Silent Partner: R. Emmet Hayes

R. Emmet Hayes at home in background of wife Shannon O’Brien’s campaign
By Pamela  H.  Sacks


WHITMAN — It is 8 in the morning, and R. Emmet Hayes is sitting on the kitchen floor with his blonde, blue-eyed toddler, Regan.

The child is clutching pink birthday party plates and napkins decorated with a Barbie doll image.

“Are we going to have a party?” her father asks her. “How old are you going to be?”

Regan holds up three fingers, to her father’s delight.

“What’s Mom going to be?” Mr. Hayes asks.

“Governor,” the child says quietly.

Mr. Hayes, the husband of state Treasurer Shannon P. O’Brien, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, beams with pride. He is keeping the proverbial home fires burning while his wife is stumping for the state’s highest office. The job seems to agree with him. Relaxed and jovial, Mr. Hayes, who is clad in chinos with a white polo shirt under a blue sweater, is slimmer and younger-looking than he appears in newspaper photographs.

The family lives in a spacious, beige Colonial-style home on a cul-de-sac not far from the center of town. An American flag flies out front, and the street is peppered with signs promoting the election of Ms. O’Brien and her running mate for lieutenant governor, Christopher F. Gabrieli.

The 51-year-old Mr. Hayes, a former lobbyist and state representative, cooks, cleans and cares for Regan. The kitchen and family room are exceptionally tidy. A large vase of flowers stands on a kitchen counter.

“Nobody comes in to help,” he says. “I’m one of nine children. We did a thing called chores.”

Mr. Hayes offers to make coffee. As he retrieves milk from the refrigerator, he remarks that it is “kids’ milk,” the type fortified with extra vitamins and minerals. It’s expensive, he says, but worth it for the nutritional boost.

“I know what I’m doing raising this child,” Mr. Hayes says with a chuckle. “I’m not just someone brought in for this interview. I’m a serious parent.”

The interview has been arranged only after repeated calls to Ms. O’Brien’s staff over 10 days’ time. Mr. Hayes makes it clear that he doesn’t think spouses have a place in the campaign.

“I’m not running,” he says. “My wife is running. She has a record. The voters need to judge her record on jobs, health care, education, the economy.”

And, since selling his share in Massachusetts Bay Associates — which lobbies for clients on Beacon Hill — he has, in fact, kept a low profile. He withdrew from the business last December, as Ms. O’Brien prepared to run for governor, saying he did not want his work as a lobbyist to become a campaign issue.

But in the final weeks leading up to election day, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney has drawn him into the fray by launching a TV ad that implies a web of ethically questionable ties between Mr. Hayes’ former clients — among them Enron Corp. and Big Dig contractors — and his wife’s duties as state treasurer.

Asked for his reaction to the ad, Mr. Hayes first expresses disappointment — and then anger.

“It questions my integrity and my wife’s integrity,” he said. “When I made the decision to leave the business, I was proud. There had been no scandals or anything to be ashamed of.”

When Ms. O’Brien became state treasurer in 1999, Mr. Hayes says, the couple consulted with lawyers and the state Ethics Commission and got “a clean bill of health.” Commission members instructed them in how to avoid conflicts, but told them there was “no way to avoid tongue wagging,” he says.

“We have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid even an appearance of conflict,” Mr. Hayes goes on to say, adding that he sent a letter to all of his clients informing them of the limitations on his activities.

“We made it clear,” he says. “We drew a bright, bright line.”

The ad will continue to do personal damage far down the road, he predicts.

“I’ll be seeing people in this community who have seen those ads, and they’ll remember,” he says. “Those ads will hurt long after the campaign is over. It’s very hurtful. It’s a lasting, lasting hurt.”

Mr. Hayes is a native of Whitman, where he built a political career of his own.

He graduated from Whitman-Hanson Regional High School in 1967, and went directly into the U.S. Navy, serving on a destroyer that was operating up and down the West Coast, providing support for operations in Vietnam.

On his return home, he enrolled in Northeastern University and tended bar at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post and at a local pub.

Around that time, his high school football coach, Bob Teahan, decided to run for state representative, and he called on young men from his old football teams to organize his campaign. Mr. Hayes, who led the effort, recalls that they did all the typical grass-roots politicking, and Mr. Teahan triumphed at the polls, despite Whitman being a Republican town.

Mr. Hayes turned the experience into a class paper he titled, “Against Great Odds.” He went on to earn a degree from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

As it happened, Mr. Hayes also won the hand of Mr. Teahan’s daughter, Ann. They married in 1979 and had a daughter, Jill, four years later. When they divorced in 1987, they agreed to share custody of the child.

The recollection prompts Mr. Hayes to take a Christmas card off the refrigerator and hand it over. It is a photograph of Jill at her high school graduation with her mother and stepfather.

“We both stayed here because of Jill,” Mr. Hayes says. “We equally split the time with our daughter.”

Jill, now 19, is a sophomore nursing student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Over the years, Mr. Hayes served as a Whitman selectman, a post he remembers as exceptionally rewarding, particularly because he says he succeeded in getting sewer lines installed in town through state and federal financing.

The telephone rings; Mr. Hayes takes a break. The caller is “Auntie Gaelan,” one of Ms. O’Brien’s sisters. The two chat about gifts for Regan, whose 3rd birthday party is the following day.

“Try to get Barbies that don’t have little high heels that come off, because Daddy steps on them late at night,” Mr. Hayes tells Gaelan O’Brien. “Then Daddy says the words he doesn’t want his daughter to hear.”

By 1982, Mr. Hayes had won a seat in the state House of Representatives, where he says he worked on water, sewer and transportation issues and restored commuter rail service to the Whitman area.

He laughs when asked how his romance with Ms. O’Brien started. The year was 1989, he says, and she, too, was a state representative.

“The first date was unplanned,” Mr. Hayes recounts. “We found ourselves at a political awards dinner. It was my birthday and I had no plans. She overheard, and she asked me to go out to dinner.

“That’s a statement,” he advises. “She asked me out to dinner, the person who wants to be the first elected woman governor. On occasion, she’s not shy.

“I was struck by her,” he says with a smile. “We shared a lot of interests.”

Many of those interests, apparently, are centered on politics.

“We both represented blue-collar districts that needed a lot of attention paid to local issues and constituency issues,” he says.

He reflects for a moment.

“I was more conservative on the death penalty and choice,” he says. “We early on realized we could disagree. It was healthy to have someone questioning your beliefs.”

They kept quiet about the courtship at first, and married seven years later, in 1996.

Mr. Hayes had lost his seat in the House in 1990, when voters swept many Democrats from office on a wave of anti-incumbency. He had been closely involved in the $133 million cleanup of the Baird and McGuire Superfund site in nearby Holbrook, he says, and initially planned to become a consultant to engineering and transportation firms. His career as a lobbyist developed in 1991, he says, after he got calls from people requesting he represent their interests on Beacon Hill.

These days, life in the Hayes-O’Brien household is hectic, to say the least, Mr. Hayes says. “If I want to see my wife I look at her picture in the paper,” he says, laughing.

He is not sure she will make it to Regan’s birthday party the following day, because she is preparing for a debate to be held that evening. As it turns out, Ms. O’Brien is able to set aside time for the celebration.

As Election Day approaches, Mr. Hayes says, he is spending much of his time at campaign headquarters. When told he is reputed to be Ms. O’Brien’s chief political adviser, he demurs.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he says. “She has an extraordinary record of putting very bright people around her. Am I her chief confidant? Probably.”

His main role has been to make sure the campaign schedule “doesn’t overwhelm Shannon and the family,” he says, stressing that what he is doing is typical of many families across Massachusetts.

“One has a strenuous task and the other takes over family responsibilities,” he says.

After the election, Mr. Hayes says, he will return to work. He mentions that he has a real estate broker’s license. He says one thing is certain: If his wife becomes governor, his job will in no way conflict with hers.

Then his attention is drawn back to Regan, who is sitting on his lap at the counter. With Halloween on their minds, they leaf through a Disney catalog. Regan points to a picture of a costume.

“I want Mommy to be Winnie the Pooh,” she says.

“OK!” Mr. Hayes exclaims. “That’ll be a photo op.”