won over Bob Harrold, 63, a Vietnam veteran who said: “You have to look at the qualifications of each candidate, and Sean’s more qualified.’’
On Election Day 2010, it appeared that Bielat - just possibly - was poised to pick off Frank, one of the giants of the Democratic Party and a favorite target of conservatives across the country, who had poured over $2 million into Bielat’s campaign.
This anti-Frank sentiment, combined with Bielat’s ability to connect with voters, had pulled the Republican within striking distance in some polls. In the end, the tally was not as close as some had predicted. Frank earned 54 percent of the vote to Bielat’s 43 percent.
Once the race was over, Bielat stepped out of the public eye and went to work as an independent consultant for small and mid-size tech companies.
Last summer, he was hired to run a start-up that is developing a website that allows citizens to contact any member of Congress or committee about any issue that concerns them, or join the conversation on issues raised by other users. The idea is to make it easier for people to connect with their legislators by removing the red tape.
Bielat did not want to name the site, which is still being built, saying it is intended to be nonpartisan and that he does not want it to be associated with his campaign. But he says the spirit of the venture dovetails neatly with the way he thinks he ought to approach the job of representative.
“My target is people who don’t care about politics and are disgusted by the headlines but don’t feel listened to,’’ he said in an interview after addressing students of a Global Policy class at Newbury College in Brookline.
Bielat steers clear of social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. He has never identified himself as a Tea Party candidate but says he shares positions with the movement on debt reduction, limiting the powers of the federal government, “a return to traditional Constitutional values,’’ and a strong national defense.
He is a member of group that helps shape national defense policy of Mitt Romney, the most moderate of the Republican presidential hopefuls.
Bielat speaks against cuts to the defense budget that would reduce the country’s combat capability, and said he would support air strikes against Iran if that country’s actions threatened Israel.
Yet he believes the decision to go to war should not be made lightly - it should require an act of Congress, rather than an executive decree, as he said was the case in Libya.
Legislators, he says, must reflect the will of the people, not party loyalties.
Bielat made the decision to enter the race late last December, after his daughter, Seraphina, was born. In January, when the family came back from Pennsylvania, they moved to Norfolk instead of returning to Brookline, where they had lived previously.
In the early days of this campaign, it seemed his second run would prove easier. Frank had retired, leaving an open seat, and a city where he was soundly defeated in 2010 - New Bedford - had been replaced in the district by a more conservative cluster of communities along Interstate 495.
But then Kennedy jumped in, and Bielat was once again a consensus underdog.
A UMass Lowell-Boston Herald poll has given Kennedy a 60 percent to 28 percent advantage. Both campaigns are still organizing their financing, but as of Dec. 31, 2011, Bielat’s campaign had only about $5,800, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Bielat acknowledges that he cannot match the nationwide buzz caused by Kennedy’s announcement. He knows his chances of winning over such liberal bastions as Newton and Brookline are slim.
At a meeting with about 20 Republicans at the New Garden Restaurant in Needham, he remarked that “We’re writing off Newton,’’ prompting protest from a woman who is on the city’s Republican committee. “OK, writing off wasn’t the right word,’’ Bielat sheepishly corrected himself.
A Bielat-Kennedy showdown in November is not yet a certainty: Three lesser-known Democrats - Herb Robinson, Paul Heroux, and Jules Levine - are also competing for their party’s nomination, and Elizabeth Childs is competing for a Republican bid. But Bielat and Kennedy are widely believed to be the frontrunners.
Some political analysts said Bielat will give himself the best chance with just the kind of door-to-door approach that he is currently employing, rather than attacking the Kennedy name.
“You have to run on your own experience and against the lack of experience,’’ said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. “I wouldn’t run against the name, I’d run against the person.’’
The message resonated with Raffaela Feinstein, 60, who was one of a half-dozen volunteers to show up at the Golden Spoon in Hopkinton to meet Bielat. She wore a Bielat sticker on her black felt hat and spoke the words the Republican hopes to hear repeated often.
“We need more citizen legislators,’’ said Feinstein, who identified herself as a former Democrat. “One or two families shouldn’t have a dynasty.’’