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Race on to replace Festa

Three candidates eyeing House seat

Three candidates have their eyes on the House seat of Michael Festa (above), set to become the state's new secretary of elder affairs. Three candidates have their eyes on the House seat of Michael Festa (above), set to become the state's new secretary of elder affairs.

Candidates are already preparing to run in the race to fill the 32d Middlesex House seat left vacant by the resignation this week of Melrose Democrat Michael E. Festa, who is set to be sworn in tomorrow as the state's new secretary of elder affairs.

House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi intends to call a special election to choose a successor to Festa, according to DiMasi's spokesman, David Guarino. He said the speaker would confer with the secretary of state in determining dates for the primary and special election, a decision expected within the next couple of weeks.

Festa formally announced his resignation Tuesday, and it becomes effective next Monday. But with his departure widely rumored over the past few weeks, the special election race has been much anticipated in the district, which includes Melrose and part of Wakefield.

Three contenders to date have jumped into the fray, all relatively well-known Melrose figures: School Committee member Katherine M. Clark and Alderman at Large Ron Seaboyer, both Democrats; and Republican Mark B. Hutchinson, co-owner of a family real estate agency in Melrose.

With Festa's plans now definite, the contest is expected to pick up speed.

A lawyer who lost a bid for state Senate in 2004, Clark is chief of the attorney general's Policy and Government Relations Division and was formerly general counsel for the state Office of Child Care Services. Last fall, she cochaired the Democratic party's coordinated state campaign.

"I am very enthusiastic about seeking this seat and I think I bring great experience with state government and with the Democratic party to the seat," she said.

Clark said she would draw on her experience advocating for children at the local and state level, and her work for the attorney general on public safety, consumer, economic development, and other issues.

Seaboyer, who has a photography business and formerly worked as an electrician, said he was spurred to run by his trips to the State House this year to lobby for Melrose on different matters. "One day I realized how much more I could do for the city and now for Wakefield if I had an office there," he said of Beacon Hill.

"My greatest strength would be in getting something done," Seaboyer said, recalling, for example, how he revised and then won passage of a wetlands protection bylaw in Melrose that had been previously rejected by aldermen.

Hutchinson said his real estate business has given him a good understanding of the concerns of local residents.

"Over the past few years, the biggest concern I hear over and over is affordability," he said, "whether it be the elderly that can't afford to live in their homes due to high taxes and water and sewer rates, or the young families that simply can't afford the price of homes."

A lawyer and former Middlesex County prosecutor, Festa, 53, has been a fixture in local politics for more than three decades, serving four years on the Melrose School Committee, eight years on the Board of Aldermen, and nearly nine years in the House. Prior to entering the House, he lost two bids for the Legislature. He was also a candidate in - but later withdrew from - the 2006 race for Middlesex district attorney.

Festa said he welcomed the "extraordinary opportunity" to serve in a Cabinet position under Governor Deval Patrick, praising the governor's "passion, his intellect, and his commitment to changing the way we do business as a government."

In the Legislature, Festa was known as a liberal who advocated for seniors, helped lead the fight against the amendment to ban gay marriage, and was active in legislative efforts to overhaul state sentencing laws. During the tenure of House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, he was a leader of a group that fought to make the House operate more democratically.

His advocacy for elders included successfully sponsoring a bill that allows seniors who qualify for state care to decide whether to receive that care at home or in some other setting. He said he is excited about the chance he now enjoys to put that legislation into action.

"We are going to take that law and the theory behind it and make sure it gets implemented so more seniors are able to connect with the services they are entitled to," Festa said.

Another important task, he said, is helping ensure that the state is gearing up for the demand for services that is looming over the next 20 years as the senior population swells in size.

"We've got to prepare ourselves for this extraordinary impact," he said.

And Festa said he is excited about the chance to help coordinate the efforts of state agencies in protecting seniors.

"There are a lot of seniors who are suffering neglect, abuse, and victimization in silence or in secret, and we have to do a better job of bringing those folks out of the shadows and helping them protect themselves," said Festa, who with his wife, Sandra, has two children, Mike, 24, and Danielle, 22.

Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan, who formerly worked in elder services, praised Festa for his legislative work for seniors.

"Our loss will certainly be to the benefit of a generation that is going to become the largest percentage of the the baby boomers. I think the governor should be commended for picking him," Dolan said.

State Senator Richard R. Tisei, a Wakefield Republican who defeated Festa in a 1990 Senate race, said, "I think that he will be a very strong advocate for senior citizens, as he has been during his time in the Legislature, and I wish him the best."

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