Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff
WAKEFIELD - Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, sending an early signal about the fiscally conservative, socially moderate administration he hopes to build, selected as his running mate yesterday Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, a veteran lawmaker who is also openly gay.
Baker’s choice highlighted his eagerness to reach out to Democrats and independents who dominate the Massachusetts electorate and to distinguish himself from national Republicans who have alienated some voters with their party’s policies on gay rights.
Tisei, who leads five Republicans in the 40-member Senate, said he simply disagrees with national Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage. He pointed out that, even as party leaders in other states have targeted Republican candidates for their support of gay rights, he has defended gay marriage in opinion pieces in his local paper and in a floor speech denouncing a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that was backed by Mitt Romney, the state’s Republican governor at the time.
“I’m a Republican through and through, and we’re a family,’’ Tisei said. “And sometimes you agree to disagree on certain issues in your family.’’
Baker, whose brother is gay, also supports gay marriage. But neither he nor Tisei mentioned Tisei’s sexual orientation at an event introducing the new team yesterday. Instead, Baker emphasized that he and Tisei agree on the need to create jobs and stabilize the state budget.
Selecting a gay running mate “is sort of an issue . . . but it’s nowhere near as important as the other stuff,’’ Baker told reporters after the event at the Americal Civic Center in Wakefield. “The goal here if we win, when we win, in November is going to be to get stuff done, and part of getting stuff done is understanding how the building works and working reform through the process. And Richard’s been doing that for his entire career.’’
In his district, Tisei has won praise from supporters for his work ethic and humble, plainspoken style. Richard Lyons, who was Melrose mayor from 1992 to 1997, recalled asking Tisei to secure grants for a senior center and a swimming pool. “When you needed help, he was always there,’’ Lyons said. “He would roll up his sleeves and help out in any way.’’
The son of a builder, Tisei caught the political bug when he visited the State House in high school was first elected to the House in 1984 at the age of 22. He has served in the Senate since 1990. He cites as his major accomplishments helping to craft an overhaul of the state’s welfare laws in 1993 and his sponsorship of a whistleblower protection law. He also has a 93 percent approval rating from the antitax group Citizens for Limited Taxation and high marks from Associated Industries of Massachusetts and other business groups.
If elected, Tisei would be the highest-ranking openly gay Republican in the country, according to the Victory Fund, a Washington-based group that seeks to elect gays and lesbians to office. Only 450 of the nation’s 511,000 elected officials are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and more than 90 percent of them are Democrats, said Denis Dison, a fund spokesman. In addition to Tisei, there is only one other openly gay Republican among the nation’s 7,000 state legislators.
“There are a lot of things that point to what a history-making election this would be, if he is elected,’’ Dison said.
At the same time, Dison said, “The interesting part of this announcement today is kind of what a nonstory it was in Massachusetts.There is local precedent for the choice. Acting Governor Jane Swift made national news in 2002 when she chose a gay Republican, former Melrose mayor Patrick Guerriero, to be her lieutenant governor candidate.
Guerriero said yesterday that running as a gay Republican that year “was much more interesting and controversial,’’ and that Tisei’s sexuality “is more a footnote now’’ because gay marriage is no longer a major political issue in Massachusetts.
“Folks are most concerned about family and economic security than they are about sexual orientation,’’ Guerriero said.
Daniel A. Grabauskas, a gay Republican who ran for state treasurer in 2002, said he saw Tisei’s candidacy as an indication of the state Republican Party’s tolerance compared to that of the national party.
“Republicans on the national level coined the phrase ‘big tent,’ but the national Republican party has never lived up to that, while the Massachusetts Republican Party has absolutely lived up to that,’’ said Grabauskas, who helped run Tisei’s first Senate campaign in 1990 and attended the announcement yesterday.
Tisei, who spoke publicly for the first time about his sexual orientation in an interview with the Globe last week, said yesterday that his orientation was well known to his family, legislative colleagues, and supporters and not a major issue. He and his partner, Bernie Starr, co-own Northrup Realtors in Lynnfield and have entertained legislative colleagues at their house in Wakefield, Tisei said.
“I’ve been very open about it,’’ Tisei, 47, said in an interview after he was formally announced by Baker before 40 sign-waving supporters. “It’s just I want people to know me for me and what I’ve done as a legislator. And I’ve tried to do a good job, and I think that’s why I’ve been elected so many times.’’
Baker, a former Weld administration official and former Harvard Pilgrim Health Care president, is one of three challengers seeking to unseat Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, in 2010. Christy Mihos, a former convenience store magnate, is also running for the Republican nomination, while state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill recently left the Democratic Party to mount an independent candidacy.
Tisei must still win support from Republican primary voters next year to win a spot on the general election ticket, and other Republicans could seek the spot. Baker’s hope is that with his naming of Tisei, other Republicans will pass on the race. The move also allows the Baker campaign to raise more money, because the two can now each raise the maximum allowed under law for their joint campaign.
Tisei represents Malden and Wards 1-5 in Melrose in the state Senate.