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New senator Scott Brown was a quiet presence in Massachusetts

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

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.

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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.


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