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Culture clash
The Portugal-trip-taking, quick-tempered incumbent faces off against a gay ex-priest with a Georgetown PhD in what could be the most volatile House race of 2006

Attack Eugene O’Flaherty, and he’ll come out swinging.

Last month, the state rep from Chelsea took a beating after the Massachusetts legislature watered down the anti-drunk-driving legislation known as Melanie’s Bill. By the time the bill left the conference committee — where O’Flaherty, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, was the top House member — and headed to the House floor on the evening of October 19, two key provisions that would have made it easier to prosecute repeat offenders had been excised.

That was bad enough. But the surrounding circumstances made matters much, much worse. It didn’t help that O’Flaherty and several other committee members had represented drunk drivers in court. But then it really looked bad when O’Flaherty exited the State House before his committee’s work was done, and before the House as a whole had voted. And — most damaging of all — he did so, along with several other legislators, because he was hustling to Logan Airport to fly to Portugal for a group vacation.

Amid the ensuing avalanche of bad press, O’Flaherty cut his trip short, flew home, and went on the offensive. Over the next week or two, he seemed to be everywhere: there was a lengthy profile in the Globe, multiple appearances on AM talk radio, and even a front-page piece in Bay Windows, Boston’s gay and lesbian newspaper, which highlighted O’Flaherty’s decision to support civil unions for same-sex couples. (He still opposes civil marriages.)

It was, O’Flaherty readily admits, a "PR offensive." Just don’t call it an apology. O’Flaherty — who grew up in Chelsea and County Kerry, Ireland, and carries himself with a street kid’s clenched intensity — now says he should have stuck around to defend his committee’s work. But he also insists that the committee’s version of the bill was a good one; that allegations he and other legislators were biased by their work representing drunk drivers were unfair; that there was a solid legal rationale for the changes his committee made; and that the Massachusetts Senate and Governor Mitt Romney manipulated the situation for political gain. In fact, O’Flaherty seems to view the whole episode as a kind of political bar fight. "It had a chilling effect on me," O’Flaherty said during a recent interview with the Phoenix. "I felt, for the first time in my political career, that I was being maligned and vilified. I’m getting kicked and punched like this" — here O’Flaherty holds his arms over his head, as though warding off blows — "and I have no chance to defend myself."

One other point worth noting: As O’Flaherty tells it, his PR push had no connection to the recently announced candidacy of Chris Schiavone, a gay ex-priest from Charlestown who just launched his bid to unseat O’Flaherty in next year’s Democratic primary. "I don’t even know the gentleman," he says. "I believe that last vote I got in that last election" — a landslide victory over challenger Kathryn Duggan in the 2004 Democratic primary — "was an affirmation by the people I represent that I’m doing a good job. You’re always going to have folks that disagree with you."


It strains credulity, though, to suggest that Schiavone’s challenge wasn’t in the back of O’Flaherty’s mind as he made the media rounds. Consider the timing of the Bay Windows piece. O’Flaherty’s support of civil unions wasn’t breaking news; back in September, the Phoenix reported O’Flaherty’s decision to oppose a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages without creating civil unions. But parlaying it into a front-page story in a paper with high readership in the gay community may have helped O’Flaherty keep socially liberal constituents from flocking to his challenger.

If so, it was a smart move. Considering that the Democratic primary is still 10 months away, Schiavone is off to a surprisingly fast start. This summer, he took a sabbatical from City Square Associates, the Cambridge-based market-research firm he founded in 1997, to complete what he calls the "discernment process" — a phrase that harkens back to his years in the priesthood — and decide whether to run. Among other things, Schiavone put his employees to work gathering focus-group data from a broad section of residents of the Second Suffolk, which includes Charlestown and Chelsea. This process convinced Schiavone that O’Flaherty, despite being a nine-year incumbent with a key leadership post, is eminently beatable.

It also helped Schiavone fine-tune his campaign message. The plan, it seems, is to argue that O’Flaherty’s ability to represent his constituents is hampered by an unhealthy fixation on social issues. "Here’s what I walked away from those groups having learned," Schiavone — who has a PhD in the epistemology and philosophy of religion from Georgetown, and speaks with the measured articulateness of an academic — tells the Phoenix. "There is a gigantic divide between the kinds of issues and concerns that voters have — these would be things like quality schools, safety on their streets, the fact that their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews can’t get access to substance-abuse treatment — there’s a gigantic divide between the things voters are really concerned about and the issues that Gene O’Flaherty has decided make signature issues."

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Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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