By Jesse Roman and Paul Leighton Staff writers
---- — A razor-thin margin separated Congressman John Tierney and Republican rival Richard Tisei in a 6th Congressional race still too close to call at press time last night.
As polls trickled in, the lead oscillated back-and-forth, with Democratic incumbent Tierney clinging to a slim 48.4 percent to 47.2 percent lead. Several communities, including Newburyport, Billerica, Essex and Rockport, still had not reported.
As expected, Tisei did well in the western and northwestern parts of the district, while Tierney dominated the cities, including wins in Salem, Peabody, Beverly and Lynn.
North Andover voters interviewed yesterday overwhelmingly favored Tisei. Donald Elliott, 59, of Main Street, said he voted for Tisei because Tierney “carries too much baggage.
Larry Coughlin, 25, of Forest Street, said the “whole thing with the illegal gambling operation of his brothers-in-law” prompted him to vote for Tisei.
Torsten and Patricia Schwanbeck, of Carlton Lane, both said they voted for Tisei because they have friends who know him and have vouched for his character.
Rita O’Neill, 52, of Forest Street, voted for the eight-term congressman, saying he deserves “the benefit of the doubt.”
Tierney was seeking his ninth term in Congress, and Tisei was vying to became the first Republican congressman from Massachusetts in 16 years, and the first openly gay, non-incumbent Republican ever elected to Congress.
The mood at the Hawthorne Hotel, where Tierney held his election-night party, was increasingly hopeful as the night went on, and cities like Lynn, Salem and Peabody appeared to be turning out strongly for Tierney.
“We’re hoping the momentum is going to carry us through the rest of the night,” Salem state Rep. John Keenan said.
By 11:15, there were still about 200 people in the ballroom waiting for Tierney to enter and make what they hoped would be a victory speech.
“I’m waiting because I want to see John win,” said Kyriakos Andrinodoulos, who owns Brothers Deli in Danvers Square. “He’s a good friend, a good guy and he’s done a lot of things for us. I came here to hear him give the winning speech.”
The crowd’s spirits were boosted at 11:13 p.m. when MSNBC declared President Obama the winner.
The mood was more subdued at Tisei’s election-night party, particularly as the night wore on.
“I’m not coming down to concede the race, I’m not coming down to declare,” Tisei said just after 11 p.m. to the crowd gathered at the Peabody Marriott. “We are within one-eighth of one percent. It’s very close and there are still communities being counted.”
Yesterday was supposed to be the conclusion to what has been one of the most bruising and nasty campaigns in the nation — punctuated by more than $5 million in outside spending, a barrage of negative television ads and mailers and very real animosity between the rival candidates.
Tisei’s election-night headquarters was rollicking in the early part of the evening with cheers and excitement, but grew sullen and anxious as television networks announced Democrat Elizabeth Warren the victor over U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, and supporters saw Tisei’s early lead evaporate. Some Tisei staffers appeared teary-eyed and embraced each other just minutes before 11 p.m. Many of the couple hundred who came earlier in the night had filed out by then.
“We’re still waiting for the small towns to report and hopefully when they do it will be to our advantage,” said Saugus state Rep. Donald Wong at about 10:30 p.m. “It’s going to be a photo finish.”
The race has been the closest for Tierney since his first victory in 1996, when he beat incumbent Republican Peter Torkildsen by 371 votes after a recount that lasted for weeks.
Tierney breezed to victory in his next seven races, winning them all by double-digit percentage points against relatively unknown Republican opponents.
Tisei and Republicans succeeded in making Tierney’s family’s legal woes a central theme in the campaign and the Salem Democrat struggled to change the narrative.
However, Tierney received a huge turnout in Lynn, winning that city with 70 percent of the vote, and won Salem handily with more than half the vote there. Beverly and Peabody also went for Tierney, while Danvers gave the nod to Tisei.
Tierney’s brothers-in-law were indicted in 2010 for running an illegal gambling operation in Antigua, and the congressman’s wife, Patrice, spent a month in jail after pleading guilty to being “willfully blind” to the source of her brother Robert Eremian’s money. She had managed a bank account for him and, in exchange, accepted thousands of dollars in gifts from him.
But her congressman husband was never implicated in any wrongdoing.
Tierney and Democratic groups tried, with limited success, to paint Tisei as a right-wing radical, linking him to Tea Party ideology, despite his support for legalizing gay marriage, protecting abortion rights and preserving many social programs. Tisei’s liberal stances on social issues have earned him a reputation as a moderate, although his views swing substantially to the right when it comes to fiscal issues. Tisei wants to maintain tax breaks for the wealthy, reduce regulations on business, repeal Obamacare, and is open to restructuring Medicare and other programs.
A resident of Wakefield, Tisei owns a real estate business in Lynnfield with his longtime life partner Bernard Starr.
Tisei came out as gay in 2009 during an unsuccessful campaign to become the state’s lieutenant governor. Tisei’s running mate that year, Republican gubernatorial nominee, Charlie Baker, was on hand in Peabody last night to show support for his old friend.
Tierney, 61, spent 16 years in Congress and has been credited for his work on education and veterans issues. He helped write several bills aimed at making college more affordable. He voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and led an investigation of subpar conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Tierney had the support of the state’s Democratic establishment, including Gov. Deval Patrick, who came to Salem on Monday to support him. He also had the backing of the mayors in Beverly, Salem, Peabody, Amesbury and Newburyport.