BARNSTABLE, Mass. — The one thing the two candidates running to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat here agree on is that Gabriel E. Gomez is not the Hispanic Scott Brown.
“I’m not Scott Brown,” snapped Gomez. “I don’t need to catch lightning in a bottle.”
Like Brown, Gomez is a strong-jawed Republican candidate running as a fresh face. But he doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of the former Republican senator, who was rejected by Massachusetts voters in 2012.
Gomez’s opponent, Democratic congressman Edward J. Markey, has different reasons for being loath to utter Brown’s name. For Democrats, Brown conjures bad memories of the 2010 special election, when Brown drove his pickup truck fueled with anti-Obamacare rage out of nowhere and into Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Instead, Markey preferred to focus on Gomez’s policies, which, he argued, did not at all resemble those of the sometimes unpredictable Scott Brown.
“They don’t,” Markey said. “That’s what this campaign’s going to bear out. That [Gomez is] an old-fashioned Republican thinker.”
Brown’s brief rise and fall looms over the June 25 special election for the Massachusetts seat. Spooked by early polls showing him with only a single-digit advantage, Markey and the Democratic establishment are kicking the party machine into gear to avoid another embarrassment and prove that Brown was a fluke. Local and national Republicans think they have an opportunity to turn Brown’s example into a precedent. The traditionally low turnout for special elections gives them another shot in the overwhelmingly Democratic state, and in Gomez they believe that they have a candidate with even better outsider credentials. Plus, he can legitimately say things like,“Yo soy Colombiano.”
Gomez — a former Navy pilot and SEAL — has clearly learned a thing or two from Brown, a National Guardsman who famously traversed the state in a barn jacket. Gomez is known to don a green bomber jacket, even to editorial board interviews.
“I’ve got it in the car,” Gomez said Wednesday as he stood outside Cape Cod Community College. “My green jacket, I’ve got it right here.”
Gomez reached into the back of an SUV and pulled the jacket over his suit, itself stuck with a Navy SEAL pin. Will Ritter, a spokesman for Gomez and former aide to Mitt Romney, joked: “The first time he got in the car he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to change out of this. I’ve got a suit in the car. I said, ‘What? That thing’s awesome.’ ”
“It does have my name on it,” Gomez said, pointing to the badge. “But yesterday I was at Fenway and I didn’t have the jacket on and people recognized me.”
Gomez is going to get a ton of attention. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has daily calls with him and is working hard to get donors and senators such as Florida’s Marco Rubio more involved. They are emboldened by early polls that show a competitive race and a résumé that, if topped with a cover of the strapping Gomez atop the Capitol dome, could be mistaken for a Republican romance novel.
“I have no idea what a senator looks like,” Gomez said, when asked about his central-casting appearance. “I mean it’s a pretty diverse group. I hope it is.” When a reporter suggested the Senate is not particularly known for its diversity, he added, “Hopefully we’re getting more diverse.”
Born to immigrants who arrived a year before his birth in Los Angeles, Gomez has the Hispanic pedigree, if not the up-from-the-bootstraps story, for which his demographically challenged party thirsts. His father traveled broadly as an executive for the world’s largest hops dealer while his mother stayed home with Gabriel and his brothers in their comfortable home in Yakima, Wash., known for its apples and cherries.
Nevertheless, the 47-year-old rarely fails to mention that his first language was Spanish and that he learned English only upon entering school. A good student and star athlete who won the state’s tennis championship, his ground strokes attracted recruiters at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He graduated with an engineering degree and became a pilot (“It was pretty cool to be a pilot back then when ‘Top Gun’ came out,” he told members of the Cape Cod Community College Economics Club. “ ‘Maverick’ and ‘Iceman’ were already taken as call signs. But I was just Lt. G .”) He risked his wings to become a Navy SEAL and married a Peace Corps volunteer. He came home and earned a Harvard MBA in 1997, eventually making a bundle in Boston’s top private equity firms, a part of his bio he is less open about and which, along with his GOP dogma on budget issues and his resistance to Wall Street reform, Democrats think is ripe for scrutiny.
(On Thursday, the Boston Globe reported that Gomez claimed a rare $281,500 tax deduction for vowing not to alter the facade on his $2.1 million house in the South Shore seaside town of Cohasset.)
If his personal achievements are well-established, his politics have proved more amorphous. In a January letter to Gov. Deval Patrick (D), he sought appointment to Kerry’s vacant seat. He cited his service, but also his support in 2008 for Barack Obama, to whom he has also donated money. But over the summer he emerged as spokesman for a group accusing the president of endangering troops and exploiting the killing of Osama bin Laden. (Markey used split-screen shots from that video, with Gomez’s face beside bin Laden’s, in his first ad. That the congressman went negative so early is another sign that he is worried.)
A few months ago, Gomez called neighbor Peter Buckley to let him know he was considering a bid for the Kerry seat if Brown didn’t run. Buckley suggested he call Republican Massachusetts power broker and close Romney aide Ron Kaufman. Gomez now also counts Gail Gitcho, Romney’s former communications director, and other Romney alumni, including Ritter, as advisers.
“Mitt — ” Gomez said, before correcting himself. “Governor Romney called me on the day of the primary election just to wish me luck. I haven’t spoken to Governor Romney since.” Asked if he’d like to have Romney with him on the trail, he said, “I can’t control what other people do” and other noncommittal statements before saying, “I’d be happy to have Governor Romney’s help.”
On Wednesday morning, Gomez walked streets dotted with fish restaurants and Olde Courthouse landmarks. He entered the Blue Plate Diner for a publicly advertised meet-and-greet. Besides campaign aides and enlisted supporters, there was hardly anyone there to meet or greet.
David Parrella, a real estate developer, offered to help. “My son used to volunteer for Scott Brown in Hyannis,” he said.
“Maybe that’s the kiss of death,” rejoined Ann Canedy, 64, a town counselor.
Gomez walked through the local grocery shaking hands and peeled a $20 bill from a stack to pay for a pack of Twizzlers. “I want you to meet the president of Cape Cod baseball,” Canedy said at the register, introducing a woman with a lanyard that read “Cape Cod baseball.” She noticed the candidate’s tie, mottled with Boston Red Sox B’s.
“I was a baseball coach until I ran,” said Gomez, who incessantly relies on baseball for small talk, even while being photographed in front of a real estate office. “I’m a rabid Sox fan,” he said through a frozen grin.
At the community college, he stood in front of a large screen that featured him wearing the bomber jacket. He spoke to an audience of about 50 people, with many students eating pizza. He nervously flexed his hand as he made a halting pitch about his Republican values but also his moderate posture on issues like same-sex marriage, immigration and gun background checks. (He said he opposes bans on assault weapons or large-capacity clips, explaining, “I have a pretty unique perspective having been a SEAL and having fired all these weapons.”)
Gomez chastised Markey for spending his career in Congress and vowed to serve only two terms. When asked about his campaign donation to Obama, he said: “People ask me, ‘Are you a liberal? Are you a conservative? Are you a moderate?’. . . I simply tell them one thing, I’m a Navy guy.”
After the event, Gomez told a gaggle of students that he had neglected to mention that “this is like my first kind of real stop since the primary.”
“You’re going to need a lot more of them,” blurted out Sabrina Macleod. Gomez ignored her as she put her hand over her mouth.
That evening in Boston, the Democratic machine creaked into action. The 260 people who flooded into The Place, a bar in the financial district, could choose from “Latinos for Markey” or “African Americans for Markey” stickers. Behind an “employees only” door, Markey, wearing a suit and American flag pin, reclined in an armchair in an adjacent lobby. The 66-year-old expressed confidence that sophisticated Massachusetts residents would vote on the issues.
“I welcome the discussion about which of us is the candidate of old ideas and which of us is the candidate of new ideas,” he said, adding that the state just lost more than 70 years of experience between Kennedy and Kerry and that voters want a “proven track record of getting results.”
On a small stage in the bar, Gov. Patrick helped Markey out. “There’s a lot of talk in the election right now about new faces, fresh faces. I like that. I used to be one,” he said. “But new isn’t always better.”
After the event, John Walsh, chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, stood across the street in a parking lot waiting for his car. He said that he has “lived through screwing up with the Scott Brown race.” Asked about Gomez’s early strength, he asserted that Massachusetts races tend to be close, especially when the candidate is not named Barack Obama.
“I love Ed Markey, but he’s no Barack Obama,” Walsh said. “But Gabriel Gomez might be Mitt Romney.”