PEABODY, Mass. – On an unseasonably warm October afternoon just six days out from the midterm election, Karyn Polito, Republican candidate for state treasurer, emerges from a parked sedan, flashing a wide, white smile while pulling on the jacket of her black pantsuit.
She approaches supporters with hand outstretched and exchanges niceties and comments on the summery day with her hosts.
Over the next two hours she will visit a bank, a barbershop, a small retail store, a restaurant and a liquor store, offering the same message: the harsh economy has Massachusetts’ families and local businesses reining it in, and so should government.
The positive reception she receives from the harried business owners energizes the diminutive Polito. A construction company owner tells her state government needs to cut its spending, just the way he’s been forced to. The liquor store owner worries about the business he is losing to no-tax New Hampshire.
“The people are great. That’s what keeps me going. And tomorrow I’ll get up and do it all over again,” she says.
Polito’s relentless schedule – she’s up a 5 a.m. and doesn’t stop until 10 p.m. – seems to be working. A Boston Globe poll taken last week shows her trailing Democrat Steve Grossman by two points, 39 to 37. Polito, a state representative from Shrewsbury, has been gaining in the polls since late September, when a Boston Globe poll showed Grossman with a 10-point edge.
Polito is also the favored candidate among independents according to a State House News Service Poll, which make up 52 percent of the state’s electorate.
In an interview at her South Boston campaign headquarters last week, Polito said she was inspired to run by the changing political climate symbolized by the election of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in January.
“If there’s any chance for someone like myself who has challenged the culture of corruption on Beacon Hill, it is now,” Polito said. “That’s why I’ve stood up, to attempt an election to a position that I believe will help us make better decisions fiscally to get back on track.”
That’s the message at her first Peabody stop. At the local Chamber of Commerce, President Deanne Healey tells Polito that membership is declining. A local construction company owner and landlord, Dan Terenzoni, sits relating the challenges he’s facing with rising healthcare costs and tenants who don’t pay rent.
“I’m a small outfit here and all it takes is one thing to drag me down,” Terenzoni says. “I’ve cut, now they’ve got to cut.”
Polito is quick to relate.
“I’m in small business myself. I own industrial properties that I tenant and lease and I’ve also had to adjust,” she says. “I’ve done it, but it’s hard.”
Polito, who acknowledges she was somewhat unknown outside her district prior to the Sept. 14th primary, says the polls are tightening because her fiscally conservative message is resonating with voters.
“I can’t sleep, it’s exiting,” she says. “I feel our message is connecting, I feel a lot of momentum, and so that’s what’s moving me through these final days.”
Polito moves her five-foot frame with efficiency, easily keeping pace with her much-taller guides, as she maneuvers along the uneven sidewalks from store to store.
The group ducks into Laura Pereira Malone’s small retail store selling Avon products, handmade crafts, and baby gifts. The two talk about doing business in a downturn economy.
Pereira Malone says despite slow business she won’t take on loans to stay afloat.
“You’re doing everything right.” Polito says. “My grandfather came here 100 years ago. The same values that made him successful can make us successful: pay your bills on time, invest wisely, don’t take on a lot of debt.”
Polito constantly hammers that message in her campaign and in the Legislature. She gained headlines with her attempt to block a $400 million supplementary spending bill during informal sessions when most legislators were not present to vote. For Polito, it was an example of the dysfunction caused by one-party rule on Beacon Hill.
“It’s not that I could have held up the bill, because I’m only one member in that regard, and it would have required me basically to not take a bathroom break to object at every minute of the session,” she said. “But it does show you that the rules are what they are and that they are abusing the rules and the process.”
Around the corner at McNamara’s Liquors, Polito is greeted by the gregarious owner, George Skalkos. He already knows Polito from her appearance on a Greek radio program. Polito is married to a Greek American lawyer, Stephen Rodalakis, and has tapped the Greek community for support.
“You married a Greek!” he shouts in a thick accent, pulling her in for a one-armed hug. “Why are you smiling?”
A campaign staffer gestures to a sign, “Yes! Put it right there in the window because we are for Karyn Polito!” says Skalkos.
“Are we going to make a difference? Are we going to do what we say?” Skalkos says, channeling the energy of a preacher.
“Absolutely! And they’re afraid on Beacon Hill that I’ll be elected,” Polito says.
“Ah, they’re afraid because you’re too good looking,” Skalkos replies, and Polito’s entourage erupts in laughter.
Polito asks Skalkos about the alcohol tax, which is up for repeal should Question 1 pass on Tuesday. He tells her it has had a negative impact on his business. Being close to the border, he says, customers will wait for the weekend to buy in bulk in New Hampshire.
“In the middle of this economic crisis,” Skalkos asks, “what gives them the right to pass the bill without consulting the people?”
“Doesn’t he put it so well?” Polito says.