Voter angst over health care, other issues shakes up Massachusetts Senate race

By Karl Vick
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A03

BOSTON -- Minutes before the widow of Edward M. Kennedy entered a union hall Saturday with the Democratic candidate to fill his seat in the U.S. Senate, the head of the state's AFL-CIO addressed the assembled workers with a speech that was part warning, part admonishment.

"We have a race on our hands," union president Robert Haynes roared. "A lot of our members are dramatically uninformed about this election and about the positions of the two candidates. . . . I know right now there are people in this room who think that Martha Coakley has a bad position on health care."

As introductions go, it was a sobering reminder of the challenge facing Coakley, the Democratic candidate, in her fight against Republican Scott Brown, and a bald display of the surprises emerging from a contest that polls show to be in a dead heat and that many Democrats fear portends difficulties in this year's elections in other states.

After the notion that Massachusetts voters may in two days send a Republican to the seat Kennedy held for 47 years, perhaps the most striking aspect of the campaign is that a central cause of voter unrest is the health reform legislation Kennedy called the cause of his life.

The bill being ground out between a House and Senate dominated by Democrats unnerves a majority of voters here, polling shows. And it has provided many with strong incentive to elect the Republican who would deprive Democrats of the crucial 60th vote needed to pass it in the upper chamber -- so much so that Obama is traveling here Sunday to help Coakley, a state attorney general, regain her footing.

"The health care has got me really worried," said Jeanne Jekanowski, 76, who as a single mother raising eight children relied on welfare and has faithfully voted Democrat, including a ballot for Coakley in last month's primary.

She said, however, that on Tuesday she will "absolutely" cast her vote for Scott Brown, a Republican state senator who two months ago was unknown even in most of Massachusetts. "I'm scared to death they're going to reduce my Medicare," Jekanowski said.

On Saturday, Coakley took a fresh stab at the issue. Her campaign charged that Brown avoids providing health insurance for his own campaign workers by employing them as independent contractors.

Brown dismissed the issue as a late hit.

How it came to this, in a state colored the deepest shade of navy on electoral maps, is less mysterious to Massachusetts residents than to the many outside observers of the electoral drama that erupted here in the span of days.

In addition to concerns about health care, and frustration over deals that have been cut to aid its passage, the wave of voter indignation carrying Brown toward Washington rises in part, according to voters, from a bristling discomfort with one-party rule -- something Massachusetts has led the nation in longer than many here care to be reminded.

"You want to see things move forward. You don't want things to sit still," said Tom Worthley, 45, who strung a massive homemade sign for Brown in his front lawn in Fitchburg, a once solidly Democratic town pollsters regard as a bellwether for the rest of the state. "But a healthy balance is what America's about."

Massachusetts is less liberal than it once was, said Thomas Whalen, a social sciences professor at Boston University. He said that after World War II, the state became more fervently Democratic, particularly in the eastern counties, partly as a result of "ethnic tribalism." The Kennedy's Irish Catholic dynasty was exhibit No. 1.

In the past decade or two, he said, voters have "moved to suburbs, they want lower taxes, better schools and less government in their lives."

A string of moderate Republicans won the governorship appealing to that base. But Democrats continued to dominate the statehouse, currently holding roughly 90 percent of both chambers and producing a number of scandals that analysts say color the logrolling on health care. Three House speakers have resigned under clouds. Three senators also have resigned, with one going to jail.

"I think that voters want to send a message to Beacon Hill: Wise up, shape up, you're taking us for granted," Whalen said. "And Martha Coakley, who's a straight arrow, may be an unfortunate victim of the voter angst."

Campaign workers reaching voters at home say the feeling runs even deeper. Norm Fay joined the legion known as the Brown Brigade after seeing every incumbent in his town, Attleboro, defeated in the Dec. 8 primary.

"The anger people were feeling, I don't think it was appreciated," he said. "This undercurrent, I don't think it was being assessed well."

On the phone bank, he heard registered independents fret at length about skyrocketing national debt and the cost of health care. Older folks fear that government spending makes inevitable an inflation that will mercilessly erode monthly retirement checks.

"People, during the primary, wanted to keep you on the phone, and they were about in tears," said Fay, 58, who has been unemployed since April. "They just want to talk and talk and talk."

The closest thing in his lifetime to the experience was 1969, he said. "It's a similar passion that you're feeling when there was this sense that attention had to be taken, this sense that things are spinning out of control," Fay said. "Maybe it's the sense of numbers of things just happening too fast. They felt like their life was going to be totally different, and they didn't now how. It's this sense of unsureness and insecurity. They just need somebody to give them some reassurance."

"And that's what they sense in Scott," Fay said. "They sense this reassuring person."

In fact, amid the ceaseless campaign commercials, Brown's campaign has managed an overriding cheerfulness.

The Coakley campaign spots, by contrast, attack Brown so relentlessly that they risk undermining her own support.

"I was going to vote for her, but I'm thoroughly disgusted," said Mary Lou Varville, 64, who waits tables at a Fitchburg diner. "I would accept it by thinking it's their campaign writers, except then they say: I endorse this message. It really, really upsets me."

The economy, of course, remains the main engine of unease. In the bar of Elks Lodge No. 847, Ulysses Vautour said he hadn't had work as a builder in two years, and has friends who have been unemployed for three.

Declaring himself part of the 1 percent of likely voters polls call undecided, Vautour, 72, folded and unfolded a New England Patriots stocking cap as he spoke.

"I'd go for whoever says they're going to put aside this health bill and concentrate on the economy," he said, "work on that side of things."

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