Brown pushes far beyond his GOP base

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 14, 2010

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Second of two articles from the campaign trail in the race for US Senate.

HARVARD - Scott Brown is sitting at the kitchen table in Kris and Jack Farren’s log-cabin home, cradling a mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream, nibbling at a plate of Pepperidge Farm cookies, and talking taxes. Income tax, marriage-penalty tax, energy tax, death tax. Jack Farren, a printer who has endured multiple layoffs, looks ashen.

“I’d give you a beer,’’ Farren says, “but I don’t have any money for it.’’

“Oh, they tax the beers, too,’’ Brown says. “There’s a beer tax, a sales tax, a meals tax, a hotel tax. And yesterday they were looking at, check this out, a tax for gas. They were going to raise it 20, 30, 40 cents, and they’re thinking - there’s been conversations - about putting a chip in your registration to tax your miles.’’

It is early December, and Brown is three days into his role as Republican nominee for US Senate. He is surrounded by moose decor in the Farren home, nearly an hour northwest of Boston, holding the first in a series of “kitchen table conversations’’ with voters. Jack Farren is an independent. Kris, his wife, is a Democrat. If Brown is to have a shot, he needs people like them.

Brown is holding a pen and notebook, but doing more talking than writing. In 20 minutes he mentions taxes 27 times. “What I’m hearing is that people are saying: ‘You know what, Scott? I just don’t like the way things are going. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. They’re just taxing us back to the Stone Age, and I’m going to give you a shot,’ ’’ he says.

It is mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-anymore language, but Brown is chipper. For all the perceived ills he is describing - not just taxes but a staggering deficit, harmful health care legislation, and the coddling of terrorists - he is a gracious guest.

“The hot chocolate is amazing,’’ Brown says, drawing out the last word. He makes small talk about youth sports, about golden retrievers that act “psycho.’’ He is a 6-foot-2 former model and college basketball star in a trimly tailored suit, but in demeanor he is just another dorky dad, a few months past 50.

Politely declining a second mug, Brown eventually heads for his truck, a high-mileage GMC that will later be featured in a television spot. His advance man, Mike Harrington, stays behind. Kris Farren warms to Harrington’s suggestion that they organize a breakfast for Brown, even though many of the people they know are Democrats.

“That’s all right,’’ Harrington says. “It’s a Democratic state.’’

Scott Brown knows this.

And he knows his Republican base is fired up, fired up over health care, fired up about lacking power in Washington, fired up that Democrats consider the Senate seat of Edward M. Kennedy theirs forever. He also knows that the base alone will not get him elected, not even in a low-turnout special election.

Enrollment figures show Democrats outnumbering Republicans better than 3 to 1, and voters unaffiliated with either party outnumbering both. Brown believes he can win some independents and maybe some Democrats on taxes and national security, perhaps even health care. He believes if he does things the way he always has, with persistence and luck, with self-confidence and self-deprecation, he can win even more support.

Two days before Christmas, Brown is at Downtown Crossing, ringing the Salvation Army bell. It feels like the coldest day of the year, but Brown rings with gusto, hundreds of rings a minute. Music floats up from Summer Street, and Brown catches a woman singing along to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.’’

“No singing unless you’re donating,’’ Brown says.

People are stuffing rumpled bills in the kettle, one after another, their faces raw. “How am I doing for a rookie?’’ Brown asks Tom Langdon, a Salvation Army official. “MVP,’’ Langdon says.

When people donate, Brown mentions his name. “I’m Senator Brown, thanks for helping.’’

“I know. Keep up the good work,’’ says a man in a black overcoat. “I think I’m the only state employee voting for you, but thank you.’’

“Oh, no,’’ Brown insists, mentioning debt and taxes. “Not if they care about everything they’re working for. The kids. The grandkids.’’

A young man from Quincy in a scally cap says he works 65 hours a week but wants to find time to volunteer for Brown. “How’s it going?’’ he asks.

“I’m working hard,’’ Brown says. “Everybody’s very excited, and if I can get them out, we’ll have a good chance.’’

The hour is up. Langdon thanks Brown, who says he wants to ring again next year, “regardless of what happens.’’ They shake hands.

“When you get up there, Scott, keep the poor people in mind,’’ Langdon says.

“I haven’t changed in 18 years, since I was 18,’’ Brown says, the cold numbing his powers of subtraction. “I’m not going to change now.’’

The sign over the Eire Pub in Dorchester says “Gentlemen’s Prestige Bar,’’ but it has always been a working-man’s place. Martha Coakley ducked in on the night before she won the Democratic primary, after a rally with electrical workers.

Brown stops in two weeks later, chatting up patrons from the outset. He orders a black and tan at the bar. From the next stool over, Frank Walsh implores Brown to campaign on the idea that he could be the 41st vote in the Senate to stop the health care legislation.

“If the people in Massachusetts put you in power, you’re the man who can turn around and stop this whole lunacy,’’ says Walsh, a retired city employee, keys jangling from his waist.

“I know, I know!’’ Brown says. “I stay up at night thinking about it, believe me.’’

Brown is loose now, circling the bar, shaking hands, craning his neck or crouching to read aloud insignias on jackets and hats, as a conversation starter. He talks about the beer tax, sips his pint, talks about the beer tax some more. It is approaching 7 p.m., and he has been up for 13 hours, almost all of it campaigning. He approaches a group of off-duty Boston police, drinking after a funeral. One is a petite blonde with a Louis Vuitton bag. One is big enough to be an NFL linebacker. One is bigger than that. “I need you!’’ Brown says. “You could be my body guards.’’

“I could be your body guard,’’ the woman says, but Brown does not seem to notice. She asks about the Quinn Bill, a program that boosts pay for officers with college degrees, which the governor and lawmakers slashed last year. Brown says he fought for it on Beacon Hill but could not win enough Democrats. “It was all a fix,’’ he says.

“Why don’t you run for governor?’’ she asks. It is a question others have asked, particularly observers who think Brown, if he loses this time, could still set himself up nicely for a future statewide run, maybe for governor, maybe for attorney general.

“I think I can be a better senator, because I can do more,’’ Brown says.

He is near the exit, bound for Doyle’s, his fourth watering hole of the evening, when a man in the last booth, packed with five people, calls to him from beneath a signed photo of Carlton Fisk punching Thurman Munson. Brown asks if he can sit, and a volunteer brings a corned beef sandwich. Brown spends 20 minutes.

Dave Lubchansky asks about the differences between Brown and Coakley. Brown starts in on his “Martha’s a nice lady, but . . .’’ routine, about how she’s wrong on the issues.

“Yeah, but she’s a big backer of labor, and this is a big labor state,’’ says Kenny Taylor, a Quincy electrician. “A big Democratic state.’’

“Well,’’ Brown says, “there’s about 20 labor people in this building right now, and they’re all voting for me.’’

“That’s what they tell you,’’ Taylor says.

“No,’’ Brown says. “They’re voting for me.’’

“No,’’ Taylor says.

It is a stalemate. Brown changes the subject to taxes. He tells an anecdote about the National Guard. Taylor talks about Congress being out of touch with the little guy. Brown praises the corned beef.

They laugh a lot, especially the women, Cathy Taylor and Michele Timmons. Brown finishes his sandwich. They part like old friends. “That was fun,’’ says Timmons.

A minute later, Brown is back with his coat, this time really bound for Doyle’s. He makes one last pitch. Afterward, Kenny Taylor says he is still voting for Coakley. Others are undecided.

Brown is a self-described Type-A person, prompt, alert, in control. He is a triathlete who, until recently, worked out daily for an hour or more, usually before 6 a.m. The Senate run has reduced him to a half-hour a week at the gym, but still he has shed 7 pounds from all the activity. He says that he strives to live “by Army values’’ and that he has not let up since basic training.

Brown has served 30 years in the National Guard, working up to lieutenant colonel. He joined in college, a 20-year-old from Wakefield, and it has been a defining characteristic through each phase of his adult life: Tufts basketball sharpshooter, Boston College law student, Cosmopolitan centerfold, husband and father, small-town lawyer, Wrentham selectman, state lawmaker.

Massachusetts has nearly half a million veterans. Brown is actively pursuing their votes.

At noon on a Thursday, he is in Boston to serve lunch at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. It is his second veterans event of the day. He was just in Bedford, where he stood before a billboard-sized flag surrounded by a cluster of men in VFW and Legion hats.

Now he is standing in the shelter’s kitchen, donning a plastic apron and spooning chili or chicken noodle soup to a line of 150 people, most middle-aged men. He is animated, calling each one “sir,’’ saying “good choice’’ whichever they choose.

Apron off, he addresses the dining room. Some listen intently; some keep their heads down; some continue their conversations, backs turned. Brown emphasizes his military service. He says veterans and their relatives could help give him a strong showing Jan. 19.

A woman stands up in back, shouting over Brown, “If we come out and vote for you . . . what are you going to do for us?’’

Brown: “What I’ve been doing for the last 12 yea -’’

The woman: “That ain’t much!’’

Brown, unflustered, says he has led the effort at the State House to enhance benefits and protections for veterans and make those benefits easier to get. “I’m the only guy in the [state] Senate who has any military experience at all,’’ he says.

He works the room, giving out palm cards, wishing good health, asking for support. An aide follows, distributing absentee-ballot applications. On a bunk floor, Brown reminisces about making beds in boot camp. He stops at a vending machine to buy a Pepsi.

“You ever have a headache?’’ he says. “Sometimes if I have a little Pepsi, it makes it go away.’’

He never drinks coffee. He takes a swig, then stashes the bottle in his suitcoat.

It is 8 a.m. on a Wednesday in January, and Brown is in Devens, addressing the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce. His pickup is gone, replaced by a rented SUV and a campaign driver, the vehicle crammed with yard signs and spare suits. The daily itinerary in Brown’s attache case stretches for pages: local and national radio interviews, campaign meetings, an address to middle-schoolers, a newspaper editorial-board session, a conference call, a hotel fund-raiser with other Republicans.

Brown is moving about the stage with the confidence of a man who believes the room is divided between those who are already with him, and those who can be won over.

He sprinkles in jokes. He frontloads his speech with tax talk. He says he learned everything he knows about constituent service from Ted Kennedy. He declares himself a straight-shooter and free thinker. He says he has always been an underdog.

He offers two types of rhetoric. To those fed up and with him, he implores, “You have to draw a line in the sand right now.’’

To those who are merely curious, he proposes a deal: “Consider it a test, a timed trial, because if you don’t like what I’m doing, you can vote me out in a couple of years. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what I can actually go and do? And wouldn’t it be nice to have some diversity?’’

By diversity, he does not mean race or gender. He means electing one Republican to the state’s 12-member congressional delegation.

Afterward, he tries to greet everyone in the room. “How are you doing?’’ he says to a man at a middle table. Good, the man says, introducing himself. “John Tanner, moved here nine years ago from Carolina.’’

Brown starts the full-court press. “I’ve spent a lot of time down in North Carolina! I was at Fort Bragg, and my daughter plays at Duke, and Wake Forest, and NC State. And I love the Waffle House!’’ he says, the man nodding with wistful approval. “The double waffle with bacon and large OJ - I’m hungry just thinking about it. Please tell your friends.’’

Brown means about his campaign, not breakfast.