BOSTON - The end of John Tierney's tenure in Congress -- which spanned three presidents, two wars and nearly two decades -- seemed to come abruptly.
Tierney, who represented the 6th Congressional District for nine terms, lost to challenger Seth Moulton in the September primary, becoming the first sitting Democrat from Massachusetts in nearly 22 years ousted by a member of his own party.
Tierney has since kept a relatively low profile, avoiding reporters and shrugging off interview requests. Pundits have criticized his behavior as petty and unbecoming of a veteran lawmaker.
“Losing was disappointing,” Tierney, 63, said in a rare interview days before he was due to leave his Capitol Hill office. “But I know that we’ve done a lot of good and helped thousands of people over the years. And we’re working right to the end.”
Tierney cites a host of accomplishments as highlights of the 18 years he spent in Congress - including his role as a ranking member of the House National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations Subcommittee. There he led investigations into corruption by contractors along the military supply lines in Afghanistan and unsanitary conditions for veterans at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C.
Serving on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tierney worked on legislation to reduce college loan debt and boost Pell grant funding, and he helped craft key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including a law that prevents insurance companies from giving exorbitant bonuses to top executives.
Tierney also noted his efforts to help constituents, such as those with problems getting Social Security checks or veterans' benefits and others who faced immigration and mortgage issues.
An unwavering liberal, Tierney took often controversial stands on divisive issues such as spying by the National Security Agency following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the War in Iraq – which he voted against.
“We took a lot of heat for those things, but I think history has proven us correct,” he said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a longtime friend, described Tierney as an “articulate, effective orator who was persuasive in his presentation and respected by his colleagues.”
“Right from the start, John Tierney made it clear that he was here to do a job and commanded the respect of others in the Massachusetts delegation,” Pelosi said. “People viewed him as a leader who could get things done.”
A Salem native, Tierney was first elected to Congress in 1996 after ousting two-term Republican Rep. Peter Torkildsen in a narrow, 371-vote victory. He won every reelection, usually by wide margins, until he nearly lost the seat to Republican Richard Tisei in 2012.
In Congress he served under three presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – and saw the House of Representatives swing from Republican control to the Democrats and eventually back to Republicans.
“I started off with the Republicans trying to impeach President Clinton and ended up with the Republicans trying to sue President Obama,” he said.
Tierney’s last two terms were overshadowed by a family scandal involving his brothers-in-law, Robert and Daniel Eremian, and their role in an offshore Internet gambling operation on the Caribbean island of Antigua.
Daniel Eremian was convicted in 2011 on racketeering and gambling charges. He served three years and was released from federal prison in May. Robert Eremian remains a fugitive. Tierney’s wife, Patricia, pleaded guilty in 2010 to filing false tax returns on her brother Robert’s behalf and served a month in federal prison.
At the time, Daniel Eremian claimed Tierney knew about the business. Tierney disputes that.
The House Ethics Committee cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the allegations have dogged him. His rivals seized on the scandal, using it to hammer away at him over two election cycles.
Still, Tierney suggests that his primary loss, followed by Moulton's win in the general election, had more to with public antipathy towards Congress than lingering perception about the scandal.
“People were upset, and they wanted someone to blame,” he said. “The public somehow thinks that a rookie is going to come in here, sit on the backbench in the minority party and get things done. That’s not how Congress works.”
Local political observers credit Tierney for roping in hundreds of millions of dollars for the 6th District, which includes most of Essex County and eight towns in Middlesex, even after congressional earmarks were banned. He helped secure grants for schools, police and fire departments, and public transit.
“You can physically see the impact he has made in places like downtown Salem, Lynn and Newburyport,” said Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist from Marblehead. “I honestly think most people don’t know the huge difference John Tierney made for this congressional district during his time representing it.”
Goldman said Tierney was effective at finding issues where he could balance the needs of the district and the national agenda – like fighting against the closure of Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford.
“He knew every time he voted on something that he would come home and defend that vote,” he said.
Even as he was packing up and preparing to leave his office, Tierney said he kept active in Washington politics. Last Thursday, he huddled with other Democrats to discuss concerns about a $1 trillion spending bill keeping the federal government running into 2016, a measure that ultimately passed.
Tierney voted against the spending package, along with other members of the Massachusetts delegation, citing concerns about Republican amendments to ease financial safeguards and increase federal campaign contributions.
After casting his last floor vote Thursday night, Tierney gave a short farewell address thanking his colleagues, staff, family, friends and constituents. He stood in the same spot in front of the House speaker's rostrum where he gave his first speech in March 1997, then as a freshman congressman, against legislation on workplace compensation.
Tierney said he worries that a Republican-led Congress will roll back progress on key issues or repeal the healthcare law.
“That would send the deficit skyrocketing again, throw millions of people off healthcare and turn the Medicare program upside down,” he said. “It’s not perfect but repealing that bill would be a huge step backwards.”
Tierney said he doesn’t know yet what’s next. He said he's received a few job offers he wouldn’t discuss, and he has considered going back to practicing law.
“Most of all, I’d like to keep advocating for things I believe in like social justice and education,” he said.
For now, he plans to take some time off to weigh his options, he said.
While Moulton has complained that the outgoing congressman has given him the cold shoulder since the primary, Tierney said his staff has tried to accommodate his successor.
But he admits they aren't holding hands.
“Every new member has to make their stamp on Congress,” Tierney said. “He’s got to find his own way.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at email@example.com