THE RETIREMENT of Representative William Delahunt after 14 years provides for turnover in the mostly long-tenured Massachusetts congressional delegation and, for 10th district voters, a new direction. The two Democrats vying for the seat, state Senator Robert O’Leary and Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating, share similar career paths and political leanings as the retiring congressman. Neither is a new face. Their strengths — legislative ability, knowledge of policy, a ground-level understanding of the district — would be formidable in any other cycle. As it is, the winner will have to persuade a skeptical, increasingly conservative electorate that he will make a tangible difference for the district.
While both make strong cases, O’Leary’s expertise in education and his crucial role in building support for this year’s ed-reform bill on Beacon Hill, which paved the way for a much-coveted $250 million federal education grant, sets him apart.
Education, at all levels, is central to Massachusetts’ economic development strategy, and O’Leary, an adjunct community college professor with a Ph.D. in history, has been a statewide leader in both higher-ed and K-12 policy. For the 10th District, which runs from the South Shore suburbs of Boston to Cape Cod, improving education is the key to attracting businesses and creating a diversified economy. For the state of Massachusetts, having a representative who could deliver immediate impact in those areas of core concern would be a boost. Among Massachusetts’ 10 representatives, only John Tierney focuses heavily on education.
O’Leary has been a leader on other issues. He worked to strike a balance between commercial uses and conservation in state coastal waters. On fast-growing Cape Cod, O’Leary has been a force for the smart-growth initiatives that helped attack sprawl and preserve open land, while allowing the Cape to flourish as a year-round community. He is shrewd in identifying institutions like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as possible incubators of economic spin-offs and job creation. A member of the state Senate small-business committee, he is familiar with the needs of a district in which most jobs are in small businesses. As the first Democrat to represent his state-Senate district in four decades, he’s won the confidence of relatively conservative voters for his progressive agenda.
O’Leary’s pragmatic progressivism does not extend to the Cape Wind project, which he, like most of his constituents, opposed as a detriment to the Cape’s offshore environment. Keating also opposed the project until recently, when he revised his view in light of the importance of clean energy to the state’s economic future. That’s to his credit. But O’Leary has at least acknowledged that Cape Wind will go forward, and urged constituents to accept that reality.
Keating’s credentials are every bit as strong as O’Leary’s, and his successful tenures as both a state senator and Norfolk DA arguably give him a broader range of experiences. His first priority in Congress, he says, will be creating jobs by bolstering small businesses. He says he will seek a position on the House Judiciary Committee, and develop a national focus on criminal-justice issues. As proof of his political courage, he cites his 1994 challenge to the iron grip of then-Senate President William Bulger.
Keating, too, would be a credit to the district and to Massachusetts. But his criminal-justice focus is less timely, and potentially less consequential for the district and state. O’Leary’s energy and priorities make him the better of two well-qualified candidates.