For Brown, campaign an all-out family affair
Senator's wife and daughters now helping to soften image of the man with the truck
WRENTHAM — Scott Brown is at the stove, preparing bacon and cheese omelets, tossing eggshells into the sink with scarcely a glance, each one a perfect shot. Gail Huff is at the breakfast table, reminiscing about her early days as a TV reporter, talking up her husband’s cooking. But the star of the show is the fridge.
A standard issue side-by-side model, nearly every inch of its face is plastered with snapshots and magnets, children’s drawings and certificates of achievement, ticket stubs and local press clippings. The collaged photos show daughters Ayla and Arianna through the years — Girl Scouts, Little League, prom night, college — but there are glimpses of Brown and Huff, too.
One shows him a decade ago, a little-known state legislator in full Gene Simmons makeup and giant shoulder pads, one more anonymous KISS fan rocking with his tongue out. Another from 2010 shows how much their lives have changed: Huff hugs the real Gene Simmons, after he invited them backstage because he wanted to meet Brown, the man who wrested Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat from the Democrats.
That refrigerator, stocked with store-brand groceries and domestic beer, is a bit like the Browns, unpretentious but camera-ready. It appears in a pair of TV spots now in heavy rotation, Huff describing Brown’s dedication as husband and father, while close-ups of snapshots on the refrigerator alternate with footage of Brown working in the kitchen, folding laundry, and paying the bills.
Two-and-a-half years after his special election victory shocked the political world, Brown is again campaigning heavily on personality. But he is no longer the candidate who defined himself as a guy with a truck and a barn jacket. He is Scott Brown, suburban family man.
To be sure, the everyman touchstones are back, the jacket a little more matted, the truck approaching 250,000 miles. But the women in his life are front and center — daughters who in that last, compressed campaign were only occasionally visible, and a wife who was deliberately absent. Still working on-air in Boston, she steered clear for professional reasons.
On the trail now, Brown wears a bracelet from Ayla’s “American Idol” days, talks of Arianna’s gift with animals, cites the influence of a “house full of women,” and calls serving in the Senate the third-greatest honor of his life, “after my marriage of 25 years and the birth of my children.”
And his wife and daughters are increasingly visible by his side, Huff especially.
That may be shrewd politics. Brown is running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, facing a well-financed woman while carrying a voting record criticized by liberal groups as anti-women. Huff, Ayla, and Arianna soften the edges, projecting a different image.
But their presence is also natural for a family that seems uncommonly close — parents who still keep up with their grown daughters multiple times a day by phone, text, e-mail, and Facebook, and who sometimes sleep all in a room in their Capitol Hill studio, close enough to hear dad snore.
In many ways, they are returning the favor for all the years he was their cheerleader, coach, and personal valet — moving for Huff’s job, administering heparin shots during her complicated second pregnancy, cooking at night and getting the girls ready in the morning, driving hundreds of miles a week to take them to and from Noble and Greenough School, rarely missing a basketball game or equestrian meet.
He knows people recognize them and respond to them. He hopes they remember them on Election Day.
On the campaign trail
The cries rained down from balconies and streamed over sidewalk barricades all along the St. Patrick’s Day parade route in South Boston.
“Ayla, you’re our ‘American Idol!’ ”
“Gail Huff, we miss you!”
And for Arianna, an aspiring veterinarian and sometime model who has mostly eschewed the spotlight, there was even a “Yeah, Syracuse!” cheer, a nod to her alma mater, along with whistles and cries of “Ayla’s sister! Woo!”
Scott Brown was there, too, beaming, waving, leading with his chin, as they crisscrossed the pavement from one side of the barricades to the other, joined by a couple of campaign aides and the green pickup truck.
Mile after mile, they posed for pictures, patted dogs, and collected strand after strand of green beads from revelers, never wilting under an unrelenting sun. Brown and Huff scooped up babies; the daughters joked and snuck pizza from the back of the truck when not handing out campaign stickers.
The crowd reception had been similar the previous weekend, when the family — minus Ayla, who was in Philadelphia to sing the national anthem at a 76ers game — traipsed along Route 28 in Dennis and Yarmouth on an unseasonably frigid morning, for the Cape’s traditional pre-St. Patrick’s parade.
Arianna was initially reluctant to leave the warmth of the truck, but her presence spoke volumes; she was spending the first Saturday of her final college spring break at a Cape Cod parade with her parents. Huff and Brown enlisted the crowd to help draw her out, in the way their ads blur the traditional line between public and private and invite people to see them as old friends.
“Come on Ar, you wimp!” Brown cried, beckoning her. As snow flurries yielded to sun, Huff led a gathering in front of the Riverway Lobster House in a coordinated chorus of “Out of the car! Out of the car!” aimed at Arianna and the truck. She emerged, waving and smiling sheepishly. “You guys did it!” Huff bellowed, before slinging an arm around her daughter.
“Gail, we miss your hats!” a middle-aged woman in a black fleece cap called. As a WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reporter, Huff donned what seemed like a different hat every time she ventured into a storm, a few reappearing now in old footage on the TV ads. “Maybe I’ll send ’em to you,” replied Huff, now working part time in the milder weather of Washington.
Another woman called out to Huff as if she were the one running for office. “Gail,” she cried, “good luck!”
Building a family
Brown is famously the product of an unsettled upbringing, a victim of physical and sexual abuse. His mother married four times and lived at the whim and mercy of unreliable men. His father also married four times and was rarely present in Brown’s life until they reconciled as adults.
Huff had a more conventional childhood, but it was scarcely bliss: Her oldest sister suffered a stroke at 18, and her parents divorced when Huff was in high school.
Huff and Brown met in the spring of 1985, both working as models. He courted her, but she proposed to him that summer on the cusp of leaving for a TV job in North Carolina, kneeling amid a busy intersection.
“I had to get him when he was vulnerable and weak,” Huff joked, recalling the story over breakfast at home. With cars beeping and construction workers hooting and hollering, she refused to budge until Brown said yes.
“I felt bad for her,” he deadpanned.
“We joke all the time,” he said, mouth full of omelet.
“All the time,” Huff said.
“If you can’t joke, you might as well not even get out of bed,” said Brown, who famously proclaimed his daughters available on national TV, and less famously offered his old modeling posters whenever they needed birthday party gifts.
Marrying in 1986, they vowed to give their children the stable home they had lacked, no matter what that required.
“As I’ve gone through my marriage with Gail, I’ve tried to do it better than my parents. You know, take the good things that my parents taught me and do it better and take the bad things that I learned and just get rid of them,” Brown said. “We don’t sweat the small stuff, we don’t really argue about the silly stuff. When it’s important, you know, we’ll stake our ground and kind of go toe-to-toe and let each other know our positions on things.”
From the start, his kitchen repertoire, imparted by his grandmother, was wider than hers; Huff back then could cook only what she called “tater tot casserole.” But even when she made it to Channel 5, after years in Providence and Hartford, her career required the longer commute, the unforgiving hours. With his flexible schedule as a self-employed lawyer — and, later, a back-bench state legislator — he played the larger domestic role, not just preparing dinner and making sure homework was finished, but learning to braid hair, too.
He collected and donned all the jewelry to beat the girls in the board game Pretty Pretty Princess, practiced with them hour after hour in the gym, wrote Ayla’s music contracts and handled her PR, bottle-fed the abandoned pets Arianna brought home. Even the truck, that famed totem of masculinity, was purchased to pull her horse trailer.
Ayla, who favors Brown in appearance, inherited his drive and fluid jump shot. Arianna favors her mother and shares her selective determination (career, school) while inheriting her peacemaking nature and easy-come, easy-go approach to time.
Brown can be aloof in interviews but springs to life when discussing his children, waxing on about Arianna’s near-flawless GPA and gift with animals — “Dr. Doolittle,” he calls her, mentioning the wounded sparrow she healed with a splint made from uncooked spaghetti — and swooping his arms to demonstrate how Ayla faked out a towering center with a move he taught her.
Brown sometimes embroiders accomplishments of his children that need no embellishing. Of Ayla, he recalled games “when she’d have 17, 18, 20 rebounds,” adding, “I think she was the 10th player in BC’s history to score over 500 points and have 500 rebounds.” (She was the 19th, and she once grabbed 14 rebounds in a game.)
In his book, Brown wrote that missing Ayla’s last Boston College home game and Arianna’s sorority family night at Syracuse University were the greatest disappointments of his life as a US senator.
Sticking up for dad
In the condensed 2010 campaign, with Ayla juggling senior year as a ballplayer, student, and singer, and Arianna navigating freshman year, the girls appeared only occasionally — mostly in home videos, throwing snowballs at their father, or gathered by the tree in Santa hats — and Huff was invisible until the victory party. But the daughters’ role in the final week foreshadowed heavier involvement this time.
With Brown surging, Democrat Martha Coakley attacked Brown over a failed amendment he proposed as a state legislator that would have allowed health care providers to deny emergency contraception to rape victims if it conflicted with providers’ religious beliefs.
An ad depicted a smiling Brown opposite footage of a cowering young woman. Upset, Ayla and Arianna appeared before reporters without their father. Joined by other women supporting Brown, Ayla blasted the commercial for embodying “everything that discourages young women from getting involved in politics.”
“My dad would always stand up for the rights and needs of rape victims,” she said. “He’s kind, understanding, and he’s a very compassionate father.”
Brown won heavily among men and peeled off some of the women voters pundits expected to go for Coakley, but gender was not the prominent battleground it is proving to be this year.
His Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, has repeatedly criticized Brown’s support of Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s unsuccessful amendment that would have allowed employers to withhold contraception benefits on religious or moral grounds. And Warren has drawn attention to Brown’s vote against the “Paycheck Fairness Act,” which Democrats said would narrow the malefemale pay gap and Republicans said would harm business.
Brown’s wife and daughters rarely speak about specific policies, serving instead as amiable, apolitical ambassadors of the Brown brand.
Ayla promotes Brown to her 5,400-plus Twitter followers and has built trips home around post-college life in Nashville, where she is establishing herself as a country singer-songwriter, and Philadelphia, where she has a contract as anthem singer for the 76ers.
Huff regularly traverses the state with Brown in the truck, greeting voters; her Tuesday-to-Thursday schedule at Washington’s WJLA, where she began reporting two years ago after 17 years in Boston TV, allows her to mirror Brown’s travel to and from D.C.
And Arianna, who took extra classes to graduate from Syracuse in three years, lived with her parents in their studio apartment last summer while interning at the National Zoo and came home frequently this spring as graduation loomed.
‘Sound Guy Scott’
On a Wednesday in April, Brown rose at 5, front-loading his schedule so that on that night he could get to Portsmouth, N.H., where Ayla had flown to headline a benefit for her cousin’s elementary school.
After visiting a Dorchester construction supplier for a small-business round table, he toured a Canton brewery, where his unfiltered comments to a reporter and breezy driving after a taste test would later stir controversy. Then he greeted voters and gobbled a club sandwich at a sub shop, toured the Foxborough State Police barracks, and shed his suit and the truck for a sweater and a Grand Am, heading for Portsmouth, where he took Ayla out for Chinese after her sound check.
On stage, Ayla performed to steady applause and the faint glow of cellphone cameras, enlisting the crowd of 500 for help winning the attention of record labels. “I need to become a mega-superstar, like Taylor Swift-style,” she said. “When you go home tonight, I want you to go on Facebook, and I want you to go on Twitter if you have that, and I want you to like my page on Facebook. OK? It’s just Ayla Brown, thank you, yep, it’s that easy.”
She sounded more than a little like the father sitting in the back of the darkened auditorium, a candidate who slips in, “Thank you, ScottBrown.com, tell your friends,” after so many handshakes.
And like her dad, she prided herself on making time for everyone afterward, looking each young autograph-seeker in the eye, tucking her 6-foot frame down to their level, mindful of her goal of becoming “a nice celebrity.” But still she kept her eyes on the prize; when the teens who worked the sound board came by hoping for a free CD, she gave them a signed photo but held firm on the album’s $10 sale price.
Brown himself was in carnival barker mode, leaning on the peeling veneer of a cafeteria table spread with Ayla’s merchandise.
“Hi, come on up! Get a CD and you’ll get a picture, too, that’s the best value!”
His hands moved swiftly, making change and popping open CDs so Ayla could sign them faster, as he talked up his favorite tracks on her self-published album, like “Beat by a Girl” (“You’ll love it,” he told a group of girls in recreation league T-shirts).
As Ayla signed autographs for stragglers, Brown fetched his daughter’s guitar from backstage and helped haul equipment to the car, a nod to the days when he dubbed himself “Sound Guy Scott.”
“This is the stuff I miss,” Ayla said, beaming at him. “Helpin’ each other out.”
Her accent was more Nashville than New England, just as it had been a month earlier, when the four Browns found themselves in a freight elevator at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center with a group that included Joseph P. Kennedy III and US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, between the St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast and the parade. Talk turned to footwear; Huff was keeping her heels on, but Ayla planned to join her sister in flats. “Y’all must be crazy,” she said, eager to shed her spike heels.
In the hours that followed, they toggled between private family moments and public adulation. Brown made sure they all had sunscreen and guided Arianna on a bathroom run through six-deep crowds on the sidewalk to a packed pub. Halfway through the parade, Huff, her arm around Arianna, admired Southie’s finest row of brownstones, sighing about how nice it would be to own something like that.
But mostly they whooped it up, basking in the cheers and whistles, undaunted by occasional boos.
When it was over, the women climbed into the pickup, so Huff could take the daughters to the airport; Brown, barn jacket over one arm, saw them off, bound instead for a jobs fair in Western Massachusetts.
Brown staffer Jerry McDermott, a former Boston city councilor, watched from across the street. “There go the three best assets of this election effort,” he said, as the truck disappeared onto Interstate 93, everybody inside but Brown.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.