By Keith Eddings
---- — A scrappy independent making a first run for public office will face one of the region’s most established Democrats Nov. 6 in a statehouse district that was recently redrawn to include more Latinos by shedding Tewksbury and reaching further into Lawrence and up into Methuen.
Kevin Cuff acknowledges he’s an underfunded long-shot running without major party backing against a prominent Latino Democrat in a Democratic district created to favor Latino candidates. He says he’ll defeat Frank Moran, the Lawrence City Council president who also is seeking the 17th Essex House seat, by winning heavily in Andover, his hometown, and carrying a racially mixed south Lawrence neighborhood that remains a base for Anglo candidates.
The Mount Vernon neighborhood has had only a lukewarm relationship over the years with Moran, who otherwise wins his at-large races handily. Among the 24 election districts in Lawrence, E1 – the district that includes Mount Vernon – was one of just three where Moran did not finish first or second in his race for re-election last year. Moran came in third in Mount Vernon last year and, in 2009, fourth.
“My house sits on the Andover-Lawrence line, right on Mount Vernon, and I work it every day, “ Cuff said, describing how he says he will win a House seat he said was “preordained to be Frank’s.”
The seat is now held by Paul Adams, an Andover Republican who is giving it up to run for the state Senate.
Moran said his five years on the Lawrence City Council, including three as president, make him “the right person for the district.”
“Under my leadership, you have a City Council that’s able to find common ground,” Moran said. “It’s not like it used to be in the past, where there was fighting, bickering. Nothing got done. Now, everyone works for common ground.”
Moran said he would serve out the year remaining on his council term if he is elected to the House.
“I can still do two jobs – that’s what I do now, said Moran, 42, a real estate broker who would hold three jobs if he keeps his council seat while serving as a state rep and also heading a real estate company that bears his name.
He said giving up his council seat would require the city “to hold a special election, for $65,000, when it only costs the city $15,000 for me to finish my term. I just think it’s a disservice for me not to finish the term that the people elected me to.”
Moran earns a base pay of $15,000 as councilor and a $2,000 stipend as council president.
Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua attempted to hold onto his Statehouse seat after he took office as mayor in 2010 but gave it up when legislators threatened to cut off state aid to the city.
Cuff, 48, a mortgage banker, is a former statehouse staffer and political director for Raymond Flynn, the former Boston mayor. He gave up his Democratic enrollment more than 10 years ago, when he was named executive director of a company that lobbies for the finance, medical and other industries on Beacon Hill.
Cuff has been an independent since. That makes him a self-described underdog in this campaign and, if he wins, would make him an oddity in the Statehouse, where there are now only Democrats (124) and Republicans (33). He said he would probably caucus with the Democrats.
As a state legislator, Cuff said he would be a “quarterback” for bringing more state and federal aid to Lawrence while providing tougher oversight of the hundreds of millions in aid that the city already receives.
He said said Moran is “neck-deep in a culture” of corruption in Lawrence, but did not say Moran is guilty of wrongdoing beyond aligning himself politically with a mayor whose administration is being probed by as many as three grand juries. Lantigua’s former chief of staff, a deputy police chief who managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign, and a police officer who also is politically allied with the mayor have been indicted on corruption charges over the last month.
“The City Council president votes 99 percent of the time with the mayor,” Cuff said. “He’s not an independent voice on the City Council. He’s a vote for the mayor.”
Cuff criticized Moran for declining to join an effort by four other city councilors to cut off Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla’s paycheck until the allegations against him are resolved.
Moran said he opposed the effort after City Attorney Charles Boddy advised him Bonilla would first be entitled to a civil service hearing (Boddy reversed himself on that issue in a memo to city councilors late Friday).
“Me, personally, as a private citizen, do I believe we should stop his pay? Yes,” Moran said. “But there’s policy and procedures that need to be followed. We have to go through the legal system. Whatever happens after that, we’ll act accordingly.”
Moran noted he opposed Lantigua on several key issues in recent years, including supporting cuts to Lantigua’s 2012 budget proposal and opposing one of his nominees for budget director last year.
As a state representative, he said he would focus on improving public safety in Lawrence, including by maintaining the state aid that has allowed the city to rehire dozens of cops and firefighters laid off in 2010.
Moran raised $4,780 for his House campaign this year, including $100 contributions from state Reps. Marcos Devers and David Torrisi and state Sen. Barry Finegold, all Democrats who represent Lawrence, his financial disclosure forms show. The Service Employees International Union is his biggest contributor, at $600. He has $2,974 in the bank.
Cuff has raised $5,075, most of it from colleagues in the finance industry, his disclosure forms show. He has $4,950 on hand.