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What’s Really At Stake In The 6th District

Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei, in a 2010 file photo (AP)

Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei, in a 2010 file photo (AP)

Updated at 7:15 p.m. 8/7/12 and 12: 58 p.m. 8/8/12

In the race for Congress in the 6th district, voters have a clear choice between incumbent Democratic Rep. John Tierney, of Salem, and former Republican state Sen. Richard Tisei, of Wakefield.

Tisei has gotten the press to focus on fundraising and his own polls. But the differences between them are more fundamental than charges about their families.

Full disclosure: I worked for John Tierney in 1996 in his successful run for Congress; I have not worked for him since. [An earlier version of this commentary omitted this information. The fault is entirely mine. – DBP]

Two men, two troubled families. Both men have been ensnared in scandals not of their making, scandals involving, in Tierney’s case, his wife and her brothers and, in Tisei’s case, his parents. Tierney has said he had no knowledge of misconduct that resulted in jail sentences for his wife and her brother. Tisei, who owns a real estate business, claimed ignorance of his family being repeatedly sued while running real estate and home inspection businesses.

Tisei also says he had no idea his 48-year-old sister was arrested on possession of cocaine last summer. We can take him at his word (which Tisei doesn’t do for Tierney), but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t know about his sister’s drug problem.

Tisei’s ill-gotten gains.

Update | While Tisei disputes the facts, The Boston Phoenix did an exhaustive review of the records and concluded: Tisei made $30,000 in a single real estate deal with his parents that otherwise might have gone to creditors that were suing them. A judge accused Tisei of profiting while his parents took advantage of homeowners. Indeed, this is what The Boston Phoenix’s David Bernstein uncovered:

The parents of Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei, in the course of their business dealings in the 1980s and ’90s, prompted a lot of complaints and lost a string of legal judgments. Most notably, in 1995, a court found them to have violated federal franchising laws and regulations, effectively defrauding their business partners.

Tisei, then a state senator, pocketed more than $30,000 by selling a house with them, for which he was accused in court of helping his parents hide assets from those who had won judgments against them.

David Bernstein, who researched the Phoenix story, wrote:

Tisei “had paid nothing for it. He knew that, by taking the money, he was denying it to people whom his parents had been judged to have wronged. Tisei, in other words, knew exactly how he was benefiting, and at whose expense. He also knew what wrongdoing his parents were found to have done.”

Bernstein conceded that different people might have drawn different conclusions.

This family business is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough when thinking about what a member of Congress actually does — that is, vote on legislation, some of it crucial to people in the 6th district and the country.

Here is where the differences mean something:

Fishermen’s friend. Tierney has become an authority on and a staunch ally of Gloucester fishing boat owners who have suffered from excessive federal restrictions on catches. Tisei’s record on fishing is non-existent; he simply mimics Sen. Scott Brown rhetoric on the regulation of fishing.

Tea Party vs. middle-class tax break. Tierney supports extending a tax cut on people making below $250,000 (about 98 percent of the taxpaying population), while Tisei favors the Tea Party-inspired approach of keeping tax cuts for the wealthy. Tisei and House Speaker John Boehner claim taxing millionaires fairly will hurt the economy.

Stimulus vs. magic. Tierney supported the president’s stimulus package and wants it to be strengthened as the best way for the federal government to trigger job creation. Tisei holds the standard Republican jobs position, that the federal government should cut taxes on those who make the most money and jobs will magically appear.

Gays and guns. (Updated at 12: 58 p.m.) Tierney is a longtime supporter of gay adoption and same sex marriage; he earned an F from gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association. Tisei is openly gay but was faulted in Bay Windows, a newspaper that covers gay and lesbian issues, for promoting “blatantly anti-gay GOP candidates.” On guns, Tisei voted against a 1998 state ban on assault weapons, then voted for it in 2004, but now says he could only support a national ban identical to the Massachusetts plan. As for requiring gun sellers to do background checks or report the purchase of weapons or ammunition in large quantities, he takes no position.

Romney Lite on health care. Tisei voted in the Legislature for the Massachusetts health care reform that Romney signed into law. But, also like Romney, he says he will vote to kill a national health care plan based on the law here. If elected, Tisei will join House Republicans who have already tried in vain 33 times to junk Obamacare, even though the Supreme Court has found it constitutional.

Flipping on abortion, like Romney. Also like Romney, Tisei has reversed his position on a woman’s right to choose after voting pro-choice in the Legislature. He called the contraception and abortion debate sparked by the Affordable Care Act another example of an over-intrusive federal government. After the Blunt amendment limiting women’s insurance coverage for contraception was defeated, Tisei told The Hill that he would’ve opposed it. But he told the Lynn Item: “Requiring employees who work for the church to carry insurance that reimburses for things that are against the teachings of the church [such as contraception] just shows how big and intrusive government has become.” Tierney has supported women’s rights, equal pay, and full access to birth control.

Supermarket tabloid vs. Tea Party. Tierney’s reelection is his toughest since he first won the seat; he has surely been hurt by the supermarket tabloid-like headlines generated by his brothers-in-law. Tierney can win again if he can get voters to concentrate on his 16 years of experience and relationships, and contrast that with Tisei’s well-masked anti-government, trickle-down, Tea Party ideology.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included some inaccuracies and omissions. After concerns were raised by Sen. Richard Tisei, Dan Payne has revised this post for clarification.

Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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