For Brown, politics is still local

Sees state issues as vital to his job

US Senator Scott Brown played Uno Monday in the Colonel Daniel Marr Clubhouse at The Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. US Senator Scott Brown played Uno Monday in the Colonel Daniel Marr Clubhouse at The Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / August 10, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

When a gas tax increase was floated on Beacon Hill and when regulators proposed a rule that the state’s craft brewers said could force them out of business, the loudest cry of opposition came not from the State House, but from Washington.

US Senator Scott Brown warned that raising the gas tax could “cause real hardship for families’’ and said the proposed brewery rule was “impractical in Massachusetts and a job-killer.’’

Never mind that Brown has no direct control over those issues in Congress. As he gears up for reelection in 2012, amid global economic turmoil, rising fears of another recession, and record-low approval ratings for Congress, the Massachusetts Republican is emphasizing local and state concerns.

It probably did not hurt that those concerns involved taxes and beer, quintessential everyman issues that could burnish his pickup-driving appeal.

By seizing on state, rather than national or international issues, Brown is “trying to win with singles’’ rather than home runs, said Todd Domke, a Republican political analyst.

“He knows that the local issues are more potent for him because he can have a real impact, as opposed to being a junior senator in Washington in the minority party with no seniority,’’ Domke said. “I think he also personally feels comfortable talking about these kinds of local and state issues, with his experience as a state senator.’’

On a campaign-style “jobs tour’’ over the past few days, Brown said he focused on state issues because “I’m also a taxpayer, and we’re talking about jobs.’’

The proposed beer-making rule, which would have required breweries to buy half of their hops from local farms, “is the most ridiculous opinion that, I think, has come down the pike in Massachusetts for a long time,’’ because local hops farms do not produce enough for the state’s thriving craft breweries, Brown said Monday, after playing basketball with teenagers at the Boys and Girls Clubs in Dorchester.

“That industry creates 40,000 jobs in Massachusetts, and it’s a growing industry, so I, as an elected official, need to point out when things are not right,’’ he said, addressing a large group of journalists who gathered around him on the court. “Same with the gas tax. It’s the middle of a tourist season and the middle of a recession. . . and we’re going to have a gas tax? It makes no sense. So I’m going to speak out. That’s my job.’’

In both cases, Brown got his way. State Treasurer Steven Grossman shelved the brewery rule, proposed by alcohol regulators, after it drew widespread criticism. Governor Deval Patrick, whose lieutenant governor, Timothy P. Murray, had floated the idea of a gas tax increase, said that while he supports an increase, he would not push it.

Although Massachusetts is traditionally Democratic, voters have long elected Republicans to the State House, hoping they will act as a check on the Democratic Legislature. Brown’s state focus suggests he is trying to make the same pitch to voters, even though he is aiming for reelection to the US Senate.

“This is a way of linking what’s wrong with Massachusetts with what’s wrong with Washington,’’ said Dennis Hale, a Boston College political scientist. “In both cases, it’s the Democrats, in the White House or Beacon Hill.’’

“Beacon Hill is so unpopular,’’ Domke said. “It’s a pretty safe target. Even Democrats aren’t impressed when speaker after speaker gets indicted.’’

Compared with his outspoken criticism of the gas tax and the brewers’ rule, Brown spoke in more general terms about national issues during his tour this week.

Asked about overhauling major programs such as Medicare and Social Security, he did not offer specifics, but said: “I’m looking forward to being part of the solution and tackling each and every program to see where we can just do it better.’’

Democrats have said that approach indicates Brown is too hesitant to confront federal issues and feels more comfortable speaking out on the state level.

They point, for example, to congressional debates over raising the debt ceiling and repealing the ban on openly gay service members in the military. In both cases, Brown waited until late in the process before revealing his position on the issues. (He eventually voted to repeal the ban and backed the compromise plan to lift the debt ceiling.)

Brown said his approach shows he is as a bridge-builder, not a staunch partisan.

“It’s going to take me and others like me in Washington to work together to solve the problems,’’ he told about 100 Russian and Chinese seniors Monday at Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton. “There’s no Republican answer. There’s no Democrat answer. There’s going to be an answer where we have to work together to get out of this fiscal mess we’re in.’’

The jobs tour, launched after the state Democratic Party criticized Brown for not holding an open town hall-style meeting since his election in January 2010, offered a hint of the campaign season to come. Brown remains popular, according to recent polls, and is facing a large field of lesser-known Democrats.

The general public has not been allowed in to any of Brown’s stops, intensifying criticism from Democrats who say Brown is no longer the famously accessible politician who stood outside Fenway Park in the cold, campaigning for “the people’s seat.’’

But Brown rejected that criticism. “I’m going to football games, baseball games,’’ he said Friday after a tour of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Jamaica Plain. “I’m going to do triathlons, hit senior centers, town halls, and meet everybody, everywhere, any way I can. That’s how I’ve done it forever, and I’m not going to change just because the head of the Democratic Party is saying I’m not around. That’s a joke.’’

In Brighton, he spoke for about 25 minutes and took questions for about 20. The immigrant audience, which listened to Chinese and Russian translations of his remarks, applauded when he said he was a supporter of Israel and when he called for more bipartisanship in Washington.

“We love you, we voted for you, and I think we’ll vote for you next time also,’’ Lyubov Sokol, a 77-year-old immigrant from Moscow, told the senator.

Sokol then asked, in Russian, about the potential for Social Security cuts. As he did throughout the tour, Brown spoke in general terms, saying it was “difficult to say’’ what might be cut until a new deficit-reduction panel in Congress releases its recommendations later this year.

His job, he said, is “to try to push them toward looking at everything in a thoughtful, structured manner.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

Correction: Because of a photographer’s error, an earlier caption for this story about Scott Brown incorrectly identified where the senator was visiting. It was the Colonel Daniel Marr Clubhouse, which is part of The Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester.