MIDDLETON — Her U.S. Senate campaign has little cash and no paid staff, and she is virtually unknown to most would-be Massachusetts voters.
Yet Democrat Marisa DeFranco, an immigration attorney from Middleton, is on the verge of qualifying for the September primary ballot, denying the party's prohibitive favorite, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, the ability to focus exclusively on Republican incumbent Scott Brown.
DeFranco cleared one major hurdle earlier this month by submitting more than 10,000 signatures of registered Democrats; her final hurdle is winning at least 15 percent of the delegates at Saturday's Democratic State Convention in Springfield.
The state party chairman predicts DeFranco will get the needed votes, setting up a primary contest that few Democrats expected and some hoped to avoid. Other candidates with more money and name recognition than DeFranco left the race earlier in deference to Warren's huge fundraising advantage and the apparent inevitability of her nomination.
DeFranco, 41, is unabashedly liberal and unapologetic about her reputation for feistiness.
"I'm opinionated, I'm a wisenheimer, I make smart-aleck remarks," she said during an interview in the small, nondescript office suite that serves as her campaign headquarters.
Her campaign, DeFranco said, eschews the traditional political wisdom that comes from consultants whom she could not afford to hire even if she wanted to, including advice on how women should run for office.
"They're always trying to make women exactly right, not too soft, not too tough, just right — Goldilocks — and then you end up an empty shell," she said. "Because if you are not true to who you are, and true to your personality, it's going to come through as fake."
According to federal election records, DeFranco had raised just $41,613 through March 31, compared to the $15.8 million pulled in by Warren over that same period. She relies on a small cadre of dedicated volunteers including her husband, attorney Kai Moy, who doubles as the campaign's media liaison.
A contested primary would offer potential risk and reward for Democrats and for Warren. On one hand, it could help Warren sharpen her message and hone her debating skills for the November general election; on the other, it could temporarily divert the party's focus on unseating Brown and allow the incumbent to exploit divisions among Democrats.
DeFranco has faulted Warren for her response to relentless criticism from Brown's campaign over her past listing of Native American heritage in law directories — a claim that Warren's campaign hasn't documented. While not questioning Warren's motives, DeFranco said by not fully addressing all the questions, Warren has allowed Brown to capitalize on the controversy.
"Hold a press conference," DeFranco suggested. "Stand there for half an hour an answer questions."
DeFranco seems to echo another of Brown's campaign themes — his contention that Warren is an academic elitist out of touch with the concerns of everyday people.
A key difference between her and Warren, DeFranco said, is that while she "actually works in the real world," Warren lacks such experience.
Warren's campaign has largely ignored DeFranco, though Warren has said previously that she does not take the Democratic nomination for granted and she answered "of course" when asked last week if she considered DeFranco a legitimate candidate.
"Marisa is a smart, hardworking woman," Warren said. "I've met her multiple times. She's a terrific person."
John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, predicted that DeFranco will get the votes of at least 15 percent of convention delegates Saturday, though he added that some delegates who choose to endorse DeFranco to ensure her spot on the ballot may still support Warren in the primary.
"My personal opinion is that the party benefits from competition," Walsh said.
A native of Erie, Pa., whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Italy, DeFranco graduated from the University of Dayton and earned her law degree from Suffolk University in Boston. She originally aspired to be a prosecutor, but later chose to specialize in immigration law, which she has done for the past 16 years.
The rewards of her advocacy have been in helping people "achieve the American dream," but she said it has also exposed her to the harsh realities of life for many immigrants and the often brutal circumstances they left behind in their native countries. She blames the media, in part, for what she sees as the frequent scapegoating of immigrants in America.
DeFranco advocates massive federal spending on programs to create jobs and a government-run single-payer health care system and believes the U.S. should take any possible military option off the table in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.
While she holds positions that are more liberal than those of many mainstream Democrats, DeFranco believes she can win over not only her own party, but the backing of Massachusetts independents crucial to deciding the Senate race.
Long active in the party, DeFranco said she resolved to run for the Senate on the night of Jan. 19, 2010, when Brown upset Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. DeFranco, who volunteered on Coakley's campaign, faulted party officials for not taking more responsibility for the crushing defeat.
"I've been a good soldier for the party, I've been there when they asked me ... and I decided that night I am not working for another candidate," she said.