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Small but hardy, Senate GOP puts Tarr in charge

Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester is the state Senate’s new minority leader. Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester is the state Senate’s new minority leader. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2005)
By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2011

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Their already thin ranks have dwindled even further. But Bruce E. Tarr said Republicans have a vital role to play in the state Senate, and he is glad he will be at their helm.

When the new legislative session opened yesterday, the Gloucester resident was set to be formally elected as the Senate’s new minority leader. At a party caucus in November, the four Republicans holding seats in the Senate this term informally chose Tarr for the role.

“I’m honored by the confidence that my colleagues are putting in me, and I’m also very enthusiastic about the opportunity to help lead the state through some very difficult times,’’ said Tarr, starting his ninth two-year term in the Senate after two in the House.

Tarr said his enthusiasm is not dulled by the size of the GOP’s delegation in the 40-seat Senate. Their number declined by one after Tarr’s predecessor as minority leader, Richard R. Tisei of Wakefield, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on the GOP ticket in November, and his seat was won by a Democrat, Katherine Clark of Melrose.

“I wish there were more members of the minority party, and having more would be good for the democratic process at the State House,’’ Tarr said. But he said Republicans have an important function in offering an alternative perspective, and “that would be true no matter how many members there are of the minority party.’’

Tarr said Senate Republicans plan to be vocal in seeking solutions to the wide budget gap the state is facing next fiscal year, and in particular will push for cost-saving reforms. “We simply cannot continue to do business the way we have been in these recessionary times,’’ he said.

Republican senators will also focus on measures they believe are needed to spur job creation, he said, including reducing the sales tax. Other priorities will include seeking legislation to overhaul the scandal-ridden Probation Department.

Tisei said he is confident that Tarr, assistant minority leader the past four years, will take well to his new position.

“He’s well versed on all the issues and he’s a very dynamic speaker and spokesman,’’ Tisei said. “He’s certainly going to have his work cut out for him, being outnumbered so overwhelmingly. But it’s a very important role that he needs to play in the Senate, and I think he’ll do great.’’

State Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat, said he also thinks Tarr is well suited for the leadership post.

“There’s probably no one smarter or more eloquent on issues than Bruce. And with only four of them, they need someone of Bruce’s intellect and eloquence,’’ he said of Republicans.

Baddour, who cohosts a cable-access television show with Tarr, “Across the Aisle,’’ that is aired in their districts, also praises Tarr as being a “bridge builder’’ who works well with Democrats.

He added, though, that Tarr is “a zealous advocate for the issues he cares about. . . He’s not afraid to stand up and fight to the end on issues, even if he knows he’s going to lose.’’

Tarr, 47, grew up in Gloucester as a son of the late Edward Tarr, a longtime worker with the city’s Department of Public Works, and Christine Tarr, the daughter of Greek immigrants. His maternal uncles were well known in the city as the owners of gas stations — one of them still runs one — and car dealerships.

Tarr, who is single, resides with his mother on his maternal grandparents’ family farm in west Gloucester, where his brother Brent, an electrical contractor, keeps horses, goats, and other animals. His brother Brian is assistant school superintendent in Gloucester.

A 1982 graduate of Gloucester High School, Tarr received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Suffolk University in 1987, and a law degree from Suffolk Law School in 1990.

Coming from a politically active family, “I enjoyed campaigning from a very young age,’’ he said, “but I was always too shy to run for office myself.’’

However, in 1990 Tarr decided to give it a shot, and mounted a successful challenge against the incumbent state representative, Democrat Patricia Fiero of Gloucester. What spurred his decision to run, Tarr said, was the state’s fiscal crisis and what he calls the “state of chaos’’ he observed on Beacon Hill.

After two terms in the House, Tarr in 1994 won the state Senate seat that had been held by Robert C. Buell, a Boxford Republican who opted against running for reelection in the First Essex and Middlesex District.

Looking back at his 20-year legislative tenure, Tarr said he takes particular satisfaction in the active role he played in the passage of Melanie’s Law, the 2005 measure toughening penalties for drunken driving, and a 2005 law facilitating stem-cell research in the state.

He also cites his role in the effort to keep Gloucester’s Addison Gilbert Hospital open as a full-service medical facility, and the successful fight to keep Pigeon Cove in Rockport available for commercial fishing.

Known for his visibility across the district, Tarr acknowledged his new role will make it difficult to maintain the pace of his travels across its 17 communities. But he is committed to trying.

“There’s something in my genetic code to be present at as many community events as possible,’’ Tarr said.