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Retirement sets stage for a showdown

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / November 29, 2011
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Representative Barney Frank’s blockbuster announcement that he will retire after more than three decades in Washington, combined with newly drawn districts that create openings for Republicans, sets the stage for the most competitive battle for the state’s congressional seats in two decades.

The news set off a flurry of activity and rampant speculation about who may vie for the open seat in a dramatically redrawn Fourth Congressional District.

“Redistricting is like spring cleaning; it opens up a lot of new opportunities and uncovers potential candidates,’’ said Rob Gray, a veteran Republican strategist. “There will be a lot more action for Republicans than there has been in almost two decades, given the new districts.’’ Wholesale changes in districts resulted from the state’s loss of a House seat after the 2010 Census.

Republican Scott Brown broke the all-Democratic hold on the state’s congressional delegation with his election to the US Senate last year, but Republicans have not held a House seat from Massachusetts since 1996, when Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen were swept away in the Clinton presidential reelection tide.

Both Republicans had been elected in 1992 after redistricting and defeated incumbents who had been tarred by scandal.

Frank, first elected to Congress in 1980, told reporters yesterday that the new district lines were a major factor in his decision to retire at the end of his term next year. Last year, he beat back a strong challenge from Republican Sean Bielat, a former Marine, who is considering a 2012 run in the district.

The new district includes Frank’s liberal northern base around Newton and Brookline and adds Democratic-leaning Needham, but eliminates the Democratic stronghold of New Bedford and adds 16 towns, mostly in the central and southern tiers. They include the city of Attleboro and the towns of North Attleborough, Franklin, Walpole, Wrentham, and Milford. Many lean or are solidly Republican, and some have provided fertile ground for the fiscal conservatism of Tea Party insurgents.

Besides the fourth, districts considered more hospitable for Republicans include the sixth, north of Boston - held by eight-term Democratic incumbent John Tierney of Salem, who ousted Torkildsen - and the new ninth, in Southeastern Massachusetts. This district includes New Bedford and more than half of Fall River, but also 10 mostly conservative towns in Plymouth and Bristol County. The cities of Quincy and Weymouth are now part of another district.

Former state senator Richard Tisei, a Wakefield Republican, has announced his candidacy in the sixth, where Tierney is under fire because his wife has been drawn into the federal prosecution of her two brothers in connection with an illegal offshore gambling operation. Patrice Tierney pleaded guilty a year ago to helping one brother, Robert Eremian, now a fugitive, file false tax returns. Last week she testified in US District Court against a second brother, Daniel, who is on trial on racketeering and money-laundering charges in connection with the operation.

Both the congressman and his wife, who visited Robert Eremian in Antigua, have said that they believed Robert was running a legitimate business as a software consultant, not as owner of the gambling company.

Republican William Hudak of Boxford, who unsuccessfully challenged Tierney in 2010, is also a candidate.

Although Tierney’s troubles may raise the GOP’s prospects in the sixth, new district lines could improve the party’s chances elsewhere.

“The gerrymandering that was so severe has largely disappeared, and Republicans are enthusiastic about the new lines,’’ said Nate Little, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “It’s obvious that more districts are competitive.

“A lot of folks are poking around,’’ he said, deciding whether to run in various districts, “but I’m not going to step on any toes today.’’

In Frank’s district, Elizabeth Childs, a member of the Brookline School Committee and a former state commissioner of mental health, had previously announced her candidacy as a Republican.

State Representative Daniel Winslow, Republican of Norfolk, squelched speculation yesterday that he would run.

But state Senator Richard Ross, Republican of Wrentham, a new town in the district, said, “It would be foolish not to consider it, because it’s an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime, but I need to be sure it’s the right thing for my family.’’

On the Democratic side, Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter, a second-term Democrat from Fall River, has signaled he intends to run and is scheduled to make an announcement next week.

There are several potential Democratic candidates from Brookline.

Alan Khazei, who recently dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for US Senate, said: “People have started calling me. I just finished a campaign and have to spend time with my family and think it through. We’ll see. I didn’t anticipate this at all.’’

Deborah Goldberg, who finished second in the three-way Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2006, was also taking soundings yesterday, as was Jesse Mermell, a Brookline selectwoman.

In the southern end of the district, state Representative James Vallee, Democrat of Franklin, one of the new towns in the fourth, said he will take a serious look at the race. “I have to do my due diligence,’’ he said.

John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the new fourth was “marginally better for the Republicans.’’

“The truth of the matter is that in a presidential election year, the more action there is in a district, if we can harness it as a team, it really helps us,’’ said Walsh, who led the effort to build the party’s infrastructure to identify and reach so-called “sporadic-voting Democrats.’’

Some districts may now be more Republican-friendly, but longtime Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said the overriding factor is the fact that it is a presidential year. That, combined with a hot race for US Senate, will lead to a surge in turnout. With the state considered a lock for President Obama, it will help Democrats, she said.

“Where, in other parts of the country, Democrats will have the wind in their faces, in Massachusetts in 2012, Democrats will have the wind at their backs,’’ Marsh said.

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com.

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