Way More Mr. Nice Guy
By Bill Beuttler
Boston Magazine, September 2012
Senator Scott Brown arrives at South Boston’s grassy Medal of Honor Park, trailed by a handful of aides. He’s wearing a dark gray suit and a red tie, and stops to shake the hands of supporters as he ambles toward the park’s South Boston Vietnam Memorial. The memorial, which bears the names of the 25 Southie residents who died fighting in that war, holds the distinction of being the first to honor Vietnam veterans in the United States.
In front of the memorial, staffers for Brown, who is up for reelection this year, have placed a podium with a blue “Scott Brown: He’s For Us” campaign banner on it. A few bored-looking journalists and supporters wait around. It’s a Friday morning in July, and the senator has come here to reiterate his support for the Stolen Valor Act of 2011, a bill he introduced last fall that would make it illegal to lie about military service and then profit from the lie. The bill is just the sort of legislation that Brown has specialized in since taking office after a special election in 2010: middle-of-the-road proposals that only a fool would oppose. They’re the kinds of bills that can provide strategic cover for the votes he regularly casts with the more extreme elements of the Republican party.
After a brief introduction by Tom Kelley, a Medal of Honor winner and a former secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, Brown steps up to the podium, flanked by a dozen middle-aged veterans. “The Stolen Valor Act of 2011 is a bipartisan bill that safeguards the honor and valor of our military heroes,” he says, comparing its broad support to another bill of his that banned insider trading in Congress and was signed by President Obama in April. “I’m hopeful that the commander in chief will lend his voice to this very, very worthy cause,” Brown continues, “because even with all the gridlock in Washington, and the partisanship in Washington, passing Stolen Valor into law is one of the last chances that we have to get something done in this country before the elections.”
The reporters wait, ready to ask about a story CNN aired two days earlier in which Brown told the network, “I can name a litany of Democratic-sponsored bills that never would have passed had it not been for me. The president has called me. The vice president calls me. Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton calls me for my vote all the time.” Brown’s remarks were clearly designed to establish that he is both a significant presence in Washington and an independent thinker who’s willing to collaborate with Democrats on sensible issues, two points that are crucial to his reelection chances. But when the Globe started asking questions, Brown’s staff admitted that there had been only a few such conversations with the administration—a particularly unhelpful development since Brown had recently generated headlines by falsely claiming to have had “secret meetings” with “kings and queens.” Once again, the senator looked like he was trying to overstate his influence.
Right away, a reporter asks about the controversy. Brown has a ready-made reply: “I’m a guy from Wrentham driving a truck, and I’m honored each and every time that I can speak to the president and his administration,” he says. “I’m going to continue to work with him and others in the administration, as I’ve been doing since the day I’ve been down there.”
Another reporter asks Brown to respond to criticism from Democrats about the statements. “It’s an election year. I get it,” he replies. “My record speaks very clearly for working across the aisle. I’m the second-most-bipartisan senator in the United States Senate. I do work with the administration and have spoken to the individuals I’ve referenced.”
“Are you embellishing?” the reporter asks bluntly.
“No, I’m not embellishing,” Brown answers. After five questions, he signals that the press conference is over, and begins to shake hands with the assembled veterans. Then he and a couple of aides walk out of the park, headed for another event.
* * *
The first time I met Scott Brown was back in December, before I’d started reporting this story. I’d had a couple of martinis at a holiday party in Quincy when my father-in-law, a Republican business owner and Brown campaign contributor, walked up and announced he had someone he wanted me to meet.
To my surprise, there stood the senator, wearing his famous brown barn coat. We exchanged hellos, and in my next breath I said something about how it seemed as though the Republicans needed to get a handle on the Tea Party. Just the day before, the Senate had voted 89–10 to extend unemployment benefits and the temporary payroll tax cut for two months. Given the struggling economy, it seemed a smart, pragmatic, and, judging by the vote, nonpartisan move. But suddenly the House of Representatives was balking at passing the bill. Conventional wisdom was that the House was buckling to pressure from the same Tea Party members whose brinkmanship had already provoked a near government shutdown in April and the debt-ceiling crisis a few months later.
Brown may have split with the Tea Party on that issue, but he wasn’t prepared to criticize the group. “It’s the Democrats’ fault,” he told me. This seemed preposterous, so I asked Brown why he’d defend the Tea Party, given its growing hostility toward him for his occasional willingness to vote with Democrats. He just stood there silently. If he was caught off guard or insulted, he didn’t show it. My father-in-law abruptly decided that this would be a good time to introduce his prize visitor to other party guests, and led him away.
Despite my cheekiness and the senator’s peculiar take on whom to fault for the Congressional standoff, I came away from the encounter liking Brown. Talking to him had been like arguing with some guy in a bar. There wasn’t a hint of stuffiness in him, unlike what one might expect from the moneyed Ivy Leaguers the commonwealth has a habit of sending to the Senate.
In any case, by the next day, Brown had apparently changed his mind about where blame for the impasse lay. “The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” he said in a statement. So why fault the Democrats the night before? It’s possible he assumed I was a Republican and that he was telling me what I wanted to hear. (His fundraising letters to Republicans are full of warnings about the left-wing radicalism and Hollywood financing of his opponent, Elizabeth Warren.) Most likely, though, Brown simply recognized an opportunity to play up his maverick credentials and shrewdly seized it.
Tailoring the message to the audience isn’t unusual for a politician, but Brown has a more difficult challenge come November. To win, he’ll have to leverage his genuine likability to convince supporters of President Obama to also cast their ballots for him rather than for Warren, whom he typically paints as an elitist, carpetbagging, anti-capitalist Harvard egghead.
* * *
The moment Scott Brown won the January 2010 special election to succeed Ted Kennedy in the Senate, he had a major problem: He was a Republican in a heavily Democratic state—just 11 percent of Massachusetts voters are Republican. Worse, he owed much of his upset victory to the work of the Tea Party, which was now expecting him to be a reliably conservative voice in Washington. But his prospects for reelection would be tied to convincing Massachusetts independents that he was no radical.
Seen in this light, the fact that polls show Brown and Warren essentially tied right now is pretty good news for the senator, even though that’s usually a dangerous position for an incumbent. Still, this time around, Brown is going to have to win a lot more votes than he did in 2010. Turnout in the special election was low, with just 2.2 million people casting ballots, which meant that Brown’s passionate supporters had an outsize influence on the result (he ended up getting 52 percent of the vote). With a presidential election this November, however, Massachusetts is expecting more than 3 million people to go to the polls, and it looks like a big majority of them will be Obama supporters. The president pulled 62 percent of the vote here in 2008, and he remains popular in the state. Which means that, in order for Brown to be reelected, he’s going to have to persuade a sizable percentage of Obama voters to “split the ticket” and also go with him.
Adding to Brown’s difficulties is the fact that he holds some pretty conservative views—he opposes any tax increases, for instance, and voted to strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases—while Warren’s liberal ideas are more closely aligned with the majority of Massachusetts voters.
Marc Landy, a political science professor at Boston College, sums up Brown’s difficult dance this way: “Since he is to the right of the Massachusetts electorate, he must do three things—emphasize that he is a regular guy with good character, emphasize elitist aspects of his opponent, and tread a fine line between maintaining his conservative credentials while still showing himself to be a maverick.”
* * *
Just before Father’s Day, Brown’s campaign launched a pair of ads, called “Dad” and “Husband,” highlighting his role as an omelet-making family man. The commercials featured Brown’s wife, the television reporter Gail Huff, and his two daughters, Ayla and Arianna. “Scott’s always been the one who encouraged me professionally,” Huff tells the camera, “encouraged me to have my own life, to have my own identity. He’s always been very, very sure about the women in his life to have their own lives. He is, by far, the most understanding of women probably of any man I know.”
Absent from the ads are any mention that Brown’s a Republican—a fact he rarely brings up on the campaign trail, either. What you do hear a lot about from Brown is bipartisanship. In January, a CQ Weekly study ranked him the second-most-bipartisan senator in 2011 for having voted with his party only 54 percent of the time. (Other studies put that figure at closer to 70 percent.) He touts the dozen or so endorsements he’s gotten from local Democrats, including former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and Medford City Councilor Rick Caraviello. Mayor Tom Menino has so far declined to officially endorse anyone in the Brown-Warren race, but his silence all but amounts to siding with Brown. And then there’s New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Medford native and powerful political independent, who in July announced that he was for Brown.
In an effective display of good-guy-ness, Brown proposed a ban in January on all negative ads from third-party groups. Warren quickly signed on. The pledge was supposed to ensure that the race focused on the issues rather than on the tearing down of the candidates, but it’s had the unexpected effect of removing issues from the race entirely. The television ads that have run have, for the most part, been superficial, like Brown’s “Dad” and “Husband.”
But that doesn’t mean the candidates haven’t found other ways to go after each other. In interviews and campaign mailings, Brown attacks Warren for being out of touch with regular Massachusetts voters. He refers to her as “Professor Warren,” and highlights her comment that she provided the “intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street. He also characterizes her as an elitist, which is curious given that he attended prestigious private institutions (Tufts and Boston College), while Warren went to state schools (the University of Houston and Rutgers).
But Brown’s most successful line of attack came after the Herald reported in April that Warren had made claims of Cherokee ancestry on several occasions, including while at Harvard. The implication was that Warren had benefited from affirmative-action policies even though she wasn’t actually Native American. Warren provided no documentation of her heritage, and, after a couple of flailing responses to the charges, stopped talking about the issue for two weeks. The story quickly went national. When Warren finally did respond, she appeared unprepared and awkward. Brown surrogates, meanwhile, worked hard to keep the issue in the news. Though a Suffolk University poll in late May found that 69 percent of voters believed it was not a “significant story,” the controversy gave Brown something else to focus on whenever he was asked about Warren’s assertions that he was a senator who represented not his own state but Wall Street. The Cherokee issue, he argued, was evidence of Warren’s “credibility problem.”
Brown’s strategy of contrasting his fair-mindedness with his opponent’s alleged extremism appears to be working. Though Warren has the advantage of being the Democrat in the race, and though she has out-fundraised Brown—she brought in $8.6 million in the second quarter, compared with his $5 million—the contest remains close. At press time, polls showed the candidates tied, with each getting the support of about 43 percent of respondents. Meanwhile, 49 percent of those polled in a late-June survey by Public Policy Polling saw Brown as an “independent voice for Massachusetts.” Only 39 percent believed him to be a “partisan voice for the national Republican Party.”
“Warren’s task should have been easier—reminding Massachusetts voters that she is with them on the issues and showing that a Harvard law professor can be likable,” says Boston College’s Landy. “The Cherokee business may not change votes, but it heightens a perception that Brown has a better character, which in addition to his likability and his show of independence on social questions has enabled him to remain competitive despite his heavy partisan handicap.”
After Brown leaves the press conference at Medal of Honor Park in Southie, I stick around to ask a few of the veterans about what draws them to Brown. “Veterans is number one,” Dennis Moschella, a retired U.S. marshal and police officer who served in Vietnam, tells me. “Number two is he’s conservative.”
Tom Kelley, who earlier introduced Brown, tells me Brown was a “straight shooter” back when he was a state legislator and they worked together on veterans’ issues. Kelley, who’s an independent, says he also admires Brown’s continuing service in the National Guard—Brown holds the rank of colonel—and his bipartisan record. “I’ve always admired people like [Maine senators] Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, people like that,” he says. “And Democrats also who vote the issue, not the party line necessarily. And I think Scott follows that trait.”
That’s true. Democrats have successfully wooed him on some major bills over the past two years. In 2010 Brown voted with Democrats on a $17.5 billion jobs bill pushed by Obama, and on the new START arms-reduction treaty with Russia. This year he joined with Democrats to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act; to defeat Republican efforts to eliminate clean-air rules governing mercury and other toxins; and to support the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the renamed federal food stamp program.
Taken collectively, these votes create the impression of a determined moderate. And depending on where you happen to sit on the political spectrum, Brown’s occasional siding with the opposition party makes him a maverick, a traitor, or a canny political operator. “Scott Brown is a conservative, not a moderate, but he does occasionally vote with the Democrats,” says Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry. “He picks and chooses visible votes that will convey a message of moderation to voters here in Massachusetts.”
At the same time, though, Brown has sided with Republicans on a host of very conservative bills. He voted for the unsuccessful Blunt Amendment, which would have let employers with moral objections to contraceptives ban them from their company healthcare plans. And on fiscal issues, he’s rarely strayed from Republican orthodoxy. He has voted against ending tax breaks for oil companies; against a Balanced Budget Amendment proposal that would have prohibited new tax breaks for people with incomes of more than $1 million a year; against the “Buffett Rule” requiring an effective tax rate of 30 percent on people who make more than $1 million a year; and for permanently ending the federal estate tax.
There have also been times when Brown has voted with Democrats on an issue only after winning concessions that moved the legislation to the right. Because Democrats don’t have enough senators to override potential filibusters of their legislation, they often find themselves having to cut deals with Brown and a few other Republicans, which gives those GOP senators a lot of leverage. In 2010, for example, Brown, Snowe, and Collins voted with Democrats to pass the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which tightened banking regulations in the wake of the abuses that contributed to the recession. A condition of Brown’s support for Dodd-Frank, though, was that Democrats scrap their plan to have the banks pay the nearly $20 billion cost of implementing the bill and instead charge taxpayers. “It never would have passed if it wasn’t for me,” Brown said in April on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I was tired of having banks and Wall Street act like casinos with our money.”
* * *
It’s the day after the press conference at the park, and Brown and his wife, Gail Huff, pull up to the Plymouth Maritime Day festival in his trademark green 2005 GMC pickup. Brown, who is wearing khaki slacks and a Boston College polo shirt (it’s a steamy July afternoon, so the barn coat was left at home), stops at the entrance to the festival and treats his staff (and me) to Italian ices. Then he and Huff begin a slow loop of the vendors, pausing every few feet to shake hands and pose for photos. The senator seems to prefer small events like this, where he can walk and talk among the people, rather than traditional rah-rah rallies.
After circulating for about an hour—trailed the whole time by that fixture of modern campaigning, an opposition staffer with a video camera who’s waiting to capture any slip-up—the couple begins to head toward the exit. On the way out, Huff asks her husband to buy her a gift for their 26th wedding anniversary, which they celebrated two days earlier. As the moment demonstrates, Huff has become a valuable asset for her husband on both the trail and in television commercials. In 2010, her reporting job with Channel 5 prevented her from campaigning with Brown—the station was covering his run, after all—but now she’s working for a station in Washington and is free to assist in Brown’s reelection campaign.
The couple met in 1985, not long after Brown had graduated from Boston College Law School. For Brown, just making it to BC Law was quite an accomplishment, given his troubled youth. He revealed in his 2011 memoir, Against All Odds, that as a boy he’d suffered through a succession of homes and abusive stepfathers, and had fended off two attempted sexual molestations. His fortunes began to turn while he was at Wakefield High School, where his skills on the basketball court led to a scholarship to Tufts. From there, it was off to law school.
After Brown and Huff married, Brown juggled his family, service in the National Guard, and a law career focused on real estate. He also helped out with the household duties so Gail could work the 3 a.m.-to-10 a.m. shift at the TV station. The couple settled in Wrentham, and Brown began a modest political career that quickly picked up speed. After being elected town assessor and selectman, he won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1998 and then, in a 2004 special election, in the state Senate.
When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, and former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and former George W. Bush chief of staff Andrew Card decided not to run for the Republican nomination for his seat, Brown stepped in. No one expected him to win, including, according to his memoir, his wife and his team of advisers, among them the longtime Mitt Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom. Everyone saw the Senate run as a way for Brown to position himself for a more realistic office, like lieutenant governor or attorney general. Brown, of course, won anyway, thanks in large part to his genial, Everyman appeal, the terrible campaign run by his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, and his promise to serve as the deciding vote in upholding a filibuster against the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Brown never got to make that vote, however. Two months after he was sworn in, Democrats found a way to pass the act using rules that weren’t subject to filibuster.
Despite his campaign-trail pledge to help torpedo Obamacare, Brown attempted to take advantage of one of the provisions in the law by adding his daughter Ayla to his health insurance in 2010—only to discover that the measure hadn’t yet been instituted. Still, Brown remains a staunch opponent of Obamacare. The day after the Supreme Court upheld the law in June, he published an editorial in the Globe tearing into it. The fact that he voted in 2006 for the very similar Massachusetts plan Romney championed while governor has never caused Brown nearly the grief it has Romney.
* * *
Brown initially refused several requests to speak with me for this story because, I heard indirectly, the magazine had run an article about him a few years ago that he found to be overly negative. Eventually, though, he changes his mind and agrees to give me time for a few questions. So after the Plymouth campaign stop, we meet at an Italian restaurant.
I bring up the issue of taxes, mentioning Grover Norquist, the Republican activist who’s fashioned something of a career for himself by demanding that GOP candidates across the country pledge to never raise them. The idea is that fewer tax revenues will result in lower government spending. Moderate Republicans like George H. W. Bush and Jeb Bush have recently criticized Norquist’s pledge, believing that it’s bad policy and bad politics. Bruce Bartlett, an economist and historian who’s worked for Ronald Reagan, Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, and the elder Bush, told me: “If you believe in Norquist’s ‘starve the beast’ theory … all the tax cuts of the [George W.] Bush administration should have caused spending to go down. It went up. The history of the past 20 years proves conclusively the exact opposite of the theory that underlies Grover Norquist’s whole reason for being.” That sounds like exactly the kind of stance that a middle-of-the-road politician from a liberal state could embrace. Instead, Brown seems almost annoyed that Norquist would get the credit for insisting on no tax increases. “I’m glad Grover agrees with me that we shouldn’t be raising taxes in the middle of a three-year recession,” Brown tells me. “And if people want somebody who’s going to raise taxes, they can vote for Professor Warren. If they want somebody who’s going to hold the line, they vote for me. It’s pretty simple.”
From there, Brown pivots to a recent success, a last-minute agreement hammered out by the two parties that prevented interest rates on student loans from doubling. Brown had been pummeled by Democrats for weeks for not agreeing to their proposed method of paying for the student-loan bill. To Brown, the criticism was a sign he was doing his job. “You have to sit down and you have to look people in the eye, you have to negotiate with them, and that’s what we did,” he says. “We got flood insurance, we got the highway bill, and we got student loans. Now, [Warren] would have just settled for the student loans and taxed it on the back of our sub-S corporations. That’s a failure.”
* * *
In early June, I meet Alice Shea during a Brown campaign event at a strawberry festival in Danvers. A pleasant middle-aged woman, she’s wearing a “Brown for Senate” hoodie. Shea is precisely the kind of voter Brown’s going to need to win. She tells me that her father always insisted that she forever remain three things: an American, a Catholic, and a Democrat. But as she’s grown older, she says, she’s begun questioning that third point. She makes a joke about coming out of the closet as a Republican. Brown has been the catalyst for her evolution, and she tells me that character should come before party. If you were to keel over on the sidewalk, she says, and someone were to offer you CPR, you wouldn’t ask him what party he belonged to. Character is what matters, and she likes Brown’s.
What about his policies? I ask. Does she agree with them?
“Not always,” she acknowledges.
And when she doesn’t?
“I e-mail him,” she says, though she concedes that she usually doesn’t change his mind. But, she tells me, he knows more about the issues than she does. And besides, he’s such a nice guy.