Personal Dynamics More Than Party Policies May Explain Republican Rep Win

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Republican won the special election Tuesday to fill the 12th Bristol District seat in the House of Representatives, which Steve Canessa had resigned from in June.

The new rep is Keiko Orrall of Lakeville, a 44-year-old secretary and former teacher who home schools her two children. When sworn in, Orrall will become the 33rd Republican in the 160-member House.

Since the recent bribery conviction of former Democratic House Speaker Sal DiMasi, top Republicans in the state have cranked up the volume on their "culture of corruption on Beacon Hill" talk, so one has to wonder if Orrall's victory indicates voters are turning against the Democratic Party.

The Republicans of course believe they are. MassGOP Chair Jennifer Nassour released a statement Tuesday declaring that voters had "sent a message to Beacon Hill" by electing Orrall. Her campaign, Nassour said, had presented a "clear choice" to the voters: "more of the same, or progress and fresh ideas."

Two other aspects of this election made Republican hearts beat faster: one, the 12th Bristol, which includes parts of New Bedford, Freetown, Lakeville and Middleboro, had been represented by one Democrat or another for more than 30 consecutive years; two, the Democrat defeated by Orrall, Roger Brunelle, Jr., is a union painter and labor activist.

Democrats, meanwhile, are taking comfort in the fact this was a special election, with a special election's typically low turnout: voter turnout across the four communities averaged 20%, and in heavily Democratic New Bedford, it was just over 11%.

Also, Democrats are comfortable in the knowledge that their veto-proof majority in the House remains impregnable. The growth of the Republican team from 32 to 33 members puts a tiny dent in Democratic pride but does not make the minority party any more effective in the House.

We'll have to wait until the fall of 2012 to see if Orrall's victory was a harbinger of a resurgent GOP or an anomaly. If you favor the anomaly hypothesis, you'll probably dwell on the background dynamics, and you may come to favor the explanation that this election was more about acceptance and rejection on the personal level than the principles espoused by either party.

Keep in mind that Steve Canessa was a very popular man in his district. At 31, the former football star at Apponequet Regional High School and member of the Lakeville School Committee had a bright political future before him. He could be seen as a prototype of the wholesome, diligent and engaging young men that voters traditionally look kindly upon in legislative elections. Voters like to send the Canessas of the world to the State House because they embody the community's best feelings about itself. They put them in office partly as a way of proclaiming, This is the kind of young person we produce around here!

Folks in the 12th Bristol, I suspect, were disappointed and angry when Canessa walked away from the job he had just been re-elected to in November, 2010, to become public affairs director at Southcoast Health Systems. Many of them felt burned when he parlayed the position they'd bestowed upon him into a better-paying job in the private sector, where he can capitalize on the government experience he had gained courtesy of the electorate.

Canessa rejected in June the voters who had accepted him in November; to punish Canessa, voters rejected the Democrat who had replaced him on the ballot.

That's my itty-bitty theory, anyway.

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