Tierney, Torkildsen Brace for Massachusetts Grudge Match
By Molly Peterson
HAVERHILL, Mass. (Oct. 22) "If you weren't a Republican, I'd vote for you," an elderly supermarket shopper advised former Rep. Peter Torkildsen during a recent campaign stop here in northern Massachusetts. "Get rid of Gingrich, Lott and Starr and I'll vote for you."
"Give me an easy task," a smiling Torkildsen retorted. As he tries to win his old job back, he offers his four-year House voting record as proof that he would bring a Republican voice to the Bay State's delegation, but he won't bow to partisan demands of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, or any other GOP honcho.
Instead, he promises, he will display unflinching loyalty to the priorities of his diverse, North Shore-based district.
The race has highlighted the complex political dynamics of a Republican candidate trying to break into an all-Democratic delegation from a heavily Democratic state in a Republican-controlled Congress. It is a precise political situation that few other moderate Republicans face.
But Torkildsen's quest to stake out a path of independence is a common theme for GOP moderates this year as they seek to win at the polls by simultaneously highlighting their differences with GOP leaders while still wielding influence with their party in Congress.
Torkildsen and his GOP supporters, who see Tierney as one of this year's most vulnerable House Democrats, argue that the absence of any Massachusetts Republicans on Capitol Hill has put the state at a distinct disadvantage with the GOP leadership. A case in point, they say, is the massive transportation reauthorization law enacted last June [P.L. 105-178], which provided every state with an increase in federal funds over five years except Massachusetts, which saw a decrease.
"It follows logically that when you have a House of Representatives and Senate with a Republican majority, and Massachusetts has nothing but liberal Democrats in the Congress, they're not in sync with the rest of the country and they're certainly not at the table," said Mike Donohue, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"Nobody's listening to that," declared Tierney, who chalks that argument up to inside-the-Beltway "gobbledy-gook" and claims to have done more for the district in two years than Torkildsen did in four. As an example, he pointed to that same transportation law, in which he negotiated $50 million in construction funds to extend Boston's "Blue Line" commuter rail to Lynn, the district's largest city.
Torkildsen maintains that Tierney has taken undue credit for obtaining those funds, since the $50 million, though authorized in the comprehensive transportation law, never actually made it into this year's transportation spending bill [H.R. 4328]. But earlier this month, as lawmakers were folding that bill and several others into a catch-all appropriations measure, Tierney struck a deal to earmark $1 million for a study of the project in fiscal 1999.
"[Torkildsen] had tried for four years to do it, and he hadn't been able to do it, and others before him had tried, and hadn't done it," Tierney said of his Blue Line negotiations.
Complicating the debate even further is the political, economic and cultural diversity of the 6th District, which leans to the left but seems to defy labels.
The region spans the economic spectrum, from pockets of urban poverty in working-class towns such as Lynn that have smarted from industrial cutbacks for years, to cozy middle-class suburbs, to affluent communities along the coast. Development in the district's more rural areas has attracted young families but upset farm preservationists.
Even in a single community there is unusual diversity. Salty, centuries-old Gloucester, for example, boasts the nation's oldest fishing port that for years has battled the economic repercussions of diminishing fish stocks. The town also is home to a variety of non-maritime manufacturing centers, a vibrant artistic community, and an ethnically and economically diverse population.
With its seaside and historic attractions, Gloucester also enjoys booming tourism, as do other areas throughout the district, including Salem, home of the infamous 17th century witch trials.
The two candidates approach the diverse, sometimes competing priorities differently and the campaign has become increasingly personal. Torkildsen has questioned Tierney's ethical conduct in such matters as the House investigation of the Teamsters election and Tierney has accused Torkildsen of using underhanded methods to "play to everybody all at once" politically.
Torkildsen derided Tierney as "incredibly lackadaisical" for failing to land a seat on the committee that oversees the defense industry, which provides tens of thousands of local jobs. He claims Tierney should have followed in his footsteps by serving on that panel.
Tierney, in turn, accused Torkildsen of ignoring education for the "entire four years" he served in Washington. But his own seat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Tierney said, has placed him at the forefront of top-priority local issues such as school reform, job security and health coverage.
As the two candidates compete in their attempts to balance an unusually wide variety of local interests, some of their rhetoric is similar to that of other House races this year in which moderates' ties to party leaders, or the lack thereof, are a subject of debate.
"The bottom line is that when Newt Gingrich needed him, he was there," Tierney said of Torkildsen in a recent interview on the campaign trail.
Torkildsen scoffed at that claim, maintaining that "only somebody from the far left wing of politics could not see me as a moderate."
But there's nothing moderate about the candidates' bitter rivalry, or the chilly, sarcastic tone they take when discussing one another.
The seeds for November's colossal grudge match were sown in 1994 the year the Republicans won control of Congress. Tierney, a political newcomer, challenged the GOP freshman Torkildsen, who two years earlier had won a decisive victory over Democrat Nicholas Mavroules, a longtime incumbent saddled with a weighty indictment on tax and bribery charges.
Tierney lost the 1994 race by a 4 percentage point margin, or 7,000 votes, and then came back in 1996 to win the seat by a razor-thin margin of 371 votes. Both candidates garnered roughly 48 percent of the vote that year, and the recount lasted for weeks.
Since then, Torkildsen, 40, has been on a non-stop campaign to recapture the seat, and the two candidates have pulled no punches in their battles over issues that range from teacher quality to defense spending, from Medicare to mass transit, from campaign finance reform to their own election-year warchests.
But neither candidate is fighting alone. Republican party officials have aimed their heavy artillery at Tierney, whom they view as one of this year's 10 most vulnerable House Democrats.
"Peter Torkildsen is one of our strongest challengers in the nation," Donohue said, and the 6th District race is "one of the closest ones in New England."
Democratic consultant Michael Goldman, an adviser to Tierney, laughed off that assessment, saying that the latest surveys show Tierney with nearly a 20-point lead. "We've just cleaned his clock," Goldman said.
"If this is a targeted race, they aren't paying attention," Goldman said of the GOP strategists. He cited a new survey by Boston-based Democratic pollster Tom Kiley, indicating that of 400 likely voters, 53 percent favored Tierney, 34 percent favored Torkildsen, 2 percent supported Independent candidate Randal Fritz, and 11 percent were undecided.
But Republican officials point to projections this month by Charlie Cook, an independent, Washington political analyst, indicating that Tierney has a "slight edge" but the race is essentially a toss-up.
"If [Torkildsen] is behind now, he's not behind by very much and that's understandable, considering that he's the challenger," Donohue said.
Torkildsen faces a more formidable opponent than ever in Tierney, who is capitalizing on his incumbency and its built-in advantages.
"He's running against me this time," Tierney was quick to clarify, in response to a question phrased the other way around. "I ran against him last time."
And Tierney, 47, has amassed about $300,000 more in contributions than Torkildsen, whose refusal to accept any money from political action committees is a campaign cornerstone.
Tierney has garnered some high-profile endorsements, including that of Peabody Mayor Peter Torigian, whom the Boston Globe has dubbed "the dean of Massachusetts mayors." Although Torigian, a Democrat, typically expresses support for Democratic tickets, he rarely endorses candidates by name and declined to endorse Tierney in 1994 and 1996. But this year he and four other Democratic mayors who represent 225,000 of the district's roughly 600,000 residents formally endorsed Tierney.
Tierney also has the backing of environmental activist and perennial cinema heartthrob Robert Redford, who was expected to tape a television ad touting Tierney's environmental record this month. "Obviously, that name resonates everywhere," said Tierney campaign spokeswoman Jane Lane.
Torkildsen may not have any movie stars enlisting in his cause, but he is well-armed with something most non-incumbents must spend countless days and dollars to establish in the minds of the voters: his name. "He's well-known in the district and he doesn't have to raise his name awareness," Donohue said. "He has a strong base of support."
Torkildsen may be the Republicans' best hope for restoring a GOP voice to the Massachusetts congressional delegation, which Democrats swept up in the same 1996 tide that helped President Clinton coast to victory with a 33 percent state-wide vote margin the highest in the nation.
But Torkildsen's best hope of recapturing his House seat appears to hinge on his ability to distance himself from his own party's leaders.
"I consider myself a fiscal conservative and a social moderate," Torkildsen explained during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in middle-class Peabody, the district's second-largest town. "I think my positions, by and large, are very consistent with the people in this district."
A LEGI-SLATE vote analysis indicates that Torkildsen voted with House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, about 76 percent of the time during his two terms in Congress.
Torkildsen said he broke ranks with the GOP leadership on at least a dozen significant issues, including abortion rights and a proposed ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. He also noted that he was one of just six Republicans to vote against a sweeping 1995 GOP plan to reform Medicare, which would have trimmed $270 billion from the program over seven years.
"I know it infuriated [Tierney] that I did that," Torkildsen said.
But Tierney called that a "throw-away vote" that Republican leaders would not really have needed because they already had rounded up enough support to pass the bill without Torkildsen's help. On votes that "really mattered," he charged, Torkildsen was a GOP loyalist. Tierney maintained, for example, that by siding with his leaders on Medicare provisions in budget-related bills, Torkildsen ultimately supported their plans to cut the program by nearly $300 billion.
"He sounds like he's running for the Democratic nomination, if you listen to him," Tierney said. "But if you follow his record, it's basically one of inconsistency and convenience, and not one of any strong philosophical position."
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., voiced a similar complaint in 1996.
According to a LEGI-SLATE vote analysis, Torkildsen voted with the liberal Frank nearly 45 percent of the time during the 104th Congress. But Frank was not impressed.
"The only time Peter Torkildsen is with us is when we don't need him," Frank told his fellow state Democrats during their convention in Worcester, less than six months before Torkildsen lost his seat.
In that contest, Tierney and his allies also accused Torkildsen of using unorthodox tactics to increase his statistics of voting against his own party. They spread the word, for example, that Torkildsen had been "known" to stand in the well of the House during floor votes, watching the electronic tote board to ensure that GOP leaders had garnered the support they needed before casting his votes against them.
Torkildsen denied those allegations in a recent telephone interview. "No ... never stood in the well and watched the board," he said. "I may have voted late sometimes, but ... that's not my style."
Tierney's camp also cites Torkildsen's penchant for voting against the journal that is, the minutes of previous floor proceedings as evidence that he was trying to pad his anti-leadership score.
A LEGI-SLATE vote analysis confirmed that Torkildsen frequently opposed the journal during the latter half of the 104th Congress. But those dissenting votes did not dramatically reduce his record of voting with Armey. His pro-Armey record dropped less than 1 percentage point, from 76.5 percent to 75.7 percent, when journal votes were counted.
Asked why he often voted against the journal, Torkildsen said it was his way of responding to propaganda by "some wacko group." The group, he said, had alleged that a favorable journal vote amounted to a declaration of allegiance to Gingrich. He said he could not recall the name of the group, but believed it was funded by the Democratic party.
"I just said, 'How bizarre can you get,' and I voted against the journal," Torkildsen said. "Journal votes should not be measured in any type of standard like that."
But Goldman said the publicity surrounding Torkildsen's dissenting journal votes provided a shot in the arm to Tierney's 1996 campaign. "The local press played it funny," Goldman recalled.
Tierney also received plenty of help in his last contest from the AFL-CIO, which flooded the airwaves with radio advertisements attacking Torkildsen's record on Medicare, Social Security and pensions. However, state AFL-CIO spokeswoman Sarah Nathan said the organization is not planning an anti-Torkildsen ad campaign this year. "This time around he doesn't have a voting record because he's no longer a congressman, so we didn't feel much of a need to do that," said Nathan, who served as Tierney's campaign spokeswoman in 1996.
But Torkildsen continues to highlight his opponent's strong ties, financial and otherwise, to organized labor and portrays Tierney as a labor loyalist who is "too liberal" and "out of touch" with local priorities. He also has charged that Tierney, as a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, voted to effectively quash the issuance of subpoenas during the panel's investigation of the Teamsters election after accepting sizable campaign donations from the union.
"Any reasonable person would say that's a conflict of interest," Torkildsen said, noting that other Democrats who accepted Teamster funds either recused themselves from the committee vote or returned the money.
Tierney countered that he had done nothing wrong in casting that vote, and did not favor suppressing the investigation or the regular subpoena process. The vote, Tierney said, applied only to whether the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the investigation should have been granted the authority to issue subpoenas without committee approval.
Republicans also have accused Tierney a vocal advocate of campaign finance reform and chief sponsor of the Democrat-favored "Clean Money, Clean Elections Act" [H.R. 2199] of violating campaign finance laws himself in 1996. In a complaint to the Federal Election Commission filed in August, the state Republican party alleged that Tierney illegally transferred nearly $91,000 from his 1994 campaign account to his 1996 account without paying off his 1994 campaign debts.
Calling those charges Torkildsen's "latest desperation move," Tierney said the complaint was without merit because he made the transfer only after consulting with FEC lawyers, who assured him it was legal.
But Marc DeCourcey, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said party officials, not Torkildsen, initiated the complaint after discovering the transfer during a routine review of FEC records. "If Congressman Tierney doesn't think abiding by the law applies to him, maybe he ought not be a lawmaker," DeCourcey said.
The political and personal friction between Tierney and Torkildsen is sure to intensify in the coming weeks and their war of words is likely to repeat much of what voters heard two years ago. But while the candidates and their rhetoric may be the same, Republicans caution that the political atmosphere is much different this time around.
"There was no national Republican presence in Massachusetts" in 1996, DeCourcey said, concluding that the "great Clinton wipeout of Massachusetts" was largely responsible for Tierney's victory over Torkildsen, as well as Democratic Rep. James McGovern's defeat of Peter Blute the only other Massachusetts Republican in the 104th Congress.
But this year, he predicted, the sex scandal and allegations of impeachable offenses that have weakened Clinton's presidency will strengthen Massachusetts Republicans' political clout.
"Traditional Democratic voters are dispirited by President Clinton's troubles in Washington," DeCourcey said. "Likewise, reliable Republicans should come out in droves ... to send a message to Washington that they don't think this type of behavior is appropriate."
But Democrats predicted that the Clinton scandal would have the opposite effect, as voters particularly those in New England grow increasingly fed up with the GOP leadership's handling of the inquiry.
"I do think there is a bump back in the other direction, of people thinking there's something wrong here," Goldman said, noting that the recent poll by Kiley indicates that only 6 percent of the 400 district voters surveyed favored impeachment, and 61 percent said they would like to see the matter dropped, or punishment limited to a censure.
Torkildsen, who promised to look at the Clinton matter objectively and "neither be part of a lynch mob, nor an effort to sweep it under the rug" if he returns to Congress, said he does not expect the scandal to play a big role in the 6th District. But he said he has met "a lot of people who say they're so disgusted they're not going to vote at all."
Regardless of the Clinton scandal's impact, Republicans said other factors are working in Torkildsen's favor. This year, with no presidential race and no Senate race, Republicans have a strong gubernatorial contender - acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, who is in a close race with Democratic Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. That, Republicans said, would create a vastly different atmosphere for Torkildsen than the last election, in which Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole at the top of the ticket mustered only 31 percent of the vote.
Although the predictions for the 6th District race this year are all over the political map, the ultimate outcome will be decided by individual voters, whose priorities seem just as unpredictable.
"You go to one house, and they want to talk about nuclear disarmament," Tierney observed during a recent walk through a West Peabody neighborhood. "And the next house wants you to clean their gutters."
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service