A star from day one, Brown settles in

The surprise senator generally votes with his party, as he carves an image as an independent and likable player

By Matt Viser and Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / May 9, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

WASHINGTON — The star power of Senator Scott Brown reached a new peak at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, a glitzy event headlined a week ago by President Obama and comedian Jay Leno.

Brown walked the red carpet behind socialite Kim Kardashian, was mobbed as he worked the ballroom, and woke up the next morning to find his photo spread across newspapers amid pictures of celebrity chefs and pop stars.

“I just can’t control it,’’ the Massachusetts Republican said during a 30-minute interview in his Senate office, which he secured in January’s special election to succeed the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a stunning upset that launched him into the celebrity media stratosphere.

Nor does he avoid it. Brown has agreed to interviews on all three major television networks and he recently posed for a full-page photograph, spinning a basketball, for Time magazine. The newsweekly named him — to the astonishment of some longtime Washingtonians and Brown himself — one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

As he nears the 100-day milestone of his job (today marks his 95th day in office), Brown has taken an approach different from many freshman senators, who seek to project a self-effacing studiousness. Brown relishes the limelight, stokes it even, while acknowledging he doesn’t always relish the nitty-gritty aspects of the job.

“I’m reading that stupid bank bill again, and it’s this thick,’’ he said in half-joking self-deprecation during an interview, placing his thumb and forefinger several inches apart. He was referring to the major overhaul currently dominating Washington that would restructure the nation’s financial regulatory system, an attempt to prevent another economic catastrophe like the meltdown of 2008.

But even with a limited number of significant votes and a lack of command on some policy details, Brown has begun trying to translate his campaign promises into Senate action, seeking to make his name as a common-sense, independent conservative.

He speaks frequently during closed-door Republican caucuses, members say, and there has been a noticeable uptick in his legislative activity over the past week, as he filed several financial legislation amendments and plans more for this week.

His aides say Brown and his staff have held 323 meetings over the past two months, and he met with military generals and Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his first congressional trip abroad. Brown says he’s been working so many long days he has slept on his office couch on nearly a dozen nights.

Just as Massachusetts voters were charmed by his aw-shucks demeanor and regular-guy talking points, it’s nearly impossible to find someone on Capitol Hill who doesn’t like him. He’s affable, friendly, and, colleagues say, projects a lack of guile that is both disarming and refreshing. Even Obama lobbed Brown a friendly gibe during his Correspondents Dinner monologue, cracking about Brown’s nude pose many years ago in Cosmopolitan magazine.

All this has made him a GOP trophy. “Obviously, he’s the closest thing we have to a true celebrity in our conference right now,’’ said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “He’s got quite a bit of star power, and we’re glad he’ll let us use a little bit of that star power for good purposes.’’

He has forged an ideological alliance with Republican Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine — “It is wonderful to have a fellow moderate Republican from New England,’’ she said — and bonded with Democratic Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware over a late-night dinner at a Marriott in Islamabad. Majority whip Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, has gotten to know Brown as one of the “early birds’’ in the Senate gym.

“He’s a nice guy; I like him,’’ Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in a brief interview. “I sure hope [we can work together]. He’s already helped us a little bit.’’

But while quickly mastering the clubby aspects of the Senate, Brown has found himself having to consider issues far more complex, with broad national implications, than he confronted as part of a tiny GOP minority in the Massachusetts Legislature.

By design, he has remained difficult to pigeonhole ideologically, leaving the White House and top Democrats and Republicans in the Senate trying to figure out what kind of Republican he will be.

“Good, good,’’ Brown said, when told that people were still trying to figure out his ideology. “Good.’’

“I don’t owe anybody anything here,’’ he added. “I’m not hiding anything. I’m not a big talker. I don’t like to tell people what I’m thinking.’’

Brown has voted 116 times, siding with the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell 84 percent of the time, according to a Globe analysis.

“I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who’s come in, particularly in the middle of a Congress like he has, who settled in any quicker,’’ McConnell, of Kentucky, said in an interview. “We have three [policy] lunches a week, and he comes to all of them. He’s a frequent contributor.’’

Seventy percent of Brown’s votes are opposite those of Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat. Many of his votes in agreement with Kerry have been on uncontroversial procedural, ceremonial, or confirmation measures.

The business community in Massachusetts has been relatively pleased with the stances he’s taken. But Brown angered advocates for teenagers when he voted against a measure that would have funded a summer jobs program for youth, including some 1,500 in Massachusetts, because he said it didn’t include a way to pay for the program.

Brown also clashed with the Massachusetts Hospital Association, criticizing the powerful Bay State group for its support of the health care legislation pushed by Democrats.

During a briefing held for the delegation, Brown asserted that it would be bad for the state, saying the bill’s new tax on medical devices would hurt businesses. The hospital association responded that its own analysis showed that the law overall was good for the state hospital system.

“His focus seemed to be this was bad for business, bad for small business and bad for business in America,’’ said Lynn Nicholas, president of the hospital association.

Still, Brown has sought to move legislation along, attempting to shield himself from any criticism that he is an obstructionist and make good on a campaign pledge to “get Washington moving again.’’

In certain instances, he has voted to end debate on an issue and move it to a vote — even though he ultimately opposed the final measure.

When he first arrived, he joined Democrats in voting to advance a $15 billion jobs bill, a vote that earned scorn from some of conservative supporters across the country but gave Democrats the sense he was someone they could work with.

Despite his campaign assertion that he would be the “41st senator’’ who could join a Republican filibuster and stop the Democrats’ agenda, there have been few votes so far that have hinged on one or a few senators. To his great frustration, Democrats were able to successfully maneuver around him and approve their health care plan.

Brown has made a few efforts to make inroads with other members of the Massachusetts delegation — all of them Democrats — but there have been hiccups along the way. At a health care event, Brown referred to Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Springfield, as “Rick,’’ instead of “Richie,’’ as he prefers. Brown and Neal have clashed over the medical device tax, which Brown opposes outright and which Neal helped lower.

Representative Edward J. Markey, the dean of the delegation, scheduled a private meeting several weeks ago in the Speaker’s Dining Room so that all the members could get to know Brown. The meeting was described by one participant as polite and perfunctory.

The new senator has reached out to Massachusetts Representative Bill Delahunt on their mutual opposition to Cape Wind plans, and he has suggested he would work with Representative Barney Frank on issues important to the fishing industry.

“I think he wants to get along,’’ said Frank, a Newton Democrat. “He does not plan to be an ideological crusader.’’

Yet some of Brown’s positions have begun to suggest how he will set his compass. Last week, five days after the attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square, Brown announced that he was filing legislation with Senator Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, that in the future would strip American citizens of their citizenship if they were found to be aiding terrorist groups.

Critics, including several Republicans, have said the legislation would be unconstitutional. But Brown struck a note of patriotic indignation. “If someone wants to burn their passport, let’s help them along,’’ he said.

In a significant departure from Kennedy’s practice, Brown said that he will not file any budget earmarks this year. The earmark process is typically used by congressional members to bring large federal spending projects back to their home states. Brown’s stance is at odds with the view of other members of the delegation, some of whom boast of their ability to win costly projects for their districts.

“I think the earmarks process is abused,’’ said Brown, who nonetheless will continue supporting plans to build a backup engine for military fighter jets that generates Massachusetts jobs but is considered by some watchdog groups to be an earmark.

“There are certain projects that are worthy, and when I do fight for things, I will go speak to the appropriate people through the authorizing process,’’ he said.

Brown did not have the two-month lag between election and swearing-in that senators typically have to get prepared. He has had to learn quickly, and his approach is different from others who have come into office with national attention.

Senator Hillary Clinton, the New York Democrat, following advice from Senator Kennedy, avoided the limelight, and even served coffee to members during caucus meetings. Senator Al Franken, best known for his “Saturday Night Live’’ skits, won’t even speak to reporters in Washington unless they are from Minnesota, his home state.

In contrast, when Time magazine asked Brown to pose for its cover story on influential people, he professed to be surprised not that he was included among 100 powerful individuals, but at the global scope of the list.

“I didn’t realize it was in the world,’’ Brown said. “Lady Gaga’s number four, so let’s be real.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at