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Between Brown, Romney, support but little chemistry

As senator tacked to center, ex-governor wooed the right

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 13, 2012
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They looked like running mates - all square jaws, broad shoulders, and firm handshakes - when they stepped off a bus to the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’ playing on the steps of Needham Town Hall.

It was 2004, and it looked as if Scott Brown, a little-known state representative from Wrentham who was running for state Senate, and Mitt Romney, his political patron and the governor of Massachusetts, would be leading an effort to change the entrenched, Democratic culture of Beacon Hill.

“To get that job done, I need to get Scott Brown on the reform team,’’ Romney declared, as the crowd burst into chants of “We want Brown!’’

At that point, they agreed on virtually every major issue - opposing gay marriage, abolishing bilingual education, rolling back taxes, instituting the death penalty, cutting budgetary waste and inefficiency.

But despite the stage they shared that day, Brown and Romney never developed more than a passing political partnership, according to friends and associates. As Brown’s star has risen as a moderate proud of his bipartisan appeal, and Romney has worked hard to court the Republican base in his bids for the presidency, their paths have diverged, and their relationship has become more complicated as a result.

Brown no longer features Romney on his website or in his political ads, as he did in that 2004 race. Now, he advertises the three times when he has stood behind President Obama at the White House as Obama has signed Brown’s bills into law.

Brown’s campaign is also working subtly to distance him from Romney, whose sagging popularity in Massachusetts could make him a liability for Brown.

The Brown campaign declined to make the senator available to discuss his relationship with Romney and instead issued a statement declaring that Brown is his “own person’’ who “doesn’t line up entirely with any political party or candidate.’’ Included with the statement was an analysis boasting of how many times Brown voted to override Romney’s vetoes in the Legislature.

Brown did, however, endorse Romney for president last year as soon as the former governor made it clear he was running again. And Democrats are trying to make hay out of the relationship. A Web ad released by the Massachusetts Democratic Party calls them “BFF’’ - best friends forever - and shows clips of them yukking it up and praising each other at political events.

Brown also employs the same campaign advisers as Romney, making their pas de deux all the more intriguing to political insiders.

Those who know both men say they respect and admire each other but could hardly be called friends who get together off the campaign trail.

“I just think they’re different people,’’ said one Republican insider who has worked with both men. “They function at a different level. Their friends are different. Their backgrounds are different. . . . Who they are as political figures is very different. Scott is so much more moderate. So I don’t know why they would be walking down the North End in the middle of Hanover Street together.’’

Richard Ross, who holds Brown’s former state Senate seat and has known Brown for years, said: “As a friend, I have not caught him on the phone with Mitt.’’

Rob Cunningham, who was Brown’s campaign manager in the 2004 state Senate race, said Romney and Brown “talked and saw each other’’ during the campaign.

“But I don’t think there was a magical enchanted evening,’’ he said. “They were acquaintances and, to a certain degree, they were politically expedient for each other.’’

Brown, who grew up in an abusive household and moved 17 times by the time he turned he 18, and Romney, the son of a wealthy Michigan governor and auto executive, could hardly have come from more different backgrounds.

Associates say they first formed an alliance in 2003, when Brown, who had served in the House since 1999, decided to run for state Senate after the longtime Democrat in the seat resigned. Romney, who wanted to elect more Republicans to the Legislature, saw in Brown the perfect partner to spearhead the project.

Romney raised $100,000 for Brown, shook hands with him in barber shops and corner stores, and recorded an ad for him - all highly unusual steps for a governor to take in a state Senate race.

The ad shows Brown and Romney sitting side-by-side, looking over a stack of papers as Romney declares that a victory for Brown will “send a message that we’re serious about cleaning up the mess on Beacon Hill.’’

Brown won the race by a narrow margin. Romney celebrated at his victory party at Lake Pearl Luciano’s in Wrentham. The next morning, he introduced the state-senator elect to the media outside the governor’s office.

In the Legislature, Brown supported the governor’s efforts to slash spending, toughen sex-offender laws, and improve veterans’ benefits.

The analysis released by the Brown campaign shows Brown voted to override 39.5 percent of Romney’s vetoes. But John O’Keefe, who was Romney’s legislative director, said: “We viewed Scott as a pretty dependable vote, not just among the Legislature, but among Republicans.’’

When Brown decided to run for the US Senate in 2009, he hired Romney’s campaign team, including Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime communications director. Romney had run for president a year earlier, casting himself as a staunch conservative, and Brown was promising to be an independent voice in the US Senate.

Their partnership was nothing like it was in 2004.

Romney’s political action committee donated $9,000 to Brown, and Romney sent an e-mail to supporters saying “we’re doing all we can to help him over the finish line.’’ But Romney only appeared at closed-door fundraisers and did not campaign with Brown. His first public appearance with Brown was on the stage at Brown’s victory party at the Park Plaza Hotel.

A month later, in February 2010, with Brown suddenly vaulted into the national spotlight as the Tea Party hero who would derail Obama’s health care bill, it was Romney’s turn to bask in Brown’s aura. The senator introduced Romney to cheering crowds at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“Scott Brown, boy, I’d take him anywhere I could take him,’’ Romney gushed.

But as Brown began to embrace the Massachusetts moderate label that Romney eschewed, the two stopped hitting the road together. Now, Brown’s advisers are quick to point out where the two men disagree.

Brown supports abortion rights, while Romney wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. Brown voted to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay service members, a policy Romney supported. Brown backed a new arms treaty with Russia, which Romney called Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet.’’ And Brown voted for Wall Street regulations, which Romney calls “a killer for the small banks.’’

As Romney seeks the presidency again, and Brown defends his US Senate seat, Romney makes scant mention of Brown, and Brown’s reluctance to align himself with Romney is clear. In March, when the CNN host Piers Morgan pressed Brown to talk about the more personal side of “his mentor,’’ Romney, Brown called Romney a devoted family man and said there is no one he trusts more on the economy. Then he quickly shifted the subject.

“I’m going to continue to do my job,’’ he said, “and he can do his.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at

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