LOWELL - A defiant Gloucester lawyer Ed O'Reilly garnered enough support yesterday from party officials to ensure that he will give US Senator John F. Kerry his first Democratic primary challenge in 24 years.
At the state Democratic Party convention, O'Reilly got 22.5 percent of the 2,574 ballots cast, more than the 15 percent he needed to secure a spot on the primary ballot. Because Kerry received a majority of the votes, he will get the party's official endorsement.
"Party officials said this campaign is a nuisance. And it is. It's a total nuisance," O'Reilly said at the convention, held at the Paul E. Tsongas Arena in downtown Lowell. "Democracy is a nuisance. People said the American Revolution was a nuisance - and it was."
Kerry, in his fourth six-year term, last had a serious challenge in 1996, from Governor William F. Weld, a Republican. He has not had a primary opponent since 1984, when Kerry and three other Democrats ran for a seat vacated by Paul Tsongas.
Few predict the sitting senator and former presidential candidate will be vulnerable in a primary race against a novice in statewide politics. But it could mean more campaigning this summer and marks a minor political embarrassment that Kerry was unable to prevent O'Reilly from getting enough support to get on the ballot.
Kerry took the stage yesterday to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen, with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and daughter Vanessa at his side.
"I'm here with humility to ask for your support," Kerry said, after being introduced by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "We have literally so much unfinished business. . . . My friends, I have more energy, I feel more focused, I'm more ready for the fight than ever before."
Some supporters of Hillary Clinton have resented Kerry for his endorsement of Barack Obama. Others hold lingering resentment over his Iraq war vote, or simply did not want to deny O'Reilly a spot on the ballot.
O'Reilly, a former city councilor, had met all the other requirements to secure a spot in the primary ballot, including gathering 10,000 signatures. But his highest hurdle was getting 15 percent of the vote from party leaders yesterday, a requirement Kerry supporters worked hard to prevent.
"It would be a lot easier if John didn't have an opponent," said Patricia Armstrong, a 65-year-old Milton resident, who gave O'Reilly credit for his efforts but wanted Kerry to be able to focus on using his national stature to stump for other candidates. "Then he could focus on other races. He could be working in other states that need more help."
At several points during the convention, tempers flared.
A delegate was escorted off the convention floor for having a homemade sign, which read, "John Kerry, Anti-Gay Marriage, Anti-Massachusetts."
Aaron Toleos, codirector of the gay advocacy group KnowThyNeighbor.org, said he was physically assaulted during the incident and is considering legal options. He said he has the incident on videotape and planned to post it on YouTube.
O'Reilly supporters also objected when Kerry's speech to the convention floor stretched well beyond the 12-minute time limit, to nearly 25 minutes. Party chairman John Walsh apologized, but O'Reilly declined his offer for more time to give another speech. "I take responsibility," Walsh said. "I didn't have my eye on the clock."
In the general election, the winner in the Sept. 16 primary will face Jeff Beatty, a 55-year-old Republican Army veteran from Harwich.
Jim Ogonowski, who was the Republican party's favored candidate, failed last week to qualify for the GOP primary ballot, delivering 30 signatures shy of the 10,000 he needed.
Ogonowski, a 50-year-old Dracut farmer who lost a congressional bid to Niki Tsongas last year, issued a statement Friday saying he would leave the race.
Nearly 2,600 attended the convention yesterday, including the state's top political leaders, but the events were dominated even more by the one person not there: Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Nearly every speaker who took the podium mentioned Kennedy, who is recovering from brain surgery at Duke Medical Center until at least tomorrow. Party leaders distributed navy blue "Tedstrong" wristbands as a sign of support, and some wore buttons saying, "Fight on Teddy."
Kerry said he was e-mailed yesterday morning by Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, just before he came to the convention, saying they wished they could be there. "I sent back, 'You are here, Ted. You are here, Vicki,' " Kerry said.
Several speakers yesterday also tried to heal wounds from a bruising national Democratic primary race that divided many of the state party's elite. Dozens crowded around a TV broadcasting C-SPAN's coverage of Clinton's concession speech.
"If change is what you want, then start by shaking the hand of someone here who supported a different candidate," Governor Deval Patrick said in a 15-minute address to the convention. "Pair up Clinton supporters and Obama supporters to have a work-for-change event in your community."
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.