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Bostonian of the year

The Life of the party: Scott Brown

By winning "the Kennedy seat," the Republican shocked the political world and inspired a legion of long-shot challengers.

Scott Brown (Brendan Smialowski for The Boston Globe) More than once in his first year in office, Scott Brown broke with party leadership. For example, he endorsed the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
By Neil Swidey
January 2, 2011

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This much is worth remembering: When he entered the national consciousness, he was considered something of a lightweight. Sure, he was camera-ready – a handsome, fit guy surrounded by an attractive family. But as someone asking the people to send him to conduct the serious business of the United States Senate, he had little in the way of a legislative record. On the podium, he was more than a bit wooden, delivering halting lines like a high school jock going through the motions in his run for student council. And the jock label fit. Even though he graduated from a competitive college, he had distinguished himself on campus as an athlete, not a scholar. In the special election to fill the seat of Massachusetts’s most famous senator, his main obstacle was a credentialed Democrat who had earned a reputation for competence as the state’s attorney general. The prospect of this neophyte ascending to the Senate threw members of the intellectual class into fits of apoplexy.

Yet in the art of retail politics, the agreeable guy with the handsome face was a star, quickly establishing himself as the superior candidate. It was more than just the stamina he showed in shaking hand after hand after hand. It was the pleasant doggedness and smiling ease with which he did it. He clearly liked campaigning because he clearly liked people. And people clearly liked him.

So the people of Massachusetts sent that perceived lightweight, named Ted Kennedy, to Washington. In that special election of 1962, Kennedy was able to leverage his likability (and his connections) to cream Democratic Attorney General Edward McCormack in the primary en route to assuming his famous brother’s Senate seat.

It was nearly half a century later when Scott Brown did the same. In the special election of 2010, the candidate stunned the anointed but flat-footed Democratic attorney general, Martha Coakley – and the nation – to win what he referred to as “the people’s seat,” but which everybody else continued to call “the Kennedy seat.”

Ted Kennedy’s second and third acts loomed so large – the scandal-soaked survivor of Camelot, the liberal lion of the Senate – that people tend to forget his first act. Back then, Kennedy had been discounted by everyone around him, including his own brothers, and derided by a Harvard professor as “a fledgling in everything except ambition.”

Improbably, that fledgling grew into one of the most effective if polarizing senators in the history of that old man’s club. And when Brown won his election in January and took over the seat that had long been held by the embodiment of the American left, he, just as improbably, became a figure of national importance.

Most freshman senators are forced to toil for years in obscurity, paying their dues. Brown, as the 41st Republican, would be able to stymie the Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate. That made him a player from the moment he set foot in D.C. He was courted by both parties, trailed by media hordes, and saw his face splashed on the covers of national magazines. Most freshman senators are given the least desirable office space. Brown, finishing Kennedy’s term, moved right into the late senator’s highly coveted suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, with its marble fireplace and a third-floor balcony offering views of the Capitol so sweeping that it is a sought-after backdrop by TV camera crews.

Will Scott Brown go on to become a transformative political figure like Ted Kennedy, a senator whose name keeps company with the likes of Webster and Clay? Before you dismiss the idea, consider how outlandish it might have seemed had the same question been posed about the youngest Kennedy after his first year in office.

Or will the 51-year-old Brown turn out to be simply a transitional figure, a one-hit wonder remembered vaguely as that former nude Cosmo model who once snared the seemingly bluest seat in the country for Team Red?

It’s way too soon to tell. But this much we know: Scott Brown had a profound impact on national politics in the last year. His surprise victory upended conventional wisdom, inspired a legion of long-shot challenges, and energized Republicans and Democrats alike. Brown’s election showed the country that anything is possible, that no seat or incumbent is safe from challenge. And his maneuvering once in office produced the tiniest rays of bipartisanship in a Senate dark with dysfunction. For all of these reasons, he is our 2010 Bostonian of the Year.

IN THE FALL OF 2009, nearly every political observer in the country was operating under the assumption that whoever won the Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s special election would cruise to victory in the general. After all, a Republican hadn’t won a US Senate seat in the Bay State since 1972, and it certainly wasn’t going to flip to the GOP now. Not with all those tearful remembrances for Kennedy still echoing. Not with the Democrats’ needing the seat to prevent President Obama’s agenda from being derailed. Not with health care reform, the president’s chief domestic priority and the issue Kennedy had repeatedly called the cause of his lifetime, hanging in the balance.

Yet Brown pressed ahead. And when heir apparent Martha Coakley easily won the Democratic primary, in accordance with the script, and everyone figured it was just a matter of time before she’d be measuring the drapes for her new office, Brown kept plugging away. Even after Coakley stumbled on the stump – her complaint to the Globe about the pointlessness of shaking voters’ hands while “standing outside Fenway Park, in the cold” has to be the best gift-wrapped line for an opponent since “Read my lips!” – most analysts still thought she’d survive. Surely, the air of inevitability, combined with the Democratic Party apparatus, would see her through.

What that prediction overlooked was how Brown was showing himself to be a more worthy heir to Kennedy’s campaigning legacy than was Coakley. For Brown, as for Kennedy, the personal side of politicking, the pressing the flesh, never seemed like a chore, but rather the essence of the enterprise. That ability to connect with voters and that willingness to sweat in pursuit of an ambitious goal allowed Brown to rewrite the narrative. And he skillfully tapped into a Massachusetts electorate where the majority of voters are now unenrolled, meaning they’re more likely to focus on individual candidates than party affiliation.

Among those who noticed how it was all coming together for Brown early in the general campaign was Gerard Doherty, a loyal Democrat who happened to have been Kennedy’s campaign manager during his first run in 1962. “Whether it was Cecil B. DeMille or luck,” Doherty says, “Brown had all the things people were looking for in a candidate.”

Then again, Brown is a man of fascinating contradictions. His image as the barn-jacket-wearing, pickup-driving guy you’d like to have a beer with was politically potent enough to obscure the fact that he is also a lawyer, an incumbent lawmaker, an owner of multiple properties, and an ex-model for Jordache jeans who wore pink leather shorts on his first date with his future wife. His camera-ready family – model-turned-newscaster spouse; two accomplished daughters, including a former American Idol contestant self-possessed enough to perform live and sign copies of her CD at her father’s election-night party – masked the deeply troubled home life he endured growing up in Wakefield and elsewhere. His parents divorced when he was around 1, and each went on to marry four times. He moved 17 times before he turned 18 as his mother cycled through a string of relationships often marred by alcohol and violence. In promotional material for his forthcoming autobiography, Brown details how he sometimes stole food and how, at the age of 6, he stepped in to protect his mother from abuse and ended up being subjected to “a savage beating at the drunken, dirty-fingernail hands of a stepfather.”

Your own political persuasion will no doubt influence whether you find Brown inspirational. But politics aside, there’s something undeniably aspirational about his story. The steely determination he showed in overcoming the odds in his personal life mirrors his ability to overcome the odds in his public life. His upset victory – a little-known Republican taking over Teddy Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts – previewed the anti-establishment, anti-incumbent wave that would build nationwide. Many longtime pols bowed out in 2010 rather than risk a humiliating defeat. Others found themselves facing stiff challenges for the first time in many cycles. Even if those seasoned incumbents didn’t enjoy having to endure the uncertainty, there was a clear upside for voters. Nothing saps the soul of democracy quite like uncontested elections.

Brown’s election also gave credibility to the Tea Party, which, accurately or not, was given a good deal of credit for his win. Before Brown’s election, the Tea Party was largely dismissed as a fringe group of disgruntled white middle-aged middle managers. After Brown’s win, the image of the Tea Party morphed into a potent (if not particularly diverse) political force that had to be taken seriously.

Here’s another irony about Scott Brown: He’s not a radical guy, but his election inspired radical action on the part of others, on both sides of the aisle. Emboldened by Brown’s anything-is-possible message, the Tea Party propelled the unlikeliest of candidates past their more mainstream rivals in Republican primaries in Delaware, Nevada, Alaska, and elsewhere. Yet Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Joe Miller proved too extreme for the electorate in the general election.

Similarly, Brown campaigned to be the 41st vote to block “ObamaCare,” but he turned out to be an accelerant for its passage. Before Brown’s victory, the president courted compromise and dialed back the ambition of his health care reform plan in an increasingly desperate attempt to cobble together a coalition that could pass it with a filibuster-proof supermajority. When Brown’s election exposed the futility of all that, it actually emboldened Obama. He replaced his aching acrobatics with a stiffened spine and pushed through health care on a simple-majority reconciliation bill. It was a radical move, especially for a cautious, cool-tempered president. No similarly wide-reaching social legislation over the past half century had passed with fewer than 60 votes in the Senate. Although Obama was able to sign the health care legislation into law, he may well have been simultaneously signing the warrant for his shellacking in the November midterm elections.

It turns out that anything is possible, particularly the impulse people have to overreach.

Brown’s critics pointed out that he had no coattails locally in the November election, as not a single Republican won a statewide office or congressional seat in Massachusetts. Still, his impact here was visible in more subtle ways. His election helped inspire Republicans to mount spirited challenges of senior Democratic incumbents. And it made the Massachusetts Democratic Party determined to never again be caught napping.

ONE OF BROWN’S BIGGEST achievements in his first year in office, under the hot, unforgiving lights of national attention, may well have been his ability to avoid major mistakes. There were no embarrassing flubs or scandals. As he had during his college basketball days at Tufts, Brown remained cool under pressure. His coach once said that Brown, though “not born with great basketball attributes,” performed “beyond his limitations.”

Through determination, he competed at a higher level than others thought he was capable of – a pattern that he repeated in all of his political campaigns.

In late February, in his first significant vote in the Senate, Brown showed that his promise to be an independent actor was more than just rhetoric. He voted with the Democrats and against his party leadership to block a Republican filibuster and move a $15 billion jobs bill to the floor. His action produced a backlash from Tea Party activists and lock-step Republicans, but proved popular with the kind of independent voters who had helped elect Brown. It also strengthened his position as a vote of outsize importance in the Senate.

Throughout the year, he showed himself to be politically adroit. Brown was hardly a renegade. Overall, according to tallies kept by The Washington Post, he voted with his party leadership 83 percent of the time. That put him in line with the more moderate members of the Senate, such as Republican Lamar Alexander (85 percent), and apart from Massachusetts’s senior senator, John Kerry, who voted with his own party leadership 97 percent of the time.

Brown seemed to guard that leverage carefully. After it was clear that Elena Kagan had enough votes to get herself confirmed to the US Supreme Court, Brown announced he would vote against her and with the Republican leadership. His stated reasoning that the former solicitor general and Harvard Law School dean lacked sufficient experience for the high court sounded surprising coming from Brown. After all, in his 11 years as a member of the minority party on Beacon Hill, Brown had seen just nine of the bills he filed as a state representative, and just one of the bills he filed as a state senator, become law, according to a Globe review. All but one dealt with boilerplate municipal issues. “He had no legislative record to speak of,” says Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a close observer of State House action. Regardless, Brown’s decision to vote with his leadership on Kagan – an important vote symbolically but not mathematically – was smart politics. Party loyalty like that would buy him more maneuvering room down the line when he wanted to break with leadership.

It happened just two weeks ago when he broke from the GOP and endorsed the historic repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

It also happened back in the summer, with the Wall Street reform bill being pushed by the Obama administration. Brown indicated his willingness to cross party lines and support a measure popular with many Massachusetts voters, and thus play a role in shaping the legislation that most concerned the state’s powerful financial services industry.

Among those he impressed during this process was congressman Barney Frank, the House’s Democratic sponsor of the financial reform package, who, in the aftermath of Brown’s election, faced one of the stiffest challenges in his political life. “I found him to be very pragmatic,” Frank says. “I admired his willingness to break with the extreme elements of his party who were trying to claim ownership of him.”

Brown crucially withheld his support until he was able to extract changes sought by MassMutual, State Street Bank, and other heavy-hitting financial companies that were big Brown campaign donors. Frank says the changes Brown requested were legitimate, and he was skillful in how he advocated for them. When it was all done, Brown, the junior-most junior senator, had wielded disproportionate influence and demonstrated that cross-party cooperation wasn’t just a dusty bauble for retiring senators to wax nostalgic about. His vote prompted none other than the Rev. Jesse Jackson to call Brown “a sort of oxygen to Washington’s stale political process.” Jesse Jackson.

WHATEVER HAPPENS to Brown this year, it will happen to him from a less elevated perch. The Republicans’ success in padding their ranks in the Senate and taking over the House means Brown is no longer the GOP’s crucial 41st vote. He will find his standing to be something more befitting a freshman senator. And he will find himself working out of an office more befitting a freshman senator.

Brown and his staff have been packing up their things to clear out of the third-floor office suite they inherited from Kennedy. Brown’s lease for the space expired when the 111th Congress did. The swell digs will now go to a senator with more seniority.

The politics in the coming year promise to be far more challenging for Brown. He will find himself with less leverage to buck his national party leadership at precisely the time he must begin positioning himself locally as an independent-minded Republican for his 2012 reelection campaign. He will find it much harder to fill Kennedy’s role as the senator people turn to for exceptional constituent services now that the Tea Party has declared war on congressional earmarks. They may be unpopular in concept, but earmarks were one of the tools Kennedy mastered to deliver federal dollars for items big and small – everything from $7 million for a photonics center at Boston University to $100,000 for job placement services for veterans in the Fall River area.

“It’s a very delicate line,” says Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, “and it’s going to get much more difficult for Brown to walk it.”

He runs the risk of making in his second year some of the rookie mistakes he managed to avoid in his first. He was painted as a Scrooge last month for blocking the extension of unemployment benefits around the holidays at the same time he was pushing for tax cuts for the wealthy. His handlers have begun employing a strategy to shield Brown from the media, whisking him out side doors following public appearances and away from reporters. It’s a tactic with a poor record of success in politics and one that seems particularly ill-suited for someone who ran as a regular guy looking to occupy “the people’s seat.” His Senate communications director, Gail Gitcho, refused a request to interview Brown for this article, citing concerns about his book contract and staff fears that any details Brown revealed for this piece might somehow diminish sales for his forthcoming autobiography.

Michael Widmer was on Harvard’s campus back in 1962 and recalls how appalled the university establishment was by Ted Kennedy’s Senate bid, despite the president’s kid brother being a Harvard alum (albeit one with a checkered academic record). “Then Kennedy proved everybody wrong,” Widmer says.

Will Brown be able to do the same?

It’s way too soon to tell. But this much we know: Time and again, Scott Brown keeps disproving his doubters.

Still, from here on, he won’t get national attention just for being him, and he won’t be able to leverage his popularity the way he did at the start of his ride. If he really does aspire to occupy the coveted office suite of a long-serving United States senator, he will have to become one.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

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More past Bostonians of the Year

  • January 2, 2011 cover
  • Bostonian of the Year: Scott Brown