US Representative John F. Tierney and challenger Richard Tisei trade heated charges in debate

NORTH ANDOVER—Television viewers who have endured even a single commercial break lately could be excused for thinking the bitter contest between US Representative John F. Tierney and Republican challenger Richard Tisei revolves around a single issue: how much, if anything, Tierney knew about the illegal gambling ring run by his wife’s brothers.

Neither said a word about that matter Wednesday night in their third debate—avoiding it just as they had in the first debate, and as they nearly did in the second, when only Tierney brought it up, to accuse Tisei of an underhanded attack. But that hardly made for a dull night, as Tierney came out swinging, calling Tisei a debate-ducker who feigns moderation but would consort with the far right of the Republican Party.

Tisei in turn called Tierney a do-nothing lawmaker without a single bill to his credit in 16 years, labeling the incumbent a lemming for the Democratic leadership on a raucous night in which the crowd frequently interrupted the candidates and even drowned out much of Tierney’s closing statement, first with boos from Tisei partisans and then reflexive cheers from the Tierney supporters among the several hundred in the North Andover High School auditorium.

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Though Tierney is an eight-term incumbent, the Sixth Congressional District race has become unusually competitive—and personal—due largely to the legal issues swirling about Tierney’s family, as well as Tisei’s reputation as a moderate Republican in 26 years in the state Legislature.

Tierney’s wife, Patrice, last year served a one-month prison sentence and five months of house arrest after admitting “willful blindness” to an illegal gambling enterprise run by her brothers and agreed to plead guilty to tax fraud for handling bills and taxes in the United States for one of the brothers. The issue has been the subject of ads on both sides.

Politico recently named the race one of the 10 nastiest in the country, while the National Journal ranked it the 11th most likely to turn over among the 435 seats in the House. Last weekend, the Rothenberg Political Report, another nationally regarded nonpartisan observer, tipped the race to “Lean Republican” from “Toss-up.”