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Independent Cahill Tries To Carve Out Political Identity

BOSTON — When you first meet him, Timothy Cahill seems like an average guy. Except he’s taller. Probably a lot more intense.

And, oh yes, he’s running for governor.

“You’re one of us, Tim. You’re one of us,” a supporter at a nursing home says.

Patients, nurses and doctors get excited to see the 6-3, blond, blue-eyed former wrestler. Elderly women giggle when they see him.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Timothy Cahill, in his Quincy yard. (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)

“She’s dying to see you,” says another supporter.

A rock star with the nursing home set; a typical day in the life of the 52-year-old state treasurer.

“It’s gratifying,” Cahill says. “It’s rewarding to know that people know you and seem to like you, but it’s part of what we got to do, just keep going out there and meeting people.”

People may like Cahill when they meet him, but being a regular knock-about — second of nine kids, hardworking, working-class Quincy guy — can only get you so far when you’re running as an independent in Massachusetts.

We wanted to learn about the man behind what some call a quixotic adventure, to observe him away from the news conferences and his handlers. So on a hot Saturday morning recently I drove to Quincy to meet Tim Cahill in his element.

“We’re supposed to keep this natural, right?” he asks after I arrive. “I apologize that I don’t have a better hobby for you.”

Cahill’s hobby is gardening.

“I apologize for the condition of my yard,” he says. “It’s been pretty rough this year with all the heat and no rain. Usually it’s looking a bit better than this but fortunately it’s radio so no one has to see it.”

I’ve followed Cahill for a month or so. He’s always on-point: shirt, tie, jacket — even in the blistering heat.

This day, it’s jeans, work boots and a T-shirt from his daughter’s college. Cahill is weeding, mowing the lawn and spreading mulch with a wheelbarrow and shovel … and he begins to relax — almost.

“I think politicians sometimes either try to oversell themselves or make their lives seem more exotic or complicated than they are,” Cahill says. “My home, my life, maybe some people would say boring.”

“You’re constantly up against people who don’t think you can win, who say you have no chance.”
– Timothy Cahill,
on being an independent

Tim and Tina Cahill have been married for 26 years and they’ve lived in the same white clapboard house — with a few additions — for 21 of those years.

Cahill’s been an entrepreneur, a tour guide, a wrestling coach. But mainly, he’s been a career politician: councilman, county treasurer, state treasurer.

And a Democrat — until last summer.

“I felt strongly back in the summer of 2009, before it seemed to become the popular thing to do, that the Democratic party was broken,” he says. “And it wasn’t providing the message for people like me and people in the middle class that I thought it used to provide. What people used to say before Jan. 19, you know, ‘you have no chance,’ and after Jan. 19, ‘geez, you might win.’ ”

A Roman Catholic, Cahill is pro-choice, with some caveats.

On guns, he supports “reasonable restrictions,” such as background checks and child-safety locks.

He’s pro same-sex marriage, pro death penalty, against raising taxes.

He’s proposed a resort-style casino plan and an overhaul of the state’s health care and welfare systems.

But as an independent, Cahill says much of his job is defining for voters just exactly who he is.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” he says. “And you’re constantly up against people, talking to people who don’t think you can win, who say you have no chance, who say, ‘why are you in this race, you’re a spoiler, you’re this, you’re that.’ You’re everything but what you are.”

One of Cahill’s examples of success is Angus King, the former independent governor of Maine who was elected and re-elected.

Cahill in WBUR's studios in May (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

“People are still used to voting for partisan candidates and therefore voting for an independent is viewed as something of a risk,” King says. “The first problem an independent has is to be taken seriously.”

Cahill has to be taken seriously. He’s alienated both parties, and he’s not likely to get support from them. He’s got a second mortgage on his house. Two kids in college, with two more to go.

What drives him to do it?

“Talk about personality traits, he’s driven,” says Scott Campbell, a lifelong friend and aide. “He’s driven by someone telling him that he can’t.”

Campbell says part of the drive is Boston University, not Harvard; Quincy, not Newton.

“One story, I remember him running the beaches with work boots on, that was how he’d work out,” Campbell says. “Never heard of it, never saw it, and he’d always push himself. If it was 100 degrees out, I remember him knocking doors back in the early ’90s, in the city council, all by himself, and doing all the work of probably four or five people.”

Though hard work has always been a hallmark of Cahill’s career, Paul Watanabe, a University of Massachusetts Boston political scientist, says that might not be enough.

“He’s very much an individual who always sought the brass ring and been quite successful in doing so,” Watanabe says, “beginning as a small businessman, moving to the city council, really surprising a lot of people by becoming a constitutional officer, state treasurer. I think he clearly thought that this was an opportunity to be able to secure the top position, which was the governor. At least my belief is that here’s a case where his reach has exceeded his grasp.”

Back in the garden, Cahill says he remains hopeful.

“That’s the one thing about yard work that’s both good and bad — it never ends, you know?” he says. “When you’re trying to do something there’s always something more to do — plant grass around here, sometimes it grows, sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Grass doesn’t cut itself, the government doesn’t cut itself, so you gotta mow it. And like I said, it’s never-ending.”
– Timothy Cahill

So how about clarifying the politics/gardening analogy for me?

“It is exactly the same,” Cahill says. “Like I said, grass doesn’t cut itself, the government doesn’t cut itself, so you gotta mow it. And like I said, it’s never-ending. It reminds me, it’s just hard work, and at the end of the day, you have a summer like this where things don’t look so great, you have to go back and fix it. And then if it rains a lot you have a nice big swamp back here. And other times it looks really good.

“I don’t want to overplay the whole thing, but I think there are a lot of similarities. You can outsource it and have someone else do it for you, you know? And it may be fine, but you’re going to pay for it. Or you may have someone from another country that’s not here legally doing it for you, too, as Mitt Romney found out.”

Finally, after mulching and weeding, it’s time for Tim Cahill to mow his lawn.

“Alright, Sonari, let’s hope this works,” he says, ready to start the lawnmower.

I think he means the campaign and not just the lawnmower. If it doesn’t, he just might try again.

As we say goodbye, Cahill pulls the cord successfully, and the mower starts up.

Earlier Gubernatorial Candidate Profile:

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