ARLINGTON - Some people said Sean Garballey was too young when he ran for School Committee at 20. They said it again when he entered the Democratic primary for an open House seat this winter at 22. Each time, he won.
"I think a lot of people were shocked at the results," said Garballey, who turned 23 last week and is accustomed to surprising people. In elementary school, he had speech and reading problems and received special-education services. By his senior year, he had been elected to Town Meeting, served on Arlington's Vision 2020 planning committee, and won a Lions Club speech contest. Two years later, he joined the School Committee.
Now he is just one step from becoming perhaps the youngest lawmaker on Beacon Hill. (The Legislature does not release ages, for privacy reasons, but Garballey is widely believed to be younger than any State House lawmaker.)
In the primary, Garballey beat a fellow School Committee member who had the endorsement of the former officeholder. In the process, he established himself as a spirited campaigner and keen student of politics, drawing attention from beyond the district. Governor Deval L. Patrick - who touted Garballey's "fresh face and fresh ideas" - and US Representative Edward J. Markey have since come in to campaign with him.
Before he can get to the State House, though, Garballey faces competition from two men who are more than twice his age, including a Republican who is courting Democrats in this heavily Democratic Arlington and West Medford district.
John L. Worden III, the Republican, is a 69-year-old grandfather, former town moderator, and advocate for conservation, historic preservation, and affordable housing.
An independent candidate, Robert V. Valeri, is also on Tuesday's ballot. Valeri, 55, was starting a small business and serving in Town Meeting when Garballey was an infant.
Needless to say, age comes up in talk of the race. Garballey's supporters say it's a nonissue or an asset, calling him mature but not cynical. Critics say he needs more experience.
"What I particularly like about Sean is his open and can-do attitude. He's got to be one of the hardest workers I've ever met," said Deborah Sirotkin Butler, an Arlington lawyer who met Garballey when he volunteered for the town's Democratic committee in high school. "It's striking to me, because I have kids his age and neither one of them comes within a light year of Sean's maturity or understands the issues that Sean knows so well and fights for."
Charles D. Gallagher, an Arlington Town Meeting member, sees Garballey's age as a drawback.
"He's , he lives at home, he doesn't have a house, or a family, or any of those other things," said Gallagher, a 53-year-old Democrat who knows Garballey through local politics but supports Worden, a Town Meeting member for 38 years. "That doesn't disqualify [Garballey], but it certainly handicaps him when I look at a race that involves someone like John Worden."
But Sirotkin Butler, 59, said she has worked with lawmakers and thinks Garballey would be a natural.
"A legislator who is hard-working and trainable and not ego-driven does really well," said Sirotkin Butler, a former legislative liaison for the Massachusetts Association of Court Appointed Attorneys.
Garballey acknowledges his age without dwelling on it. Despite his early start in politics, he said he did not envision becoming a lawmaker at 23. "If you asked me six months ago, would I be running for state rep, I would say, 'You're crazy,' " said Garballey, a political science major who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell last year, then enrolled in a Suffolk University dual master's program in public administration and political science.
As a student of politics, Garballey assessed the situation - the sudden opening of the seat Jim Marzilli held for 17 years; a compressed timetable to organize a campaign - and seized the moment.
"Politics is all about opportunity, and you really can't plan it," he said.
Garballey, Worden, and Valeri disagree on some issues, but all oppose casino gambling and agree the state must send more aid to cities and towns for schools, public safety, and other essential services. As a result, biography, experience, and party status have figured heavily in local discussions.
The three diverge on abortion rights, which Garballey supports; Worden declined to answer what he called a "litmus-test" question at a debate, saying it would not come before lawmakers; and Valeri said he opposes abortion but would defer to his constituents. On taxes, Garballey said he supports the governor's proposal to raise more local revenue through meals and hotel taxes, while Worden opposes new taxes and believes the state should cut elsewhere and redirect funding to communities.
Valeri, who studied business at Salem State, owns a company that distributes forms and commercial printing. The former Town Meeting member and Little League coach said he would bring budgetary discipline to office. Moreover, he said he would defer to the district's will on all important issues, soliciting feedback from constituents, and would either forgo the $58,000-plus legislative salary or contribute it to local budgets.
"I want to truly represent the people," Valeri said.
Garballey was adopted at birth along with his twin brother, who is now a police officer at a local college. Their parents - a state employee and an insurance agent - instilled in them the value of community service, Garballey said. His experiences have made him an advocate for social services and public education, and he understands the importance of public safety and the concerns of the middle class, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes, he said.
On his website, Garballey described himself in five words: "Public service is my life."
Worden, a Harvard-educated lawyer specializing in trusts and estates, moved to Arlington 41 years ago and quickly became active, joining Town Meeting in 1970 and becoming moderator in 1989. Worden, who sometimes wears three-piece suits, served 18 years in that post and distinguished himself as a starchy but good-natured fellow with a firm belief in order and process, Gallagher said.
Outside of Town Meeting, Worden has championed a variety of causes that could be considered progressive but not partisan, such as open-space preservation and creation of affordable housing. Among other efforts, he led the town's passage of a bottle-deposit bill long before the state embraced recycling. He favors public transit, and when he has to drive, he often uses an electric car developed by Solectria, a company founded by one of his children.
Worden said he is a Republican in the manner of Leverett Saltonstall or Ed Brooke. He hopes voters consider his record, not his party registration. "I've been involved in government for a long time, and I know how it works and how to make it work."
That just "might cause some Democrats to stop and think," said Sean J. Fitzgerald, the chief of staff to Lexington Representative Jay R. Kaufman and a veteran of dozens of local legislative campaigns. But Garballey has the advantage in party status and organization, Fitzgerald said, even at 23. "It's Sean Garballey's race to lose."
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.