New senator Scott Brown was a quiet presence in Massachusetts

By Amy Goldstein, Lucy Shackelford and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A01

When he reported to the U.S. Capitol this week, Sen. Scott P. Brown completed an improbable ascent from the Massachusetts statehouse, where, as a junior member of an outmatched Republican minority, he left a faint imprint on the commonwealth.

For Democrats and Republicans eager for clues to the ideological influence Brown might have on Washington -- whether he will align firmly with congressional Republicans or fulfill his campaign promise to be an independent voice -- his political past offers intriguing but incomplete evidence.

During his 11 years on Boston's Beacon Hill, one of the nearly 180 bills that Brown introduced became law, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. He voted with the state legislature's Republican minority leaders about 90 percent of the time, agreeing with the Democratic majority least often on taxes and most often on matters involving energy and the environment, according to the analysis of every roll-call vote Brown cast.

In interviews, state Senate colleagues of both political parties and Massachusetts political observers consistently describe Brown as diligent and "a really likable guy," as the state Senate's former minority leader, Brian P. Lees, put it. But people who know him also say that, in part because of the limited capacity of the GOP in an overwhelmingly Democratic body, Brown was seldom a forceful or visible presence.

They say that, for two reasons, his statehouse tenure is not necessarily a gauge of how he will act in the U.S. Senate: The state Senate's Republican caucus is so tiny that its members must collaborate more with Democrats than their counterparts in Washington do, and Brown seldom played a prominent role in the commonwealth's most significant policy debates.

On the first non-unanimous vote in which he took part in the U.S. Senate, Brown voted Tuesday with every other Republican to block the confirmation of a union lawyer to the National Labor Relations Board.

Brown declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman, Felix Browne, said the senator was too busy attending orientation sessions.

The spokesman said that, in the state Senate, Brown was instrumental in several significant amendments to legislation. They included stiffer drunken-driving laws, a measure to prevent child abusers from becoming guardians and more money to enable minority children in poor, urban areas to go to school elsewhere.

His victory last month in a special election for a successor to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, for decades one of Congress's most enduring liberals, transformed the Senate's partisan dynamic. It threw a roadblock before President Obama's agenda and sparked speculation that Congress's newest member might someday run for president.

"Scott's going from a position in which [he] didn't have much impact," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonprofit policy group that often advises the state legislature. Widmer said he had "very little" interaction with Brown, despite his concern about taxes: "In all my years in and around government and politics, this is one of the most breathtaking transformations of role."

Brown was "lucky," in the right place at the right time, to ride into the Senate on a surge of voter restlessness, said state Sen. Mark Montigny, a senior Democrat whose desk was next to Brown's on the chamber floor. They schmoozed over their shared concern about Massachusetts's economy, Montigny said, as well as contracts Brown negotiated for his daughter Ayla's entertainment career after she appeared on "American Idol." Brown was not, Montigny said, "one of the most active bill filers and policy people."

A lawyer, triathlete and National Guard officer, Brown, 50, arrived in the gold-domed statehouse in 1999, winning a seat in the House after holding two municipal offices in the town of Wrentham. Five years later, he won a special election to fill a state Senate seat vacated by a liberal Democrat who left to run a national gay-rights group.

In the 40-member state Senate, he was the most junior of the five members of the Republican caucus. Both Lees, the former minority leader, and the current one, Richard R. Tisei, said that Brown made some floor speeches but that, like other Republicans, he deferred to the leaders' preference on who would be their caucus's main voice.

"If you are looking for earth-shattering bills with any Republican's name on it, you are not going to find that in a chamber where you are outnumbered 35 to 5," Tisei said. "That's not what we do. Our role is to critique, improve what the majority is doing."

State Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, recalled that Brown advocated successfully for a measure setting penalties for sex offenses. "Other than that," Murray said, "I don't remember him taking the lead on anything at all."

To explore Brown's views and priorities, The Washington Post analyzed his roll-call votes, based on a database provided by InstaTrac, a Boston company that compiles state legislative information. The Post also examined all the bills he filed.

The only bill Brown got through the state Senate during his half a dozen years there was a measure making it easier for returning veterans to claim a $1,000 "welcome home" payment. His only legislative successes previously in the Massachusetts House were nine local measures, including one that allowed a pizzeria to sell wine and others that allowed two employees to save sick leave.

Among the legislation Brown sponsored, the most frequent involved the military and veterans, mirroring his own longtime service in the National Guard, followed by law enforcement. Over time, Brown increasingly reintroduced legislation that had failed -- about two-thirds of his bills were repeats.

His history, including on issues relevant to Congress, is mixed.

Calling himself a fiscal conservative, he repeatedly introduced legislation that would lower the state income tax and voted against the Democratic majority on taxes more than half the time; yet he simultaneously opposed many efforts by governors to curb state spending.

He has also shifted his stances on certain polarizing social issues. Most recently, he backed away after his election from his longtime support for the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, telling a television interviewer that he wanted first to ask generals what they thought.

In the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Brown has consistently opposed the practice. He has said publicly that he favors civil unions but, on a candidates' questionnaire eight years ago, he said that Massachusetts should not recognize them. In the state Senate, he voted both ways on the question.

On health-care reform, he voted in favor of the Massachusetts law that expanded health insurance to most people in the commonwealth. He also supported a state expansion of drug benefits to elderly and disabled residents.

But he took more-conservative stances, too, including opposition to letting Massachusetts residents buy lower-cost drugs from Canada. He voted for a bill guaranteeing women access to "morning-after" contraception after first trying, unsuccessfully, to allow hospital workers to refuse to hand out the pills on moral grounds. He has supported stem cell research but also, in a more conservative position, tried to widen the availability of adult stem cells, rather than ones from embryos.

Several state senators recall that such polarizing issues, however, did not define his legislative identity. Instead, they remember working with him on efforts to protect a horse track in his district, to expand a community college in an economically depressed town and -- often -- to find more money for the National Guard.

"He did his homework [but] . . . wasn't a frequent flier" in working on major legislation, said state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, a Democrat who is chairman of the chamber's influential Ways and Means Committee.

"Nationally, people are saying, who is Scott Brown? Is he an ideologue, an opportunist -- in fact, the open-minded thinker he claims to be?" said Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. In Massachusetts, he added, "we have these same questions."

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