With Brown, 'What You See Is What You Get'
October 30, 2012
by Steve Decosta
New Bedford Standard Times
The barn jacket is in mothballs right now, but the pickup is still truckin' along.
Sen. Scott Brown arrived for his most recent campaign stop in SouthCoast behind the wheel of his 2005 GMC, most likely with WZLX or some other oldies station punched into the radio.
The pickup and the jacket were the most recognizable symbols of the Republican's successful campaign for what he called "the people's seat" in the U.S. Senate after the death of Edward M. Kennedy.
The jacket was needed in the dead of the 2010 winter, when he was overcoming the early lead of Attorney General Martha Coakley to win the special election, but not during this hot campaign against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.
And now that he's got a Senate voting record to both promote and defend, the props are less important.
He's still casual, campaigning here in a T-shirt and woolen pullover, eyeglasses tucked in the crook of the V-neck sweater. And he's still without airs or the trappings of political power.
"Hi, I'm Scott," he would say as he crisscrossed the heart of downtown New Bedford. "Nice to see you."
"I never get tired of it," Brown said between stops at about a dozen small businesses. "Nine times out of 10 people thank me for coming in. They appreciate it."
It would be the perfect campaign act, if that's what it was. But those who know Brown say that's the way he operates all the time.
"What you see is what you get," said Richie Canastra, co-owner of BASE New England, the seafood display auction who has a long history of contributing to candidates of both parties. "I've been with him in Washington and what you see there is the same thing as when you walk around New Bedford with him. He's the same man."
Keiko Orrall, a Republican freshman state representative battling to keep her seat, was inspired by working in Brown's special election campaign.
"Some people think it might be a little hokey, him driving the truck and all that. But that's who he is," Orrall said.
"Scott Brown has a long history of being at ease with crowds, of being personable, of being approachable," said Peter Ubertaccio, director of The Martin Institute and associate professor of political science at Stonehill College. "He's mastered the art of pressing the flesh and greeting people. Over the years, he's perfected that particular style of campaigning."
"You pick things up as a local official and as a state rep and state senator." Ubertaccio said. "As a Republican in a Democratic state, he's learned that you've got to listen to everybody."
Denis Keohane, a Boston real estate developer who owns the Catwalk and other properties in New Bedford and has run local fundraisers for his "good friend," said, "During a campaign, a lot of things are scripted. Scott is much more genuine and down to earth when it's off the cuff.
"I remember one time we were out by Springfield. A woman came up to Scott and told him she would never vote for him. He turned to me and said, 'Watch this now.' He took her aside, but I could overhear the conversation. He started talking about his family, about his dog, about how hard he works. This woman walked away with a bumper sticker and a yard sign."
Seeing Both Sides
The bedrock of Brown's campaign is his proclaimed independence, with ads touting his standing as the second most bipartisan senator. A Congressional Quarterly report showed he voted with his own party only 54 percent of the time.
Who's first? Maine Republican Susan Collins, "by just a smidgeon," said the highly competitive Brown, who chafes a little at being second at anything.
"Clearly, I'd like to be first," he said. "I'm going to work on it."
Brown's independent voting record reflects his work ethic, said Keohane, who has employed Brown as a real estate lawyer. "He's a one-man operation. He didn't come from a big law firm. He's a one-man show, but he did the work of five lawyers.
"He does his due diligence on every deal. There's never a mistake. He's always prepared."
Democrats don't doubt his willingness to work across the aisle, but said his voting record might be a little misleading.
"On 'don't ask, don't tell,' he first voted against it," Congressman Barney Frank said. "Then, by the time he voted for it, there were already enough votes to pass it."
And sometimes Brown's independence comes with a price, Frank said.
"On the financial reform bill, he was very influential, but the result was mixed," Frank said, relating that the $20 billion cost of implementing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act originally was to be borne by large financial institutions.
"Chris Dodd called me up and told me Scott Brown (and Maine Republicans Olympia) Snowe and (Susan) Collins told him they wouldn't vote to assess anything against the large financial companies, that it had to go on the taxpayers instead, and that was disappointing. Yes, (Brown) was one of the few Republicans to support the reform bill, but unfortunately he did it only at the price of taking $20 billion off the backs of the large financial institutions and putting it on the taxpayers."
"The other problem with his bipartisanship is this," Frank continued. "He's citing areas in which he voted for bills that the Democrats were for, but if he wins and the Republicans take over the Senate, those bills won't even come up. It's a lot different being bipartisan in a Democratic Senate than it is in a Republican Senate."
Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh doesn't question Brown's bipartisan voting record, but does wonder a little about his motivation. Brown's voting across party lines "became more common when it became more likely that Elizabeth Warren would get into the race," Marsh said.
Brown said he believes "Every vote I take is an important vote. I'm there as a leader of the moderates. A lot of people follow my votes.
"I'm in the middle bloc" of what he believes is a dying breed of senators willing to work across the aisle, he said. "There are about 15 or 20 of us, moderate Democrats and Republicans. We're trying to bridge the gap between the extremes that are running rampant in the Senate."
Brown said he expects the number of moderates to shrink, what with Snowe's decision not to seek re-election, the primary loss of Indiana Republican Richard Lugar and serious election challenges facing others in that group.
"They're trying to make us extinct," Brown said. "Now it's going to be down to 12 or 13."
Brown is virtually a Bay State native. Although he was born in Kittery, Maine, he grew up in Wakefield. It was a difficult childhood, as his parents divorced when he was 1 and both subsequently remarried three times.
Brown tells stories of protecting his mother and step-sisters from abuse by his step-fathers and, in his biography, revealed that he had been sexually abused by a camp counselor.
"For someone to come out publicly with that says a lot about his personality," Canastra reflected. "It's not to draw attention to himself but to show other people they're not alone."
Orrall agreed: "He came from a hard background and had some challenges to overcome, but that's what we're all about and he's all about us."
After graduating from Tufts and Boston College Law School and opening a one-man law firm, Brown became intrigued by local politics and was elected a Wrentham assessor in 1992 and selectman three years later, then served three terms as a state representative and three as state senator.
Along the way, he's served in the Army National Guard, joining when he was 19, training in infantry, quartermaster, and airborne duties, and in 1994 becoming part of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG). Now a colonel, he spent a week of active duty in Afghanistan in 2011, which his critics said was mostly ceremonial.
Even a greater source of pride is his devotion to his family. When he takes heat for what critics call his votes against women, he points to his wife, Gail Huff, and daughters Ayla and Arianna Brown, both recent college graduates, reminding people that "I live in a house full of women."
"He's a devoted family man," Keohane said. "That's not just something they show on TV. That's what he's really like. I've always admired the great balance he has in his life."
What else is the senator like?
"He's a hard worker, he survives on very little sleep, he loves to exercise," participating in numerous races, including a triathlon in New Bedford on July 4, Keohane said. "He gets all his stress out through exercise."
And he sheds a few calories as well, because, boy, can he eat.
Lunching at Braza during his trip to New Bedford, Brown ordered a "family meal" that consisted of a roasted chicken, a half-rack of ribs and bowls of potatoes and green beans. He took a few bites of the side dishes, but the only things left on his plate were one rib and a chicken wing.
"What can I say?" he responded to the raised eyebrows of those around him. "I've always had a quick metabolism."
The 53-year-old still fits comfortably into 34x34 jeans, which he picked off the shelf at Carter's and ducked into the dressing room. "Are these pre-shrunk?" he called from inside. He bought two pair - plastic, not cash - and carried his own bag back to the truck.
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