Richard Tisei seeks moderate path in conservative GOP

Richard R. Tisei distances himself from the national GOP, and is out of step on some notable issues.
Richard R. Tisei distances himself from the national GOP, and is out of step on some notable issues.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Richard R. Tisei has not traveled to see his former ally in the State House, Mitt Romney, coronated at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week.

Like most Republicans in Massachusetts, Tisei, the former Republican leader of the state Senate, who is running a bare-knuckled campaign against Representative John F. Tierney, tries to avoid any association with the national party.

But even for a Massachusetts Republican, Tisei is out of step with his party and Romney on several notable issues, and views his candidacy as a return to a brand of socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republicanism that once flourished in the Northeast but has all but vanished in recent years.


The challenge is whether Tisei can truly be independent in a House that has shifted to the right in recent years and is run by conservatives, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, known for trying to maintain strict discipline.

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House Republicans have embraced Tisei as a “Young Gun” worthy of major support from the national party. The YG Action Fund, a Cantor-affiliated political action committee, has set aside $660,000 for Tisei ads.

Tisei is also drawing support from Republicans who want to see the party abandon its opposition to gay rights. A proponent of same-sex marriage, Tisei would be the first gay Republican in Congress who came out before being elected for the first time.

“There are times where, obviously, I don’t agree with some of the things that are said or done nationally, but I’m not worried” about the party tilting to the right, said Tisei, a 50-year-old realtor from Wakefield who served for 26 years in the Legislature. “I view my candidacy as a way to plant a flag in the ground, that there are Northeast Republicans still around who view the world a little differently than the majority.”

His candidacy has sparked excitement among moderates who have watched with dismay as stalwarts such as Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine have announced their retirement or been drubbed in recent elections, like Chris Shays, former representative of Connecticut, who lost a Senate primary this month.


“Unless that kind of Republican succeeds, I think we’re very close to the end of the Republican Party, period,” said Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who served as a moderate Republican senator from Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s and then as the state’s independent governor. “Obviously, it’s been wiped out in the Northeast, but it’s also being wiped out in other parts of the country, where the praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition Tea Partiers have taken over the party.”

Critics doubt Tisei can buck his party’s conservative leadership.

Two political scientists, Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University, recently charted every House vote since 1879 and found the Republican caucus has moved sharply to the right since 1976 and is now at its most conservative perch in 100 years.

“The Republican Party has become the most rigidly ideological, disciplined body we’ve ever seen in America,” said Representative Barney Frank, the retiring Newton Democrat, who supports Tierney. “The overwhelming evidence is [Tisei] would be a supporter of their right-wing agenda.”

Frank points out that one of Tisei’s first votes would be to reelect Boehner and Cantor as leaders, effectively empowering a party that opposes gay rights and abortion rights and is pushing Representative Paul Ryan’s budget.


“They don’t give anybody a pass that I’ve seen when they need the vote,” Frank said.

Tisei insists he would disagree with Republican leaders in key areas.

He has called Ryan’s budget a “good starting point,” but said he would vote against the plan, because it could force seniors to pay more for health care.

Tisei supports abortion rights. He refused to sign Grover Norquist’s antitax pledge, which has been signed by all but six House Republicans.

He backed Romney’s universal health care law but sides with Republican leaders in his vow to repeal President Obama’s health care law, which was modeled on the Massachusetts law.

Tisei said he told Boehner and Cantor he would not be a “rubber stamp” for their agenda and “they were great about it, and very understanding.”

They told him, “We’d rather have you with us 60 percent of the time or 70 percent of the time than John Tierney,” Tisei said.

He said his decision to skip the convention was not about avoiding publicity that could damage his independent image.

“I just can’t see giving up four days of campaigning and fund-raising,” he said.

William F. Weld, the former governor who has known Tisei for decades, said he believes Tisei will stand up to House leaders when he sees fit.

“He may wind up a leader on socially liberal causes, but it’s not going to slow him down a bit, and he’s not going to let anyone give him any crap about it,” Weld said. “Richard is going to be a survivor in any ambient temperature.”

Norquist, for his part, said he is not angry at Tisei for snubbing his signature pledge. “He’s from New England,” Norquist said. “We grade on a curve.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
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