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Doug Bennett campaigned on the Airport Rotary in Hyannis for the state Senate seat held by Democrat Rob O’Leary.
Doug Bennett campaigned on the Airport Rotary in Hyannis for the state Senate seat held by Democrat Rob O’Leary. (Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe)

Selectman's style stands out

The Nantucket official seeks state Senate seat

NANTUCKET -- In some ways, Nantucket Selectman Doug Bennett just doesn't fit in on this island.

He often wears a suit when he's not at his carpentry job. His accent reveals an upbringing outside New England, and even hints at a laid-back surfer drawl. When he talks politics with a reporter, he quotes both Thomas Jefferson and rapper Eminem.

And when Bennett campaigns for public office, his style is as big and aggressive as Nantucket is small and subdued.

With nine months to go before the general election, the 30-year-old Republican has been pounding the pavement on Cape Cod for three months, seeking the state Senate seat representing the Cape and islands. He has made himself a fixture in the airport rotary in Hyannis, where he spends hours waving at cars. But he has also become a controversial figure on Nantucket, where he was banned from a popular island website this winter after being accused of libel, and removed as vice chairman by his fellow selectmen because of questions about his commitment and his knowledge of the town charter.

The uproar puts him in good company, said Bennett, who insisted that the board vote in public to strip him of his vice chairmanship.

''Roosevelt was controversial. Thomas Jefferson was controversial. Even John F. Kennedy was controversial -- I love that man," said Bennett, who majored in history and labor studies at Penn State University, and doesn't rule out a run for president one day. ''The other selectmen wanted me to be a pushover, but my job is not to serve them. I'm a man of principle, and I vote how I feel."

Bennett's candidacy may be a long shot, but he has succeeded in building buzz. After one of his appearances in the Hyannis rotary, readers of a political blog on the website Cape Cod Today posted 110 comments debating the candidate's merits. One writer described him as ''yummy." Another compared his intelligence to that of a Labrador retriever.

Bennett, who calls himself ''as shrewd as the hawk" on his website, signed onto the forum to respond to his critics, urging them to ''hop on the Bennett Express."

''He's wet behind the ears, and his attention span is short, but he's very energetic, and he really likes this stuff," said Nantucket Selectman Whitey Willauer, who made the motion to remove Bennett as vice chairman in December. ''He does have a constituency, and I wouldn't underestimate him."

On Nantucket, many residents speak fondly of ''Dougie" and say his unpolished approach has been refreshing. But it is unclear whether the selectman's youth and inexperience will work to his advantage off the island. Bennett will face an accomplished and well-connected opponent, 47-year-old lawyer Rick Barros, in the Republican primary. The incumbent Democrat, Senator Robert O'Leary, a three-term veteran, is seeking reelection.

Barros first campaigned for a state Senate seat in 1994 and fell short. A decade earlier, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

''I'll speak no ill of a fellow Republican," Barros said of Bennett earlier this month. ''I was a brash young man once." Barros, who said he was asked to run last fall by Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, plans a steady fund-raising schedule and mailings to voters.

''When spring comes," Barros said, ''I'll be going door to door."

That's what Bennett has been counting on. ''The early bird gets the worm, as Ben Franklin said," said the candidate, who kicked off his campaign in November and insists he will ''stun a lot of people" with the results.

Bennett, who counts among his priorities affordable housing, affordable healthcare, and alternative energy sources, said he has handed out 10,000 campaign cards featuring his photo. He spent the better part of 20 days in the Hyannis rotary, where, he said, the traffic flow is 2,500 cars per hour.

Jeremy Greenan, a 30-year-old clerk at the Airport Liquors store on the Hyannis rotary, nodded in recognition when Bennett's name was mentioned by a reporter. ''I don't follow politics that much, so to see him out there, it definitely helps," he said. ''He's a younger guy, too -- that's cool."

Raised in Pennsylvania, Bennett said he was a ''hellion" in his youth, but straightened out at a two-year military college, where he was valedictorian in 1997. In 2001, after attending Penn State, he moved to Nantucket, where his mother lives. The family's history on the island dates to the 1920s, he said.

Bennett's first campaign for selectman, in 2003, was unsuccessful. The following year, he spent weeks waving at cars in the island's Milestone Rotary -- making him an object of some ridicule, but helping him win one of two open seats by a handful of votes. (Willauer, elected the following year, also campaigned in the rotary after seeing Bennett win.)

''Something clicked for the populace," said Doug Foregger, 40, a Nantucket real estate executive. ''They said, hey, if he's working this hard to get this job, maybe he'll work that hard on our behalf."

In the small, pink-curtained courtroom at the Nantucket town offices, Bennett wore a gray suit and sat ramrod straight at the selectmen's table one night this month. Before about 20 spectators seated in wooden benches, Bennett made a motion to accept a $1,000 donation to the island's adult day-care center, then voted ''aye" in a loud, distinctive voice.

He later cast the only vote against a plan to limit parking on narrow Cliff Road because, he explained the next day, the change could hurt businesses there.

Not everyone has been pleased with Bennett's performance. Richard Burns, a Nantucket bookstore employee, said the selectman doesn't seem to grasp the ''nuts and bolts" of governing and doesn't garner much respect. Some critics, including Willauer, say Bennett has been stretched thin by his Senate campaign and has missed important decisions.

Others have faulted Bennett for recklessness, after he accused another islander of extortion on an online message board dedicated to Nantucket politics. Grant Sanders, the administrator of the popular website, known as YACK, said he suspended Bennett's posting privileges because his comments were libelous. (On his site, Sanders credited ''the Doug Brouhaha" with boosting visitor traffic by almost 20,000 hits per day in December.)

Sanders said he would happily welcome Bennett back to the website if he would apologize. Bennett maintains he did nothing wrong.

''I think he is a decent and caring young man," Sanders wrote in an e-mail. ''He's like a hurricane. You can't stop the guy."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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