By Jessica Bartlett, Town correspondent
You can tell just by looking at them.
Clifford, 63 years old with more life experiences, Cusack, 26 years old and eager, each vying for the state representative spot in the 5th Norfolk District, which encompasses all of Braintree, as well as precincts in Holbrook and Randolph.
Clifford isn’t shy about pointing out the differences. If anything, he’s depending on them.
“If people take the time and compare, and look at the person and not the party, my experiences, my accomplishments, and my working for Braintree in municipal government, whether it be elected or appointed, will clearly separate the two of us,” Clifford said.
Having been on the Town Council in 2007, chairman of elder affairs and veteran services, and chairman of the Board of Assessors for Braintree, Clifford believes he has more knowledge and skill to do the job right. He also boasts experience in a variety of Fortune 300 companies.
Still, Clifford feels that his party affiliation makes him an underdog in the race. It’s the lack of a political structure that ultimately makes things difficult for the candidate.
“As an independent, we don’t have the machinery or infrastructure to be as organized as my opponent,” Clifford said.
But the political instability only seems to have added vigor to Clifford’s campaign. He’s even based his slogan on the newness of his party, the freshness of his experience, the similarity of his lifestyle to the voters.
“I have a tag line, ‘Now is the time.’ And it is the time for an independent, because people are fed up with party-line politics,” Clifford said.
“People are disappointed that the government doesn’t listen to them anymore. So they are looking for a voice to stand up for them, will be available to stand up to them, and with my life experiences, and raising five children in Braintree ... coupled with my 35 years corporate experience and my 15 years in municipal government, makes me a well-rounded, experienced guy,” he said.
Cusack says that although his experience isn’t as long as Clifford’s, “I have experience in all levels of government. I have seen how government can serve people and want to find solutions. That experience will allow me to go in on day one.”
The Democrat, who always has lived in Braintree, has interned at the State House and in the Washington office of US Representative Stephen Lynch, has worked in the Braintree mayor’s office since the government’s inception in 2008, and is a member of the Braintree Historical Society.
But more than all of these things, he says he has energy — an intrinsic passion for what he does that is hard to ignore.
“I’m staying positive. I’m not telling people what I’m against. I tell people what I want to do and what I will be working on. I’m talking about issues ... issues I can affect,” Cusack said.
“People want to see work ethic, and the way you campaign says a lot, and I hope that people can see I’m a worker,” Cusack said.
He comes ready with ideas, discussing his wish to use part of the gasoline tax, which is now used to pay down state debt, to fix roads and bridges.
As far as his youth, Cusack sees it as a positive.
“I am young, some people want to make that a negative, but I have the energy to be up there 14 hours a day, and I have a fresh way of thinking, fresh ideas. We can’t do the same status quo; you have to come up with creative alternatives,” he said.
Unlike Clifford, who will not accept support from political action committees, Cusack is enthusiastic about them.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to get endorsements from the unions. My opponent likes to make that the central part of his campaign. But these organizations represent thousands of working families, and I’m happy they feel I’m the better candidate to represent them,” said Cusack, whose supporters include IBEW 103, Plumbers Local 12, and New England Regional Council of Carpenters.
Yet despite differences, both candidates are firm on the main problem facing their community.
“Jobs and the economy,” said Cusack.
“We need jobs,” said Clifford.
Both believe the solutions lie in the same place.
“We need to get people back to work. We want government to streamline permitting and let entrepreneurs generate new jobs,” Cusack said. “Government isn’t the solution, but it has to be a part of it.”
Clifford says the same. “We should be incenting small businesses. We should provide them tax reductions, and we should help them expand and start up,” Clifford said.
Predicting the winner is difficult, especially when no incumbent is involved, said Maurice Cunningham, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Without an incumbent, residents are more likely to go with what is familiar, and in this case, that would be the Democratic Party.
“Because these are low-information races, people don’t know a lot about the candidates ... so it’s familiarity,” Cunningham said.
But familiarity depends on more than party affiliation. “Name recognition is very important. And after that, I’d say money,’’ said Cunningham. ‘‘The two work together, the person with the best name recognition is able to raise more money. ... And if you’ve run before, you know how to run a campaign; it’s a lot to learn.’’
But both candidates have strived to get the word out about their campaigns, knocking on more than 4,000 doors each in the summer and bringing out their signs in force at any event with more than 10 people.
Neither candidate is quite sure how things will turn out.
“Do I find this an easy election to win? Absolutely not,” Clifford said.
Even Cusack, who won a contested race in the primaries, acknowledges that this time, things are different.
“This is a completely different game,” he said.
Jessica Bartlett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.