I got an earful of North Andover, Massachusetts politics while I was driving around with my realtor, Rosemary Smedile. Rosemary is chairman of the North Andover Board of Selectmen, and in the most recent at-large election, won her seat, along with our old friend Wendy Wakeman and a Republican colleague Rosemary kept mentioning, Jim Xenakis.
Call it political profiling. As Rosemary mentioned Jim, I kept picturing a man in his fifties. Then we stopped for doughnuts and coffee at a local convenience store, and I met Jim, whose family owns the store. He’s a sharp, vital young man of 24. Last week, we had a long talk about how Jim got into Massachusetts politics, and about the issues that made him a Republican.
For Jim, it started in fifth grade, in 1988, with a visit to his school by then state representative Peter Torkildsen, a Republican. Jim asked Torkildsen a pointed question at that visit, contrasting college costs with the costs of keeping prisoners in state penitentiaries. At later meetings, Torkildsen, displaying the natural politician’s uncanny memory for names and faces, recognized Jim, and Jim eventually got involved in a series of Torkildsen campaigns. In the first, in 1992, Torkildsen and Peter Blute (now a morning talk show host on WRKO), both Republicans, won two out of the ten Congressional seats in the Massachusetts delegation.
By the time the 1996 campaign rolled around, Jim Xenakis had become a seasoned political operative.
“I had joined the Republican town committee,” Jim recalls. “The day I registered, I registered as a Republican. It just made sense to me.”
By 1998, a political shuffle gave Jim his own chance at elective office. David Torrisi, a Democrat, left the Board of Selectmen to run for state representative. Local people kept asking Jim why he himself didn’t run for the open seat. He had the connections and the help he needed. He was chairman of the Northeastern University Republican club. When he threw his hat in the ring, he sent out a fundraising letter, and got his second contribution from Governor Paul Celluci. (Jim had been a Celluci delegate at the most recent Republican convention.)
“That became public information, and lent my candidacy a lot of credibility,” Jim recalls.
In the election, Jim finished seven votes out of the top vote-getting slot, this in a six-way contest for two open seats. He was 20 years old at the time. The victory got him a lot of attention, including interview requests from television and radio shows as far away as New York and Chicago.
Jim has won re-election, and is now a solid fixture on the North Andover political scene. But what of being a Republican in a state so thoroughly dominated by Democrats?
Republicans in Massachusetts, he says, have “significant challenges. We are obviously faced with a three-to-one disadvantage in enrollment numbers. The party really needs to unify and build a farm team of candidates, not necessarily to work from the top of the ticket down every year.” That farm team of mayors, council members, selectmen, and state reps, says Jim, are “going to be your candidates for Congress in the future. If you start controlling the dialogue at the local level, you can work your way up over time. It isn’t going to happen overnight.”
That sounds like a solid analysis, but, as Jim’s fellow selectman, Wendy Wakeman, a veteran political consultant, points out, “In fact, it’s controversial. It’s not the strategy the state party is pursuing. In the overall picture of Massachusetts politics, there’s a real battle for the heart of the party” between the people who want to keep electing a governor, and the others who say that the Republican governors (Weld, Celluci, Swift) “have let the rest of the party go to hell, and that we need to concentrate on a broader array of people.”
“This is obviously not a Republican state, but we are a conservative state,” Jim explains. “Ask anybody about taxation policy, about government regulation, about the death penalty, about truth in sentencing, about the military, and you’ll find that Massachusetts is a fairly conservative state.
“Democrats have had a stronghold in socializing people,” as Jim acknowledges. “My grandmother is one of the most conservative people you’ll ever meet, but she has never voted for a Republican.”
Ultimately, it comes down to the personal. Jim, for example, got the endorsement of the firefighters in North Andover for his first election — and police, firemen, and teachers are the three heftiest Democrat interest groups in the state. How did he do it? “I asked,” he says. “When I spoke to them, I told them I would approach their issues in a spirit of fairness — not pro labor or pro management.” Since being in office, Jim has picked up the support of the local police, too.
Wendy Wakeman puts it in simpler terms. “Jim’s a nice young guy, and the firefighters are nice young guys.” And should Jim run for state rep or even for Congress someday, those firefighters and policemen — and, one presumes, Jim’s grandmother — won’t look at the ticket and say, “No, I’m not going to vote for a Republican.” They’ll say, “Hey, there’s Jim.”
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