Scott Brown’s appeal wasn’t immediately obvious, at least to me. "You have to start dealing with reality, Martha," he said in a 2010 debate with Democrat Martha Coakley, and it sounded patronizing.
But Brown quickly grew into a formidable political presence, one with a nearly unmatchable brand and backstory. Newly elected Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a celebrity in her own right, may have been the only Democrat capable of defeating him--even in a presidential year with Massachusetts Democrats turning out in force to vote for President Obama.
The Democratic Party and Senate hopefuls Ed Markey and Steve Lynch are fortunate that Brown has decided to stand down in the June 25 special election to succeed new Secretary of State John Kerry. Republicans, meanwhile, have suffered the (perhaps temporary) loss of an unusual, highly valuable candidate: One who has both charisma and firsthand familiarity with life among the 47 percent.
So many facets of Brown’s life and career turned out to be attention-getting, gripping, or both. There was his military background (lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard); his long-ago nude photo session with Cosmopolitan; his truck and his barn jacket; his wife, a TV reporter whom he met when both were suing a modeling agency for failure to pay them; his daughter, an American Idol finalist; and, above all, his rise from a tough childhood in which he was sexually abused, his stepfather beat him and his mother, and he was a recidivist shoplifter until a judge set him on a different course.
Brown recounted that childhood in his 2011 book, Against All Odds. Among other things, he said his family had so little money that he often qualified for free lunches at school, and sometimes the only food in the refrigerator at home was government-issued cheese.
The more personal Brown got, the more personable he got. People admired his tenacity and success, even if they disagreed with his politics. And if they were on the fence on the issues, the story of his life might be enough to tip them into his camp.
Brown’s voting record was not liberal enough for Democrats and not conservative enough for Republicans, and it was hard not to wonder about the calculations, if any, behind his carefully modulated moderation as a Republican representing a Democratic state. But his blunt manner gave him an aura of authenticity, and his turbulent upbringing gave him special credibility on making it in America.
When GOP nominee Mitt Romney was caught on video dismissing 47 percent of the country as dependent victims who would never take responsibility for their lives, Brown said in an e-mail to The Hill newspaper: "That’s not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in.”
Of course, Brown then turned that into an argument against Democratic economic policies, which he said had forced too many people onto public assistance because they can’t find jobs. Agree or disagree, that was smart politics.
In December, after he had lost to Warren and was contemplating his next step, Brown wrote a Boston Globe op-ed piece that underscored why Democrats are so lucky he is not running for anything right now. It started with the headline, “A pleasure and a privilege.”
“Whatever the future holds for me, I’m a grateful man. I’m fortunate to have been where I’ve been and to return to a family and a place I love. I have a lot of catching up to do, especially with Gail and the girls, and my parents. My dad is in the twilight of his life and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It’s a horrible condition, but I’m so glad that these past few years gave me the second chance to develop the relationship with him that I never had as a kid,” he wrote.
“If there’s anything my life has taught me, it’s that there’s always a second chance. I first realized this when a judge in Salem, Samuel Zoll, found in his courtroom a roughneck teenager who had been caught stealing. He taught me a life lesson about compassion and the responsibility we all have to each other. He changed the direction of my life, and I will seek out ways to continue my service to my neighbors and to the people of Massachusetts in one way or another.” He closed with a direct thanks to his constituents: “For me, it was an honor to carry your flag in the Senate, if even for a little while, and I thank you, my friends, for that privilege.”
A very classy exit that many assumed would lead directly to the Senate campaign just ahead. Now that Brown has ruled that option out, the new thinking is he will run for governor in 2014. Democrats would be smart to start looking for the next Elizabeth Warren right now.