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Adrian Walker

John Tierney in a battle he never saw coming

Democrat John Tierney isn’t bothering to hide his contempt for Richard Tisei, his Republican opponent in the Sixth District congressional race. “I’ll compare my 16 years in Congress up against his 26 years of doing nothing at the State House anytime,” growled the longtime North Shore incumbent. “We’re going to pull this thing out.”

It is Saturday morning and volunteers are streaming into a campaign office in Lynn for a door-knocking campaign on Tierney’s behalf. Tierney makes a short speech stressing that Tisei stands with the staunchly conservative likes of GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and the Tea Party movement, and they’re off to talk to their neighbors.

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When Tisei appears later at a town hall meeting in Newburyport, the atmosphere is decidedly sunnier. Not all of the 100 or so voters who appear are Tisei supporters; many declare that they just “want to hear what he has to say.” But their curiosity may spell trouble for Tierney.

Tisei, who has been running for office in Massachusetts since he was 22, smells blood. “I think people have made their decision about John Tierney,” he said. “If you had told me when the race started that I would be at this stage now, I would have been thrilled.”

He scoffs at the notion that he would be a GOP rubber stamp in Washington. “I’ve got to be the only candidate in the country who’s pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, wouldn’t sign the [no new taxes] pledge, and is being called a Tea Party extremist.”

Tierney is under attack for — among other things — a modest record of legislative accomplishment. While that criticism has validity, it’s probably more accurate to say that he is like the vast majority of his Capitol Hill colleagues: a reliable vote for his party’s key constituencies, a man who didn’t go to Washington with any grand ideas, and hasn’t formed any. For years, Democratic voters have returned him, almost by autopilot.

But then his wife, Patrice, ran afoul of federal law enforcement by acting as bookkeeper for her brothers’ offshore gambling business. She pleaded guilty in federal court. Tierney says he knew nothing, that you can’t control the family you marry into.

Many believe that he should have suspected something was amiss. He didn’t help matters by vacillating for ages on releasing his tax returns. When they became public, the money his wife received from her brothers for helping to manage their illegal business had not been reported. The Tierneys say the money was a gift and is not subject to taxation.

Part of the Democratic establishment is beginning to rally to Tierney’s side. But many voters appear wary. Tierney’s biggest mistake may have been this: He has given voters reason to question why they should support him. At the Tisei town hall, several voters nervously joked that their neighbors would be surprised to see them considering a Republican.

Barron Brissette was among those. He described himself as a Democratic-leaning independent, and he has supported Tierney in the past. That could be changing.

“We’ve had Tierney for 16 years and I don’t think anything’s been done, frankly,” he said. “I just think things have stagnated. I’m just looking to hear some fresh ideas.”

Tierney said his campaign would be fine if people focused on the issues — oblivious, perhaps, to the reality that he has become the campaign’s major issue. The Massachusetts House delegation has been a Democratic enclave for years. But in a race few expected to be this close at the end, sheer party unity may not be enough.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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