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Contests reflect State House fights around Bay State

CAMBRIDGE -- The air was stifling in the basement of the Little Flower School, but Representative Timothy J. Toomey's obvious discomfort could not be blamed entirely on the heat and humidity: A white-haired, pink-faced politician in a room filled with brown-skinned immigrants, the lunch-pail Democrat was on unfamiliar ground.

Not so for Toomey's competitor in this Tuesday's Democratic primary. Avi Green, a 30-year-old graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School, rolled up his sleeves and spoke Spanish to the crowd at the immigrants' forum. With his left-leaning positions on social and fiscal policy, and his vow to cast his first vote against House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, Green is a Cambridge liberal's dream -- and the most serious threat that Toomey has faced since he won his seat 12 years ago.

The Toomey-Green race is one of 39 contested House and Senate party primaries around the state. Governor Mitt Romney's vow to boost the number of Republican lawmakers on Beacon Hill has focused attention on the November general election, but several hot intraparty battles are being fought over rising health-care costs, taxes, jobs, education, and gay marriage. The primary campaigns have splintered Democrats and Republicans from within, at least temporarily.

State party leaders, who are busy preparing for November, have decidedly mixed feelings about Tuesday's proceedings.

''If there's a good incumbent, I don't like primaries," said Philip W. Johnston, leader of the state Democratic Party.

Tim O'Brien, the state Republican Party's executive director, said there are two theories when it comes to primaries.

''The first is that it's a good motivator for each campaign to organize their field organizations, make a dry run, raise money, and it gets them moving so they're in position for November," O'Brien said. ''The other is that they have to spend money and resources to win the primary," which hurts them in the general election.

Constituent contrastAn hour after the immigrants' political event at the Little Flower School, Toomey was in a far different place. Now he was Timmy Toomey from the old neighborhood visiting the Polish-American Club, cracking jokes and slapping backs as the band played polkas.

This is Toomey's 26th Middlesex: The older women dishing out food in the buffet line wore ''Tim Toomey Serving You" aprons, and elderly partygoers departed with pieces of ''Good luck Tim" sheet cake in the baskets of their walkers. Like Cambridge's favorite son, Thomas ''Tip" O'Neill, Toomey places a premium on longtime neighborhood ties and the delivery of constituent services.

But the largely blue-collar neighborhoods of Cambridge and Somerville that make up the district have drawn a steady stream of newcomers over the past decade. The better-educated professional arrivals are part of Green's natural constituency, not Toomey's. Green is a Robert Reich liberal -- the former US labor secretary and gubernatorial candidate has endorsed him -- and he has derided Toomey as a ''pick-and-choose" progressive who is not sufficiently dedicated to the liberal cause.

But newcomers tend to vote in far lower numbers than the longtime residents who have been the bedrock of Toomey's political base.

The race will be a test of ''how much the district has changed and how much the voting population has changed, which is often a very different thing," said Glenn Koocher, a former Cambridge School Committee member.

Eighth Suffolk raceAnother Democratic tussle is across the river, in a district that includes a chunk of Cambridge but mainly comprises the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the West End. In the Eighth Suffolk, which has a history of electing forceful figures with independent streaks, two liberal-leaning women are battling for the Democratic nomination to succeed Paul Demakis, who is leaving office after 10 years.

Kristine Glynn, 34, a former legislative aide who now works as lobbyist for nonprofit groups, is touting her State House background. ''I bring the relationships, the experience, the knowledge of the building, and a proven track record of getting things done," said Glynn, a Beacon Hill resident.

Marty Walz, 43, a lawyer and vice president of a nonprofit literacy and mentoring program for at-risk preschoolers, points to a leadership track record, which includes stints as president of the influential Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and chairman of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee. ''I think the question for voters is what more will they get in addition to reliably progressive representation, and I think the issue should be strong leadership," said Walz, a Back Bay resident.

Indeed, few differences have emerged between the candidates on big issues. Both are staunch supporters of abortion rights and gay marriage. Both oppose use of the MCAS test as a high-stakes graduation requirement. They are against the death penalty.

The lack of sharp differences in issues has turned the race into a contest over credibility and effectiveness.

Battles in the suburbsRepublicans see great opportunities in the suburbs west of Boston, where Romney soundly beat his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Shannon O'Brien, two years ago. The area between Boston and Interstate 495 is heavy in independent voters.

A special state Senate election in March gave the Republicans reason for optimism. Then-state representative Scott Brown, a Republican, narrowly defeated Democrat Angus McQuilken. McQuilken is trying again, but would first have to best three other Democrats Tuesday in order to face Brown in a rematch in October.

But first, both parties face several other primary races.

Middlesex-Norfolk seatAre you an insider or an outsider? That question has Democratic primary opponents Karen Spilka, Adam Sisitsky, and Jerry Desilets throwing mud at each other in the race to fill the Second Middlesex and Norfolk Senate seat of David Magnani, who is retiring.

Sisitsky, a former Framingham Town Meeting member, has built his campaign on the contention that he is the only candidate rejecting special-interest money. He and Desilets, the former moderator of the Framingham Town Meeting, have taken aim at Spilka, a state representative from Ashland, who received more contributions from political action committees than her opponents.

But Spilka is fighting back, saying Sisitsky is collecting plenty of special-interest money from his colleagues at Mintz Levin, a high-profile law firm in Boston. Sisitsky said he did receive many contributions from fellow lawyers at his firm, but he emphasized that his work is separate from ML Strategies, the firm's lobbying affiliate.

Spilka says her political action committee money comes from teachers, firefighters, and environmentalists, all groups that care about the same working-family issues that she does.

Middlesex-Worcester GOPRepublican primary opponents Rod Jan and Arthur G. Vigeant are two formidable contenders vying to represent a party that often counts itself lucky to field one strong candidate in a race. As testament to that, GOP leaders have contributed to both campaigns, and the state Republican Party has provided $9,000 in campaign services to each. The winner will take on incumbent Pamela Resor, an Acton Democrat seeking her fourth term in the Senate from the Middlesex and Worcester district.

Vigeant, a Marlborough city councilor and certified public accountant, has attacked Jan, the chairman of the Westborough School Committee, for supporting a local property tax increase. Vigeant argues that Jan broke a ''no-new-taxes pledge."

Jan responded that the pledge pertained only to state taxes and that he voted against the local property tax increase, after he first voted for it. Local leaders supported a tax override early in the year when the financial picture looked bleak, but then as the forecast improved, Jan and the rest of the School Committee voted against the tax increase, as did Westborough voters. Both candidates emphasize job creation and cutting state income taxes to 5 percent. ''I think there's no question this is one of the key battlegrounds for the GOP," said Jan.

Bristol-Norfolk seat In the Bristol and Norfolk District, two Mansfield Republicans, Philip A. Brown and David W. McCarter, are competing to succeed Senator Jo Ann Sprague, a Walpole Republican, who is following through with her pledge to serve no more than three two-year terms. Brown is a contractor making his first bid for public office, and McCarter is a lawyer and former Mansfield selectman.

Both candidates in this Senate race are fiscal conservatives who oppose gay marriage and support the death penalty, so the campaign has focused on qualifications: McCarter touts his work in town government, while Brown stresses his experience as a small-business man. Each contends to have a better chance of holding the seat for the Republicans.

James E. Timilty, the brother of Governor's Councilor Kelly A. Timilty and son of former state senator Joseph F. Timilty, has run twice for the seat, losing to Sprague in 1998 and 2000. He has had a head start in this year's race, launching his campaign several months before either of the Republicans. He is an unopposed Democrat. The largely suburban district stretches from Dover south to the Rhode Island border and includes all or part of 10 municipalities.

Lisa Kocian of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Robert Preer, Heather Allen, and Michael Jonas contributed to this report. 

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