LYNNFIELD — It was March 1981 when 19-year-old Richard Tisei caught the politics bug. He had just been elected state representative for a day by his peers at Lynnfield High School and had gone, along with other student representatives from around the state, to the Statehouse in Boston. He sat in the House chamber, proposed bills, debated them and passed his first, albeit mock, legislation.
“When I came home that night, my parents asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be a state rep, because it was such a powerful experience,’” Tisei said from the Lynnfield office he now rents as headquarters for his run for Congress. “My parents weren’t even registered to vote ... They thought it was weird I was so interested.”
Interested enough that when he graduated from American University in 1984, he ran to represent the 22nd Middlesex District and won handily. At 22, he was the youngest Republican ever elected to the Massachusetts Legislature.
“My district hadn’t elected a Republican in 20 years,” Tisei said.
In 1990, he moved up to the state Senate and won 10 more elections in a row. Now Tisei is in the midst of a much larger challenge: attempting to unseat Democrat John Tierney in the 6th Congressional District.
The district has more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans; nearly every city has a Democratic mayor. Would voters here replace Tierney — one of the most liberal members of the U.S. House, whom they have elected eight straight times — with Tisei, who makes no bones about his desire to repeal Obamacare, extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and support portions of the Republican Paul Ryan budget? And yet, just a week before the Nov. 6 election, that’s a distinct possibility.
As he did in 1984, Tisei would make history if elected: He would be the first openly gay, nonincumbent Republican to win a seat in Congress. Tisei did not come out publicly until 2009, during his campaign to become the state’s lieutenant governor, though he says he wasn’t ever hiding the fact.
Tisei believes his party, which passed the Defense of Marriage Act and voted overwhelmingly against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is simply wrong on gay rights.
Tisei doesn’t have a flawless record, either, voting in the 1980s against a law that banned discrimination of gays and lesbians in employment and housing; he also once voted to prohibit the state from placing foster children with gay couples. When asked his biggest regret, he points to those votes. Since then Tisei has championed equal rights causes, including marriage equality in Massachusetts, filing anti-bullying legislation, and supporting bills to help the disabled and enhance individual rights.
“I would say I’m a traditional New England Republican — the whole idea that you can be fiscally conservative but also libertarian when it comes to social issues, that you believe the government should not be involved in individual decision-making when it comes to an issue like abortion.”
Tisei, 50, found the Republican Party, like so many his age, through President Ronald Reagan. As a college student, he interned in the office of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. His duty one year was to organize Reagan’s 72nd birthday party in the White House.
“This is my prized possession,” he said, pointing above his desk to an autographed photograph of Reagan wearing a cowboy hat that Tisei and the rest of the staff gave him as a present.
Tisei has capitalized on problems with Tierney’s credibility. The 6th District campaign narrative has been dominated by what Tierney knew or didn’t about an illegal gambling enterprise run by his brothers-in-law in Antigua. His wife, who managed a bank account for her brother, accepted thousands of dollars from him in gifts and served a month in jail for her role in helping him file false tax returns. Tierney has not been charged with any wrongdoing and says he didn’t know the business was illegal.
Republican super PACs and other partisan groups have spent millions on ads attacking Tierney and his wife. Tisei’s own campaign hasn’t shied away from fanning the flames. Tierney, in turn, has called Tisei “shameless.”
“I think most people look at this ... and just don’t believe him,” Tisei said of Tierney. “He has not been honest or forthright.”
Tisei’s liberal stances on social issues have earned him a moderate label, although his views swing substantially to the right when it comes to fiscal issues. The national debt is a chief concern for Tisei, who says spending cuts are needed. He wants to simplify the tax code, is open to restructuring social programs like Medicare to ensure their future viability and wants to reduce regulations on business.
He has said he would not vote for Paul Ryan’s Republican budget, but called it a good starting point for discussion. Tisei is against raising taxes and repeatedly voted against tax hikes in Massachusetts, receiving high marks from anti-tax groups during his time in the state Legislature.
Unlike many Republicans, however, Tisei has refused to sign Grover Norquist’s famous tax pledge, because he believes that closing loopholes and tax deductions to increase revenue is fair game.
Tisei swears he will not be afraid to say no to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and has told him that to his face. He was independent-minded in the Legislature, he said, and will be the same in Washington. Tisei says that if he believes something isn’t right for the district, he’ll vote it down, despite the consequences it might have for him in his own caucus.
“The way I look at this, I’m not going to Washington to be there for 10 or 15 or 20 years, or to be there forever. I’m going for a specific mission. Whether it’s a couple terms, I’m going there to straighten out the country,” Tisei said.