Katama resident Richard Tisei: a quiet political presence “” until now


The man who is probably never going to retire says when he retires he’s going to live year-round on the Vineyard.

“Martha’s Vineyard is sort of a magical place for me,” state Senator Richard Tisei said in a conversation last week — and it’s not just the scenic views and landscapes.

“It’s the fact that there is so much variety and diversity within the Island…. You have very unique communities that have their own identity, and a tribal nation to boot. I’ve never seen or been to another place like this. And the economy here is definitely different from most of the state.”

The engaging 48-year-old (as of August 13) had just come in from the front deck of the bright, well-ordered and comfortable Katama house he and his partner Bernie Starr have owned for years. The two are also business partners in Northrup Associates Realty in Lynnfield, named Realty of the Year in 2009. As relaxed and cordial as Mr. Tisei is, there is something Dudley Do-Right about the polished and confident young Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. He is the running mate of his friend, gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker Jr., former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. And Senator Tisei is the only contender for statewide office who lives on the Vineyard. Indeed, even the state legislators who represent the Vineyard don’t live here.

Senator Tisei (ta-say) has honed his natural poise during the close to 30 years he has held state office — as remarkable as it is a distinguished political career.

His political aspirations began when he was a senior at Lynnfield High School (Class of ’81) and was chosen to be State Representative for a Day. He interned at the State House for a summer and was a White House intern in 1982 for George Herbert Walker Bush. In his senior year at American University, when the incumbent state representative decided to retire, the 21-year-old Mr. Tisei decided it was time.

“I figured at that point, why not give it a shot,” he said. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” he remembered. “I’d go knocking on people’s doors and they didn’t know what to make of me. Some people thought I was the paperboy.”

He grew up in Lynnfield in an Italian family with three sisters. His late father was a builder, and no one was interested in politics. His parents never registered to vote.

“They thought I was crazy when I first wanted to do this. But Ronald Regan was President, and I believed in a strong foreign policy. That attracted me to the Republican party.”

He sees himself as a traditional Republican, believing in individualism, limited government involvement in people’s personal lives, and an emphasis on the role of the individual. He is a libertarian on social issues.

Mr. Tisei was 22 when he took office, the first Republican in 20 years to be elected to the State House in his district. He also holds the distinction of being the youngest Republican ever elected to the Massachusetts General Court. In 1990, he was elected to the Massachusetts Senate representing Malden, Lynnfield, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, and Wakefield.

In January 2007, he was elected Senate minority leader. At 48, Senator Tisei is the dean of the GOP delegation, the longest serving Republican member of the Massachusetts Legislature.

And with few exceptions, his presence on the Vineyard has remained undiscovered. His Vineyard residency was a surprise to this reporter and will be to most of his neighbors.

“Until this campaign started, nobody knew I was here,” he said, flashing the smile of someone whose world is pleasingly affirming. “It’s good for me in a way, because I got to interact with people, meet people in a different way and get a sense of what the place is really like.”

He and Mr. Starr come often and all year-round — “To be honest with you, I try to avoid August,” Senator Tisei admitted sheepishly. His neighbors, with few exceptions, only know him as a realtor. He regularly rides his bike to South Beach and along The Trustees of Reservation and Land Bank paths and makes lists of all the protected areas and preserves.

“Every time I’m here I seem to find someplace else that I didn’t know existed,” he said, sounding enthused.

He said he relies on The Martha’s Vineyard Times to discover what’s happening on-Island, likes to stroll through the towns, and is a regular at his favorite Island restaurant, the Square Rigger in Edgartown.

He said his reading tends toward non-fiction books related to politics, specifying David McCullough’s books, Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, and Philip and Peter Kunhardt’s “Looking for Lincoln.” He’s a member of Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and a Dukes County Intelligencer lies on his otherwise clear coffee table.

When there are Island meetings on issues Mr. Tisei is passionate about, he attends, schedule permitting. He emphatically opposes wind farms and attended an Aug. 8 meeting in Chilmark organized by opponents of an offshore wind farm.

He voted against the recent casino bill. Mr. Tisei said he favors one casino as a way to divert money that now flows to Connecticut casinos but argues that gambling is not the way to solve the state’s budget problems or stimulate economic activity.

“Bernie thinks I’m crazy, he said, “but I watch all the public access shows of all the different meetings, the selectmen’s meetings, and the town meetings. There’s something you learn about the different personalities and the different issues, and there’s something very quaint and its part of the charm of the Island.”

Although on the morning this conversation took place, the senator’s demeanor and pacing resembled that of an Island fisherman, it is likely some of the Island’s low-key and pastoral appeal acts as a pleasing contrast to the goal directed, action-packed momentum that is Mr. Tisei’s off-Island life.

The only Republican elected inside the Rt. 128 (now I95) beltway, he explains his success in broad strokes: “I have a pretty independent voting record. I try not to be an ideologue. I look at every issue that comes up individually, and I just work really hard seven days a week.”

He signed on as Charlie Baker’s campaign chairman and came up with lists of potential candidates for lieutenant governor.

“I never thought I’d be on it, ” he said matter of factly. “It wasn’t anything that I aspired to do. Obviously I had to think about it because it’s really going to change my life. But I wanted to do it first because I really believe in him, and I really want to help not just with the election, but to govern the state.”

When his candidacy was announced, a reporter called and asked him about his personal life — “and I acknowledged what everybody already knew. It wasn’t exactly a news flash. Everybody knew. [Bernie and I] have been together 16 years. I’ve had my colleagues over to our house for dinner. It would have seemed awkward to hold a press conference about it.”

He said, “People judge you on your performance,” and not completely hiding his pride, added, “To tell you the truth, if I’m elected, I’ll be the first gay office holder statewide, and the highest ranking in the country —unusual for a Republican.”

And then Mr. Tisei stated the obvious: “I’m very happy. Everything happens in life for a reason, and I’m very appreciative.”