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2nd Franklin House race too close to call

Recorder/Mike Phillips
Denise Andrews, along with Greg Hagar, left, Priscilla Hume and Nick Guerra keep up with the results of the election.

Recorder/Mike Phillips Denise Andrews, along with Greg Hagar, left, Priscilla Hume and Nick Guerra keep up with the results of the election.

With the heaviest voter turnout in years and a tight race in the 12-town Second Franklin House District spanning three counties, it was unclear at deadline who had won the three-way contest for the seat now held by Rep. Denise Andrews.

At deadline, with 8 of 12 precincts reporting, Athol Selectmen Susannah Whipps Lee was ahead with 46.8 percent of the vote — 6,919 to 6,299. Independent candidate Richard F. Schober of Templeton had 1,560 votes. Still missing were results from Belchertown, Petersham, Royalston and Wendell.

If Lee were to win the seat in the only local contest on Franklin County ballots, she would be the first Republican to hold it since 1978.

Andrews, who won a four-way Democratic primary race two months ago with 48 percent of the vote, was first elected in 2010 with nearly 53 percent of the total in a three-way race in 2010. It was her first elected office, representing her hometown after more than 25 years of working in corporate management, primarily at Procter & Gamble in Ohio.

Lee said from a gathering among supporters in Phillipston, “It’s tighter than I thought it would be. I’m very excited. We’ve really worked hard with an incredible team that’s put a lot of effort into this campaign.”

Andrws could not be reached for comment.

A web designer and developer who’s been unemployed for nine months and recently took a temporary job in Waltham that kept him away from campaigning in recent weeks, Schober told The Recorder on Monday that he realized he had little chance of winning, but was glad that he entered the race to give voters a third choice.

I expect Susannah Lee’s going to win by a significant margin, said Schober, 55. “The election won’t be won on ideas or on the issues. I think it will be a judgment of the candidates’ characters by the voters.

Both Lee and Andrews agreed throughout the campaign that economic development in the newly reconfigured district centered on Athol and Orange and including five other Franklin County towns. But Lee, a 43-year-old co-owner of the family flood-gate manufacturing business her parents founded in Athol 35 years ago, is an Athol native and graduate of Athol High School, just as 53-year-old Andrews is a native of neighboring Orange and graduated from Mahar Regional School in that town.

In debates and on the campaign trail throughout the 12-town district, the two differed on issues including stand-your-ground legislation and especially on the role that state government can play in fostering economic development, with Lee calling for business taxation and regulation to be lessened to make the state more business-friendly.

But voters like several interviewed as they approached and exited the polls at the Orange Armory on Tuesday said they were bothered by an incident that surfaced after the Sept. 6 primary, in which Andrews reported to Athol’s police chief that an unnamed informant had claimed he had sold cocaine to Lee. A police department investigation later found that the charges were unfounded, and an additional investigation is under way by police.

Andrews came under criticism earlier this year when it was learned that she took a part-time job working 50 hours a week for the pharmaceutical giant Novartis in New Jersey.

Both women had supporters stationed on either side of large contingents The two party candidates had supporters stationed on either side of Bacon Street Tuesday afternoon, just beyond the armory parking lot where a steady stream of voters flocked to the polls.

As they navigated past the two competing camps, several voters agreed that the contentious contest between the two candidates from the neighboring small towns, where everyone knows one another made it among the most difficult choices on Tuesday’s ballot.

“I think it’s tough when the person lives in your town, instead of just having their name plastered up everywhere” said Ken Gutkowski, who was planning to vote for Andrews even though he was also casting a ballot for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson and for Republican Sen. Scott Brown.

One middle-aged Orange woman who would identify herself only as “Barbara” said she had voted for Andrews two years ago, but that she voted for Lee this time.

“I feel like I should be supportive because she’s from Orange,” the voter said, but added, “I feel we need a change I feel that nothing’s changed in two years. I hope (Lee) will make more progress. She seems to have the personality to do that.”

Another woman, identifying herself only as “Vicki,” said she had cast her ballot for independent candidate Schober, mostly because of what she called the “completely ridiculous” cocaine allegation. “If people are interested in playing high school games, I don’t want them representing me.”

Stephanie Conrod said as she was entering the Armory to vote for Obama’s re-election, said she wasalso supporting Lee this time, calling Andrews “a disappointment.”

Conrod,said she had been upset that Andrews had taken the Novartis job , but “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was the cocaine incident.

Mostly, though, she said, “I’m glad the political ads will be over. I’m tired of four years of an election.”

Michael and Tonya Winowicz canceled each other’s votes out, not only in their different choices for president and the ballot questions, but also for state rep.

“That story about calling the cops: why would you do that?” asked Winniwicz, who voted for Lee, as his wife argued about Andrews, “She’s been in there. I think she’s good.”

On one thing they could agree, Winniwicz said. “I’m glad it’s over, for a while.”

Aside from Athol and Orange, the new district consists of Gill, Erving, Warwick, New Salem and Wendell as well as the Worcester County towns of Royalston, Phillipston, Templeton and Petersham, plus part of Belchertown in Hampshire County.

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