As Political Season Opens, Well-Funded Campaign Targets State Senate Seat

By CHRIS BURRELL

Yard signs are starting to sprout on Island lawns, and fundraisers are in the offing, but the real proof that a hot race is under way for a spot on Beacon Hill came last week: Financial disclosures revealed the war chests and spending of candidates for the state legislature.

The message is clear.

Republicans want to win back the Cape and Islands seat in the state senate, and they're throwing big wads of cash at a campaign to defeat the incumbent Democrat, two-term Sen. Robert O'Leary.

His challenger is Dr. Gail Lese, a pediatrician-turned-investment manager, who has plunked $75,000 of her own money into the race and has outspent the incumbent by more than ten-to-one.

So far this year, Dr. Lese's expenditures total $164,897 compared to Sen. O'Leary's spending of $14,636.

She's also come out swinging, issuing a press release last week that criticized Senator O'Leary for accepting donations in 2003 from political action committees (PAC).

"That's the opening salvo. Off it will go from here," said state Rep. Eric Turkington (D-Falmouth), who is also seeking another term and facing a challenge from a Republican, Jim Powell, a Spanish teacher at the Vineyard regional high school.

This week, West Tisbury political activist and O'Leary backer Richard Knabel shot back. "This is a carpet-bagger race," he said, noting that Dr. Lese moved to the Cape last year. "She doesn't know the district."

Last spring, the Republican governor announced he had helped recruit more than 130 candidates from his party to run for seats in the state legislature this year. The state's Republican committee said it would pour $500,000 into the campaigns. Republicans are focusing on the senate races as Gov. Mitt Romney tries to build a veto-proof senate.

The latest financial disclosures don't show any of that money funneling into either Dr. Lese's or Mr. Powell's campaigns, but the reason is strategic timing.

"It came in after Sept. 7 [the filing deadline]," said Mr. Powell. "There's an awful lot of money, let me tell you."

Dr. Lese has already tapped one of the state's top Republican advisers, Rob Gray, owner of Gray Media and Boston and the campaign manager for former Gov. Paul Cellucci. According to her expenditure report, the Lese for State Senate committee has paid Gray Media $81,000 so far this year.

Senator O'Leary, not surprisingly, is feeling some of the pressure.

"I am told there is a lot of money coming down here for this election," he said. "My opponent came in December, and she is very wealthy."

In addition to spending, Dr. Lese also outdistanced the incumbent in the fund-raising arena, pulling in $108,323 in donations plus $75,000 of her own money. The donations alone are more than double the $50,067 raised by supporters of the Cape and Islands senator.

"I'm trying to raise money, which I am not very good at, and it's sort of agonizing because truthfully I just want to do my job as senator," said Mr. O'Leary.

"Four years ago I raised $60,000. In the last race I raised about $30,000. Now people are talking about hundreds of thousands in this race, which is sad," he added. "If you don't raise any money and your opponent has a lot of it, you are going to lose, but you don't have to match dollar for dollar."

Dr. Lese, meanwhile, is thrilled with her fund-raising success at this stage in the campaign.

"I'm very proud of the groundswell of support we've had. You can't make a difference if you can't get there," she said. "I'm not taking one dollar of PAC money. It's very easy to sell out early on."

Her press release last week also noted that 60 per cent of donations came Cape and Island residents. The singular "Island" is no apparently no typo.

Not one dollar listed on Dr. Lese's donation spreadsheet came from a Martha's Vineyard resident. Several donors were from Nantucket, but the Vineyard was noticeably absent.

Whether that's indicative of a lack of voter support for Dr. Lese on the Vineyard won't be known until November, but the political landscape on this Island hasn't been particularly friendly to Republicans in the recent past.

For one thing, registered Democrats outnumber GOP voters by a two-to-one margin, 33 to 15 per cent on the Vineyard with the remainder unenrolled. Vineyard voters - in all but Edgartown - cast significantly more ballots for Gov. Romney's Democratic rival, Shannon O'Brien, in the 2002 gubernatorial race.

Senator O'Leary sees the Vineyard vote as critical to his winning a third term serving the Cape and Islands. " If I was in trouble on the Vineyard, I'd be in trouble," he said. "And if I lose the Vineyard, I'll lose this election, frankly."

What he knows is that the rest of his district can be less welcoming to Democrats.

Take Barnstable, for example. Voters are split evenly between Democrat and Republican party affiliations - about 25 per cent each - but they handed Gov. Romney a victory by more than 20 percentage points two years ago.

In Chatham, the balance tilts towards Republicans, with 28 per cent registered compared to 17 per cent Democrats. Chatham also sided solidly with Mitt Romney in 2002.

"The Cape is a tough area for a Democrat," said Mr. O'Leary.

Interestingly, both Republican challengers in the two races that Island voters will help decide this fall downplayed their party stripes.

Dr. Lese admitted she's a recent convert. "I was a registered Democrat. Socially, that's my inclination," she said. "I'm fiscally conservative."

But she said she became fed up with rhetoric in Boston that professed to care about the disadvantaged but did little to help. "It didn't match the reality, leaving kids behind, people without affordable drug coverage," she said.

As for Mr. Powell, the high school teacher trying the unseat the eight-term legislator from Falmouth, he told the Gazette last spring that he campaigned for President Jimmy Carter and also worked for the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. Last March - the same month that Dr. Lese announced her candidacy - he even crossed party lines to host a fundraiser for Senator O'Leary.

This week, though, Mr. Powell wasn't championing the Democratic senator quite so emphatically as he questioned why some Cape high schools were getting more state aid than the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, hinting that Senator O'Leary hadn't lobbied hard enough for the Vineyard school.

"I was very disappointed by that," he said. "I don't know why the Vineyard didn't receive more. Could Gail Lese do a better job?"

While it's unclear whether Mr. Powell will vote for the Democratic incumbent or his Republican cohort, one thing is clear: Mr. Powell has not enjoyed the same fund-raising bounty as Dr. Lese.

His disclosure last week showed donations totaling $3,470, expenditures of $3,377 and an ending balance of just $92.

By comparison, Mr. Turkington reported a healthier campaign fund of $31,904. He raised $18,904 this year on top of the $20,929 already deposited in his committee's account and has spent just under $8,000 on his re-election efforts this year.

"We're not taking anything for granted. We're still doing the kind of fundraising it takes to run a full-fledged campaign," said Mr. Turkington.

Mr. Powell is still plugging as well, announcing a campaign party this Saturday afternoon in Oak Bluffs.

Money is clearly a factor. Richard Friedman, the Boston developer and host to the Clinton family, is stepping up to help out the O'Leary campaign, sponsoring a fundraiser in October.

"With the kind of money she's been given, we're trying to even the playing field," said Mr. Knabel.

The stage is set in both races. Issues will emerge next - most likely around health care, jobs and affordable housing. Voters on the Cape and Islands have made it through another summer, watched the Olympics and two national political conventions and scratched another Labor Day off the calendar.

This is when it all ramps up, said Senator O'Leary.

In other words, the candidates are coming. The signs, the ads, the mailings and, as Dr. Lese promised - "A lot of door-knocking."