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Joan Vennochi

Mass. voters send signal to Hill

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 25, 2011

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NATIONALLY, THE problem is jobs. Locally, it’s corrupt politics.

The combination makes Democrats vulnerable, even in Massachusetts. The latest evidence: Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican, won a special election last Tuesday to fill a Massachusetts House seat in the 12th Bristol district that was long held by Democrats. In her first run for state office, Orrall beat Democrat Roger Brunelle Jr. of Middleborough, with 54 percent of the vote.

Brunelle, a union painter and labor activist, won the traditional Democratic stronghold of New Bedford by a wide margin. But Orrall won everywhere else, including Brunelle’s hometown. Her victory brings the number of Republican members in the Massachusetts House to 33 out of 140.

The Massachusetts Republican Party promptly e-mailed a Boston Herald editorial that attributed Orrall’s victory to the “DiMasi effect’’ - a reference to former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who was recently sentenced to eight years in prison after his conviction on pay-to-play corruption charges. Last week’s indictment of a former probation commissioner, along with a top aide to former state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, ups the sliminess index on Beacon Hill.

These recent cases represent only the latest in a round of Democratic political scandals. For a decade, covering the police beat in Massachusetts meant covering the convictions of two former House speakers, two former state senators, and a Boston city councilor.

Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican party said Orrall’s victory signals a desire for “fresh eyes and new ideas. It’s not so much about party, but about something new,’’ he said.

Orrall is a former member of her town’s finance committee and a former public school teacher who home-schools her children. On her campaign website, she told voters she was born in Ohio, her father is “Japanese from Hawaii,’’ her mother is German Irish and she went to Smith College.

“People do not want higher taxes. They do not have the money for higher taxes. They do not want to work two and three jobs to survive in this state,’’ she declared.

A GOP victory in a local legislative race with only 11 percent turnout is much less momentous than the GOP victory in the congressional district formerly represented by Democrat Anthony Weiner of New York. But it’s still worthy of note - and cause for Democratic Party concern.

A recent survey of Massachusetts voters by Public Policy Polling showed that President Obama enjoys a 53-to-40 percent edge in a hypothetical match against Republican Mitt Romney; still, his advantage is down from a 20-point edge in June. The poll also showed that 49 percent approve of Obama’s job performance and 45 percent disapprove. That is down from 58-to-37 percent last June.

Since that same poll showed Republican Senator Scott Brown in a dead heat with Democrat and political newcomer Elizabeth Warren, voter dissatisfaction could be related to a more general anti-incumbent mood. Given that Democrats account for most of the incumbents in Massachusetts, that could be a problem for them.

Republicans have won two of three special House elections over the past year and the GOP is finding it easier to field candidates, according to House Minority Leader Bradley Jones of North Reading. “There are a lot of people who have been sitting in their armchair at home, yelling at the TV, now saying, ‘I need to get involved,’ ’’ he said.

As Orrall waged her campaign for the House, DiMasi’s trial, conviction, and sentencing played out in court. Jones considers the sleazy backdrop a factor in this Republican victory. But he said it should also be analyzed against another backdrop: the economic unease that many feel, even though Massachusetts is doing better than the rest of the country. “People are very, very apprehensive of their own future. Now more than ever they want to make sure the tax dollars they are giving up are being spent wisely and well,’’ said Jones.

Of course, each time Massachusetts Republicans are supposedly poised for resurgence, Democrats come surging back. Governor Deval Patrick showed how it’s done when he won a second term in 2010.

But that was then. Now, the focus is on bills that are harder to pay and corrupt Democrats who pay to play.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.