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GOP's rising star: Party sees signs of hope in Wrentham's Scott Brown

Posted September 11, 2009 10:00 AM

Sunday, January 4, 2009

WRENTHAM - Politics is one occupation in which you can sit at a red light and admire your work.

"Picture this intersection without lights," urged state Senator Scott Brown, a Wrentham Republican, idling in his pickup at the notorious Wampum Corner in his hometown.

"You've got Route 121 over here, you've got Route 1A merging, there's traffic coming every way. Look at this - it was a death trap, people zipping through."

But the former death trap has been turned into a mild inconvenience by a $1.4 million redesign and stoplight project. A month after his comfortable reelection for a third term, Brown slipped easily back into campaign mode. "I got the money for Wampum Corner," he said, "the number one thing in Wrentham."

In a Democratic election year, in this deeply blue Democratic state, Brown won 59 percent of the vote in the Senate's Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex District, against 41 percent for his Democratic opponent, Needham psychologist Sara Orozco.

That kind of margin is why Brown is billed as a possible up-and-comer for the Massachusetts GOP.

"If Scott chooses to move up, he certainly has a solid base to work from," said the state Republican Party chairman, Peter Torkildsen. "I would encourage him to look at it."

Brown is vague about his aspirations for higher office. "In 2010, it's hard to say. A lot of things could happen. You have Senator Kennedy" battling brain cancer, "and God forbid anything happens to him. There is going to be redistricting, which could create opportunities.

"I'm not closing the door to anything, but I'm not actively looking, either. I enjoy my job. We have a lot of very real challenges."

Brown's mouth has gotten him into some controversy in his career, and his opposition to same-sex marriage has made him a political target of gay-rights groups. But, he says, when politicians of any party deliver for their district, voters take notice. "I'm not the crazy right-winger I'm portrayed as ... the biggest thing I do is solve problems," Brown said.

The 49-year-old lawyer is a former Wrentham selectman and state representative, a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, and one of just five Republicans in the 40-member Massachusetts Senate, in which Brown has pledged to serve no more than four terms (he was reelected to his third full term on Nov. 4, after first winning a race for the interim position in spring 2004). He was frequently mentioned as a potential lieutenant governor in 2006, when GOP gubernatorial candidate Kerry Healey was looking for a running partner.

A run as a second banana may be his best shot to move up, said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts at Boston.

"The opportunity for Brown is to hitch his star to someone at the top of the ticket who can remake the party," said Cunningham. "Republicans need to win back the corner office, the governorship, and rebuild the party from there. For somebody like Brown, who doesn't have a lot of money or name recognition outside his district but is well thought of in Republican circles, that's where he has to go. He may go higher from there, but for him, he'll need to take that step."

Brown has been stepping up in politics for 16 years.

"When I'm running, people know I've been an assessor, a selectman, a state rep, and a state senator," he said. "A lot of Republicans start out saying, `Hi, I'm a regular person, I'm going to run for governor."'

That might work for wealthy candidates who can finance their own campaigns, he said, but for nonmillionaires the road is longer. Brown says he shudders at the money needed to run a competent race for governor. "It's very, very difficult. I'm a regular working guy. I've got a couple jobs. Raising $5 million? It's daunting.

"The message I always convey to people running as Republicans is this: You have to pay your dues. I've encouraged Republican candidates to make sure they build up their resumes."

Brown's district runs from a few Attleboro wards in the south to Needham, Wayland, and parts of Wellesley in the north. It includes Millis, Norfolk, North Attleborough, Plainville, Sherborn, and Wrentham, as well as parts of Franklin and Natick. The most common political designation for its residents is unenrolled. The district is more conservative on its southern end, where Brown built big leads on Election Day.

In the presidential race, Democrat Barack Obama earned nearly 60 percent of the vote in the dozen communities Brown represents. "A lot of independents split their tickets," said GOP chairman Torkildsen. "They voted for Barack Obama, probably voted for" John Kerry, the state's other Democratic US senator, "and then voted for Scott Brown."

Brown says the district's voters separated him from "the big, bad Republicans in Washington.

"People don't look at me as a traditional Republican," he said. "They just say, `There's Scott. He's been representing us for five years.' For some parts of the district, it's been 10 years. They know I'm accessible, they trust me, and those same people also passionately wanted change in Washington."

His Democratic opponent, Orozco, sees the race differently: Incumbency trumped party identification, at least in her race.

"To dislodge an incumbent takes a lot of money and name recognition," she said. "Both of which I had zero when I started." Orozco spent more than $85,000 on the campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance reports available. Brown spent more than $105,000.

The compelling presidential race also sucked up much of the political oxygen in the state, she said, making it more difficult for down-ballot races to get much attention. "Just being a Democrat was a strong start but it wasn't enough, especially with an entrenched incumbent," she said.

In the Legislature, Brown has worked on veterans' issues and to strengthen sex-offender laws. In the upcoming term, he said, one issue will dominate: "money, money, money.

"The first battle is to protect" local aid payments to his communities, he said. "I'm going to continue to bring home the pork because it offsets what's being cut. The second battle is to try to be part of the solution to the economic mess."

He favors allowing slot machines at Massachusetts racetracks to intercept gambling revenue going to Twin River in Rhode Island and the Connecticut casinos. "Call me stupid, but that's a no-brainer," he said.

Brown has stepped in controversy in his career, most recently in 2007 when, at a student assembly at King Philip Regional High School, he quoted profanities verbatim from student Facebook postings that had criticized Brown and his daughter. Six years earlier, Brown was criticized for referring to then-state Senator Cheryl Jacques and her same-sex partner having children as "not normal."

He says he doesn't regret sticking up for his family at King Philip. Brown and his wife, WCVB-TV reporter Gail Huff, have two daughters, Ayla, a former contestant on "American Idol," and Arianna. Brown says he used the wrong words in speaking about Jacques in 2001 and that he should have said her family was "not typical."

"I have the same position as President-elect Obama and yet I'm viewed as the poster boy for the gay marriage issue," said Brown, who would support civil unions. Besides, he said, the issue is settled in this state. "We've moved on. The number one issue is the economy right now.

"People may not agree with me on everything, but I'm a plain speaker," he said. "Sometimes my mouth gets me in trouble, that's for sure, but I'm learning. I'm a good learner."

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