LYNNFIELD, Mass. — Richard Tisei knows he might encounter a few “knuckleheads” in the House GOP conference if he joins its ranks as the first openly gay Republican in Congress next year.
But so far, Tisei says, he’s heard only encouragement.
“I feel totally comfortable,” Tisei said during an interview in his campaign headquarters in Lynnfield, Mass.
“I’m sure that there are a few knuckleheads that will, you know, look at me based on my sexuality as opposed to what I bring to the table. But I’ve got to say, every single person I’ve met so far has made me feel really comfortable.”
Tisei is now favored by some election prognosticators to defeat Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) in this Democratic district north of Boston. A gambling scandal involving Tierney’s family has dominated the campaign.
Tisei has received significant fundraising help from GOP leaders, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently visited the district.
But his history-making candidacy also comes at a time when Boehner and the House leadership have waged an expensive legal battle to preserve the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Tisei — along with many Democrats — has called DOMA “unconstitutional.”
A real estate broker who served 26 years in the Massachusetts Legislature, Tisei met with House Republicans earlier this year as his campaign was gaining steam.
“A lot of members have made it a point to come up to me and tell me that they’re very supportive of me because they believe that the party needs to be more diverse, not only from the standpoint of having a gay member of the caucus, but also from a geographical standpoint,” Tisei said.
“There aren’t very many Northeast Republicans nowadays, and most people recognize that in order to have a truly national party, you have to have members coming from all over the country.”
Tisei said Boehner understood that he would not vote in lockstep with the party, particularly on social issues like gay rights and abortion rights, which he supports.
“While they don’t agree on every issue, Richard and the Speaker respect one another,” Boehner spokesman Cory Fritz said. “And we expect Richard will be a strong, independent voice for his Massachusetts constituents that want a new approach to help create jobs and prosperity.”
Tisei’s candidacy has drawn national attention because of his sexual orientation, but it is mostly an afterthought given the long shadows that Tierney’s family troubles have cast over the campaign.
Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty shortly after the 2010 election to tax fraud in connection with an illegal gambling business her brothers were running in Antigua.
Tierney has denied any involvement from the beginning.
“My brother-in-law may be involved with the law, but I had nothing to do with it,” he told The Hill in a phone interview.
Tisei says otherwise. He points to a trip Tierney took to Antigua when his brothers-in-law were under investigation.
“He’s a United States congressman. What was he thinking?” Tisei said. “I think a lot of people have a legitimate question about that.”
Tisei also accused Tierney of concealing income of more than $200,000 from the gambling ring on official financial disclosure forms, even though he said he had not profited from the venture.
“[Tierney’s] problem in this district is that people have been watching this scandal unfold for two years and watching and listening to him, and they don’t believe anything he says,” Tisei said in the interview.
Tierney fired back by saying Tisei was “flat-out lying” and running a “smear campaign” against him.
He has said the money Tisei referenced was a family gift.
“He’s off on his facts. He’s off on his insinuations,” Tierney said. “People are pretty upset that he’s stooped so low.”
Tierney, now serving his 11th term, has stuck to the Democratic playbook in the Northeast, trying to link his opponent to the Tea Party and more conservative Republican leaders.
Yet he’s had trouble making the case against Tisei, who has said he would oppose the Republican budget offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).
He also refused to sign the anti-tax pledge organized by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, although he signed a state version in 2010 when he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.
When Tierney brought up the Tea Party at a debate in North Andover on Wednesday, the Tisei-friendly crowd booed.
The two candidates had fairly equal showings of support outside the high school where the debate was held.
But Tisei backers mocked the Tierney campaign for bringing in paid union supporters who didn’t stay for the debate.
Tisei has said he would be an independent voice in Washington, and he argues that Massachusetts would benefit from having at least one member of the majority party in the House.
At that, Tierney scoffs.
“They’re not going to listen to him,” he said.
A vote for Tisei, he suggested, would be a vote to empower the Tea Party.
“People don’t want this group of extremists down there and anyone who’s going to aid and abet them,” he said.
While the Cook Political Report projects the race leaning Tisei’s way after a Boston Globe poll showed him ahead, Tierney says his own polls show him leading.
“We know it’s going to be a close race, but we’re going to keep slugging it out until the end,” he said.
The increasingly nasty campaign has stirred up passions on both sides.
A Tisei supporter at Wednesday’s debate, Eleanor Higgott, 65, praised the Republican as “a great guy and a conservative.”
As for Tierney, she said, “I don’t know enough about him, except that his wife’s a snake, he’s a snake an he’s a Democrat, worst of all.”
Tisei’s potential to be the first openly gay House Republican was a non-issue for Higgott.
“That means nothing to me,” she said.
A Tierney supporter, George Barnes, 53, acknowledged the congressman’s family problems “had hurt him.”
But he was more forgiving. “We all have family members that go in another direction,” he said.
“In-laws and outlaws, and it’s the same for him.”