At 24, Leah Cole works as a nurse, still lives with her parents and grandparents, and until recently, had little to do with politics. What sets her apart from her contemporaries is that on April 24, she will become Peabody’s first Republican state representative since 1991.
Area Democrats say a combination of events helped propel Cole into office. They point to a three-way race that included one declared Democrat and a former one, and a low turnout that brought just 20 percent of the city’s voters to the polls.
“It’s voter apathy. People are a little electioned out,” said Mike Schulze, chairman of the Peabody Democratic City Committee. Schulze said special elections traditionally draw few voters.
There are just 3,180 registered Republicans in Peabody, compared with 20,245 unenrolled or independent voters and 11,591 registered Democrats. Only 5,351 voters turned out for the final election that Cole won.
Schulze said the city’s changing demographics in recent decades have altered the traditional Democratic voting base. Democrats, said Schulze, could once depend on leather industry workers, who were employed in the city until the 1970s. But registered Republicans and independents from West Peabody helped Scott Brown carry the city in 2010 and last November.
Few voters had heard of Cole when the general election was held on Nov. 6. Joyce Spiliotis steamrolled to victory, running unopposed to continue as Peabody’s state representative in the 12th Essex District, a position she had held since 2003. But later that month, Spiliotis died of cancer — a battle she had fought out of the public eye — setting up a special election to succeed her on April 2.
In January, Cole said she decided she would run for the seat on an antitax platform that called for less wasteful spending in government. After topping a Republican primary that brought out fewer than 1,000 Peabody voters, she won the House seat earlier this month by defeating Democrat Beverley Griffin Dunne by 73 votes, and independent candidate David Gravel, a former Democrat, by 223 votes.
Brown, who first defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley for the Senate seat that had been occupied by Edward M. Kennedy, also received more votes in Peabody during his losing effort than Democrat Elizabeth Warren, 14,382 to 12,498, in last November’s Senate race.
Cole benefited from the move away from Democrats in the city.
“My message of dropping the tax increase, fighting against the tax hikes and the waste and abuse in the system, I think it resonated with the people,” said Cole, who grew up in Lynn and Peabody. She graduated from Lynn Tech in 2007 and spent a semester at Fitchburg State University before returning to the area and landing a job as a Transportation Security Administration agent at Logan Airport. When she was 21, she attended the Medical Professional Institute in Malden and became a licensed practical nurse.
Democratic consultant Michael Goldman of Marblehead also said Cole’s victory came down to a Republican topping two candidates who split the Democratic vote.
“The stars were perfectly aligned for a Republican candidate,” said Goldman.
John McCarthy, who ran twice as Republican candidate for state representative in Peabody and also serves on the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, agreed the three-person race helped Cole, along with endorsements from Brown and Swampscott’s Charlie Baker, who ran unsuccessfully against Governor Deval Patrick in 2010.
Cole said knocking on as many as 6,000 doors in the city also helped create a bond with voters.
While she has visited the State House, Cole has never attended a Peabody City Council or School Committee meeting. She believes her lack of political experience and her work as a nurse will help her on Beacon Hill.
“As a nurse you problem-solve and you have to use a lot of common sense,” she said. “Not having a lot of political experience is an asset. I’m not beholden to anyone and I don’t have any political ties.”
After taking office, she said, she would fight any tax increase — such as the proposed $1.9 billion hike proposed by Patrick — and also would work to help reshape the electronic benefit transfer card system. EBT cards are used by welfare and food stamp recipients.
Cole said she would keep working as a nurse on a per-diem basis, and she also has no plans to move out of her parents’ home: “It’s so expensive out there, who can afford to move out?”