PEABODY — If US Representative John F. Tierney on Tuesday becomes the first Massachusetts Democrat knocked from Congress in 20 years, it will be because he has lost voters like Michael Shapiro.
The 49-year-old construction company owner has voted for Tierney every time he has appeared on the ballot. But Shapiro is impressed by Republican Richard Tisei and thinks eight terms may be enough for Tierney, dogged by the gambling scandal engulfing his wife’s family.
“I’m really torn,” said Shapiro, who lives in Boxford and works in Peabody, squarely amid the North Shore’s Sixth Congressional District. “I’m definitely leaning toward changing my vote.”
He ran into Tisei on the block that houses Tierney’s campaign headquarters and one of the congressman’s district offices. Five days out from Election Day, the challenger was loose, grinning as he popped in and out of shops on the incumbent’s turf, feigning in the direction of Tierney’s doors, thumbing his stack of “Change You Can Trust” cards like he was preparing to shuffle a deck.
“Hi, I’m Richard Tisei — I’m running for Congress here, introducing myself around,” he said, thrusting a hand toward Shapiro, who reminded him they met over lunch in Salem several months back. That was tens of thousands of handshakes ago.
“It’s a blur,” Tisei said, apologetic. “It’s been going pretty good, though.”
Tisei has raised more than $2 million and benefited from $3.5 million more in spending by outside groups in a race that analysts, such as the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, tip slightly in his direction.
It is partly a testament to Tisei’s legwork and his reputation — as a 26-year state legislator and an openly gay Republican who supports abortion rights. But it is considerably about circumstance: namely, the investigation that led Tierney’s wife, Patrice, to serve one month in federal prison last year after admitting to “willful blindness” in helping her brother, now a fugitive, file false tax returns disguising his gambling income.
If never a star in Congress, Tierney achieved a reputation for diligence, working on higher-education policy and waste in military contracts — and pursuing constituent matters — before his image became obscured by the investigation. Though he says he knew nothing about the illegal enterprise run by his wife’s family, it has animated the campaign.
Tierney on the stump emphasizes that he is the same congressman voters have elected every two years since 1996, leaning on his party affiliation, record, and unwavering support for Democratic positions on social and economic issues.
Rallying workers outside a GE plant in Lynn during a shift change, he proclaimed through a bullhorn that he was the John Tierney they had always known. “We have shared values that go way back,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.”
Tierney’s core supporters emphasize the same. “He’s been terrific for his constituents, he’s been consistent in what he’s tried to do to represent the district for 16 years, and he’s done it with integrity,” said Ruth Salinger, a seasoned political activist and international business consultant, wearing an “I’m with Tierney” sticker at a Gloucester debate. “The Justice Department isn’t a bunch of silly people. If they felt he was doing something wrong, they’d be down on him like a ton of bricks.”
Crisscrossing Lynn, the district’s largest city, Tierney hailed seniors playing bingo at Zabota Adult Day and Health Center with a greeting in their native Russian.
Working the room with his sleeves rolled up, he leaned over a tablecloth to hear an elderly woman ask in halting English what party he was from. “Democrat,” Tierney said, as the woman and her friend nodded approvingly. “We’re all good Democrats here.”
At North Shore Community College, Tierney greeted the front-desk guard by name and weaved through offices, asking detailed questions of staff and telling students about his own work-study days at Salem State, adding in an occasional “Please think of me on Tuesday.”
He cracked a few jokes — “You must be a lot better at biology than I was,” he told one possible radio-oncology major — but mostly he listened. And he spoke seriously about government programs such as Pell grants that he said are at stake in the election.
On his way out, a grandmotherly woman in a checked coat stopped him for a hug. “Long time,” she said. “How’s Patrice?”
“She’s coming around,” he said, referring to a recent rear-end collision involving her Volkswagen. “Getting over that accident.”
“You doing fine, you doing well?” he added, and the woman waved him off.
“Don’t even ask,” she said. “I’ll be there with my signs.”
Tierney beamed, but his smile faded addressing reporters outside. He blamed the media for his polling decline, saying “tabloid journalism” had enabled what he called “the plant and smear” tactics of Tisei and his surrogates.
Personal bitterness has overshadowed policy differences between the candidates, who diverge most sharply on economics. Tierney wants to invest more in infrastructure and social-service programs while raising taxes on the wealthiest. Tisei wants to reduce business regulations and preserve tax cuts for even the wealthy.
Raised in Lynnfield by parents who were not registered to vote, Tisei has shades of Alex P. Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s “Family Ties” character. Energized as a teen by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, he worked for Vice President George H.W. Bush while studying at American University and helped plan one of Reagan’s birthdays; a photo from the party, inscribed by the president, hangs above his desk.
First elected to the State House as a 22-year-old wonder, Tisei left the Legislature to run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010. He remains boyish at 50, hair neatly parted, eager and enthusiastic as he gives shopkeepers his cellphone number and e-mail address.
“Catching everybody before the big day,” he said, bounding through Peabody City Hall. Outside the mayor’s office, he joked with the receptionist. “Hello ladies, hi, Richard Tisei,” he told a group, before clasping his face. “I don’t look too ragged, do I?”
In Danvers, he leaned on the glass case at Cakes for Occasions to address the women working in back. “The election’s only five weeks away,” he said, as his town captain quickly corrected him. “Five days! Oh my gosh, I’m also, like, really overtired.”
The Sixth District runs along the coast from Lynn to New Hampshire, stretching southwest to Bedford. As with most of Massachusetts, Democrats outnumber Republicans, but the unenrolled top everyone. The district embraced Brown in 2010; the senator won here by nearly 18 percentage points, while winning the state by less than five.
Redistricting this year added Tewksbury, Billerica, and part of Andover , which favor Republicans more than do other communities like Revere, Haverhill, and Lawrence.
At a Billerica VFW post, after serving as a warm-up for the Brown bus tour, Tisei shook hands down a line of people waiting for Brown’s autograph. Just three years ago, Tisei was Republican leader in the state Senate, Brown its junior member. Now, Brown is a US senator, and Tisei is trying to return to elected office.
“I already voted for you [absentee],” Bill Baro, a Billerica resident in a Vietnam Veterans hat, told Tisei. “If there was a line in Vegas, I’d want to bet on you.”
In a quiet corner, Tisei said his odds are better than ever. “And,’’ he added, “John Tierney did more to help me get up the mountain than anyone else.”