WAKEFIELD, Mass. — One of the most hotly contested congressional races in the nation is in Massachusetts’ 6th district, currently represented by Democratic Rep. John Tierney.
The 16-year incumbent and his Republican challenger, former state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, are in a tight race. Libertarian candidate Daniel Fishman has been polling in the single digits.
We caught up with Tisei and Tierney on the campaign trail Wednesday to talk about the race, which has become personal and, at times, bitter.
“If you looked at some of the things that they’ve been passing out, you’d be shocked and offended that someone would stoop to that low level,” Tierney said of mailings that voters have received from groups backing Tisei.
“The only thing positive he’s said in the entire campaign is eight words: ‘I’m John Tierney and I paid for this ad.’ And then it goes downhill right from there,” Tisei told WBUR’s Bob Oakes at Brothers Deli and Restaurant in Wakefield.
We asked the self-described “moderate” Republican if he can demonstrate that he will work across the aisle.
Richard Tisei: When Mitt Romney was the governor, I voted with him 54 percent of the time, I voted against him 46 percent of the time. I didn’t do that on purpose, I just looked at every issue individually. Like a woman’s right to choose, I disagreed with Gov. Romney and voted against him; on gay marriage I disagreed with Gov. Romney and voted against him; on stem cell research I disagreed with Gov. Romney and voted against him.
Bob Oakes: You do agree with Romney on at least one issue: whether or not national health care — or Obamacare, as even the president has called it — will be repealed. You supported the state law in 2006, but you have said you want to repeal national health care because you say it’ll raise taxes. Don’t a lot of people in your district tell you that they support the national law?
Well I think that a lot of people are mixed on it right now. It’s a very divisive issue. What I’ve said is that I’d like to repeal it, but I’d also like to replace it with something else.
Replace national health care with something else or just go the state route?
I think basic things like what we have here in Massachusetts: we have preexisting conditions covered, we have kids up to 26 years old [covered]. There are a lot of good things in the health bill. I’m not saying that everything should be just tossed out. You could replace the 2,700-page bill with something more reasonable and more basic, and then allow the states to come in and be innovative and put their own programs in place.
Federal budget: You’ve said you wouldn’t support [vice presidential nominee] Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which would cut trillions of dollars in federal spending and turn Medicare into a voucher program, but you called it a “good starting point.” What would you do to balance the budget that’s different?
Most people think of the federal government as a big piece of meat and they think that there’s a big piece of fat right on the meat and you can cut it off and that’s how you reduce the budget deficit. It doesn’t work like that. The fat is marbled all through the meat. And one of the things I’ve learned running for Congress is that no matter where I go, people will come up to me and say, “You know what, I work for the federal government in this agency or that agency and you would not believe the amount of money that’s wasted.” I think most people would agree with me that probably 20 percent of federal spending is just wasteful.
Tierney has criticized you for not paying federal income taxes in 2006 and 2008 because of reported losses from the real estate firm that you co-own. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think the tax code should be reformed so that even those who lose money should pay something?
You know, I didn’t have any taxable income to pay taxes on. The congressman had almost a quarter of a million dollars in illegal gambling proceeds that he chose not to report to the federal government. That’s obviously a problem. I think you’re talking about two different things. And I think the congressman has a lot of chutzpah to even bring this up as an issue with me because I had to take out second mortgages on my homes, I had to go out and borrow a lot of money just to keep my business open.
Let’s talk about Tierney for a couple of minutes. A lot of controversy in the campaign over his wife’s legal troubles involving the illegal offshore gambling ring run by her brothers. You’ve hammered away at it on the campaign trail and in campaign ads. Why is what happened to his wife and her brothers fair game for your campaign against Tierney?
Well, you know what Bob, I think you have it wrong: it’s John Tierney that’s the issue, not his wife. And from the beginning of this he came out and he told people things that just weren’t true. And the reason he’s having trouble right now isn’t because of his wife, it’s because of him.
So straight out, you don’t believe him either?
It’s very — I’m meeting thousands of people across the district every week. They don’t believe him. I don’t believe that — listen, if you believe him…
What about you, though? What about you?
If you believe him — well let’s just — can we go backwards?
What about you?
Well, I’ll say this: if I was the congressman in this district and I found out that almost a quarter of a million dollars in illegal gambling money went into my household, or any money from an illegal source, and I knew about it for two years — he’s known about it for two years — I would have given back the money. I would have given the money to the government, I would have given it up. So I would have handled it a lot different.
And people are fair in this district. If he came out at the beginning and said, “You know what? I made a mistake, this thing got beyond me. Before I knew it, all this stuff was going on.” People would have said, “You know what? That’s OK.” But he didn’t do that. He’s lied and he’s been dishonest the whole time and it’s all caught up to him.
So let’s get back to the big picture: Are you going to win? Are you going to become the first Republican congressman in Massachusetts in a good number of years?
Yeah, I feel optimistic, but very cautious. It’s very hard to beat a 16-year incumbent here in Massachusetts.
On Friday we will publish our interview with Rep. John Tierney.