Marblehead's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2005 turned purple for about two hours Sunday afternoon, April 27, as independent, Democratic and Republican voters packed the upper community room to hear from native son Seth Moulton, the Democratic candidate for the 6th District seat in Congress currently held by John Tierney.
"Can I have your attention please?" Selectman Harry Christensen yelled out over friendly chatter. "We'd like to get started."
Everyone followed orders, settling into seats or remaining standing. With Moulton to his right, Christensen likened the candidate, who holds three Harvard degrees but has also served four deployments in Iraq, to Marblehead's beloved Duncan Sleigh, a promising young man who died in the Vietnam War while protecting his comrades.
“If that kid had lived past the war, he would have been in Washington, D.C., right now as a congressman — maybe even president," Christensen said. "If you believe in reincarnation, this guy behind me has all the Duncan attributes, the same abilities and the same character — and he's heading to Washington, D.C."
Those who created the standing-room-only event — hosted by Harry and Marsha Christensen, Gene and Judy Jacobi and Buck Grader — engaged in a conversation with the first-time politician trying to unseat a fellow Democrat, Congressman John Tierney.
In his 20-minute stump speech, Moulton honed in on three areas in which he believes Tierney has failed to lead the district effectively: education, veterans services and jobs.
"People are clamoring for jobs and are unemployed, underemployed," he said. "The 6th District has higher unemployment than the rest of Massachusetts."
Moulton also desires to improve education by bridging a gap between charter and public schools.
“Massachusetts has some of the best schools, yet right here at home, we have failing schools in Salem and Lynn,” he said. “It’s not right that you can grow up in Marblehead 50 yards from your next-door neighbor and have different prospects based on the zip code in which you were born.”
On his third point, Moulton said he has seen “failed leadership for our veterans,” a cause that is near and dear to his heart.
“There are a lot of members [of Congress] who’ve paid lip service to saying they’ll do things for veterans’ care, but I can tell you it has not improved,” he said.
Marbleheaders have rallied around Moulton, contributing more in individual donations, $48,100, than to any other candidate in the district, according to the Federal Election Commission. Tierney had raised $18,191 from Marblehead donors, while Republican Richard Tisei had taken in $11,350.
While Moulton may enjoy hometown support, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last month released a poll showing Tierney holding a 64-17 percent edge in support over Moulton, with 20 percent undecided. In a recent meeting with Gatehouse Media editors, Moulton put a positive spin on the numbers, noting how rare it is for such a poll to be conducted at this stage of the race. Moulton suggested that means he is considered a threat to Tierney, who was first elected to the seat in 1996. Moulton acknowledged that many don’t yet know his name but will soon, he pledged.
In November 2012, Tierney narrowly held on to his seat, winning by 1 percentage point over Republican challenger Richard Tisei. Moulton suggested he would be better equipped to square off against Tisei this November.
“Every election year, the national party has to give millions of dollars just to hold on to the [6th District] seat,” Moulton said. “It’s Massachusetts — it shouldn’t be that hard to hold on to that seat.”
Many in the room, organizers suspected, were undecided but frustrated with a dysfunctional Congress that they believe needs new blood and an incumbent whose performance has lacked luster.
"I'm running against our congressman who’s passed one bill in 18 years, and it was a bill to name his hometown ‘Birthplace of the National Guard,’” Moulton quipped.
It’s a line of attack that Tisei also has used, though it is also one that Tierney has steadfastly insisted is unfair, noting that he has added amendments to numerous bills. Tierney has suggested that the criticism is more revealing of his challengers’ naivete about how Washington works than anything else. Nonetheless, Moulton pledges he can do better.
Some at the event had advice rather than questions for the 35-year-old. One woman said Moulton needed to offer more specifics about what he plans to do if he garners the seat. Another said he needed to reach out to more independent voters.
Moulton has thus far steered clear of issues related to Tierney’s wife’s family, which dominated the campaign two years ago, instead focusing on Tierney’s votes and record as a policy maker.
Another argument Tisei, too, has made is that Tierney votes in lockstep with the Democratic Congressional leadership more than 90 percent of the time, according to Project Vote Smart.
“Seth is the kind of guy who can reach across aisles,” Buck Grader said. “He’s the kind of guy who brings credibility when he talks to a conservative, and they will respect his Marine Corps service.”
He added, “They will respect his values because his coming from a position of integrity, commitment and loyalty. If he said he’ll do something, he’ll do it.”
In November 2012, Tisei won by a narrow 12-vote margin in Marblehead, in an election in which the town supported the unsuccessful reelection bid of Republican Sen. Scott Brown by a wider margin (6,476 votes to 5,920 for now Sen. Elizabeth Warren) but also backed the reelection of President Barack Obama (6,824 votes to 5,422 for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney).
After Moulton left the event, with the room almost empty, Christensen predicted Marblehead will have Moulton’s back in the Sept. 9 primary.
“This guy is going to be perfect in Marblehead,” Christensen said. “There’s no question in my mind. He’ll take Marblehead.”