Bay State GOP Faces Fight for Conte Seat

MASSACHUSETTS Republican activists, still savoring last November's election victories including the first GOP governor in 16 years, are gearing up for a new test. A special congressional election to be held this spring to fill the seat of veteran US Rep. Silvio Conte (R) will require a renewed party effort in a hotly contested race. Representative Conte, who died last week, was the only Republican in the state's 11-member United States House delegation.

``The Republican Party needs to field candidates and get support, and ... after this last election - with the election of so many [state] Republicans - I think we are considered a viable and credible party,'' says Beth Lindstrom, executive director of the state Republican Party.

Massachusetts Secretary of Communities and Development Steven Pierce, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor in last year's primary against William Weld, is seen as a likely candidate. Observers say the former state representative stands a good chance, because he, like Conte, hails from western Massachusetts. Conte's First Congressional District makes up a large chunk of the western end of the state.

``[Pierce] just finished a statewide campaign. He's very liked by Republican activists in the district. His name recognition is fairly high,'' says Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts.

There is also speculation that Conte's wife, Corinne, is considering running for her husband's seat.

The state Democratic Party, on the other hand, finds itself with a long list of contenders. Some of the possible candidates include state Sen. John Olver, state Sen. Chris Hodgkins, and former Department of Public Works Commissioner Jane Garvey. Party officials say that Conte, a liberal Republican, should be succeeded by a Democrat.

``I think it will be clear that a Democrat is a logical heir to Silvio Conte,'' says Steve Grossman, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. ``Silvio Conte was a man who first and foremost represented working men and women and their families.''

Conte was first elected to the US House in 1958. A ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, he was respected by his Massachusetts colleagues. The 16-term congressman was one of several House Republicans who voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.

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