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Mass. Hysteria

Scenes from the revolutionary takeover of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat

Michael C. Moynihan
March 12, 2010

It was only 11 a.m. on Sunday, two days before Massachusetts voters were scheduled to choose Ted Kennedy’s successor in the Senate, and the bartender at 99 Restaurant in Charlestown was already imposing Belfast pub rules. “There will be no discussion of politics in here today,” the squat barmaid grumbled toward a knot of debaters at the end of the bar. “Not until this goddamn election ends.” The politically engaged customers—all male and, by the looks of it, all Irish-American—offered a collective shrug and went back to arguing over the race for what one of them called “Teddy’s seat.” 

The bartender’s concern was understandable, for the people of Charlestown have been known to be a bit excitable politically. Around the corner from here, back in 1976, a disagreement over the wisdom of using court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools ended in a stone-throwing riot. In 1995, at this very bar, a “mob-related” dispute culminated in the shooting deaths of five people. Now a droopy-faced local with a Lech Walesa mustache—four beers deep before noon, dressed head-to-toe in New England Patriots–branded clothes—announced calmly that Tuesday would be the most important moment in modern Massachusetts history.

In this bluest of blue states, I had been following Republican state legislator Scott Brown and Democratic gaffe master and Attorney General Martha Coakley as they weaved their way toward Tuesday’s finish line in Boston. I had spent hours talking to union members, former Democrats, current Democrats, Kennedy voters, and gay rights campaigners who were—as almost all of them said—Scott Brown supporters worried about the “explosive growth of government.” All natives of the Commonwealth and reflexively Democratic, they kvetched about what they viewed as reckless government spending, rising taxes, and a risky overhaul of a health care system that treats them rather well. As one member of a pipefitters union told me, “None of the guys in my union trust that Obama won’t hit us with that 40 percent health care tax.”

When I was a college student in this state, before the days when you could get any book overnighted from Amazon.com, I had to special-order Road to Serfdom at a local bookstore. Two days before the election, at a rally in front of Northeastern University, I chatted with a Massachusetts native with a Boston accent as broad as the Shannon who was carrying a hand-lettered sign that alluded to F.A. Hayek’s classic 1944 defense of the market order. The following day, at a Republican rally in the tiny town of Littleton (Obama, 58; McCain, 41), almost every car that drove by honked in support of Scott Brown. A surprising number of Brown sign holders said they had always voted for Teddy Kennedy but insisted they pledged no allegiance to the Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, January 19, they backed up that talk with shocking action. Brown upset Coakley and the entire Massachusetts political establishment, taking 51.9 percent of the vote in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1. By the end of the week, Congressional Democrats’ plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system was falling apart. If an unknown Republican can singlehandedly shatter hopes for a health care bill by winning the Kennedy family seat, anything in American politics is now possible.

Nigerian Zionists for Coakley, Irish Republicans for Brown

No one in state politics expected anything like this. For Brown to lose by 15 points would have, in December, been considered a respectable result. To win was inconceivable.

Everywhere I turned I found r-dropping Bostonians complaining about government, insisting that Americans need to “take their country back.” One woman, who seemed overly familiar with all of my childhood neighbors—the Flynns, the McBreens—compared herself to a passenger on Flight 93 who wants to yell “let’s roll” and regain control of our hijacked nation. Or perhaps she was suggesting that President Obama is a Muslim. It was, like many of the arguments I heard, not completely clear. But the anger was palpable. 

Those dismissing the foot soldiers who came out in the bitter and wet cold to hoot and holler for Scott Brown as both “teabaggers” and carpetbaggers are engaged in wishful thinking. I came across a man from Michigan selling “second American revolution” flags; an Atlanta native who, veins popping on his neck, told me that the government was run by “thieves”; a woman from Pittsburgh who “blogs on Facebook” (whatever that means); and a handful of people from New Hampshire who, according to their license plates, would rather die than not live free. But most of the Brown backers I met were like Nick Redmond, a native of Dorchester—the neighborhood famous outside Massachusetts for bequeathing New Kids on the Block and Donna Summer to American culture—who was voting for Scott Brown because, under the current administration, “the middle class is getting screwed.” Or John Camuso, a gay man from Boston who said he was “proud to give [Brown] my vote,” despite thinking that Coakley, whom he knew from his neighborhood, was a “nice lady.”

I didn’t see Redmond on election eve at Dorchester’s Eire Bar, a redoubt of working-class, union-affiliated Irish Catholics, where Coakley made one of her final campaign appearances. The crowd was surprisingly small and unsurprisingly sedate. The candidate gave no speech, was surrounded by union heavies and representatives of local media outlets, and quietly sipped a pint of Guinness. Across the bar, a boisterous Belfast native named Larry was holding a Brown sign and telling the sign-hoisting Coakley people surrounding him to “fuck off.”

When we spoke, Larry identified himself as a conservative, a union member, a supporter of Sinn Fein, and a Scott Brown voter. “Obama has demonized every facet of the private sector, [and his policies] have given us huge unemployment,” he told me. When I slipped outside for a cigarette, a Nigerian man wearing a red, white, and blue vest and holding a Coakley sign patiently explained to me that Israel was his “favorite country in the world,” that African Americans need lessons in entrepreneurship from Nigerians, and that because of a Muslim student in the chemistry department at his local university, he received an unfair C+ on a recent exam. “I am the American dream,” he proclaimed. When I told him his politics sounded rather conservative, he nods. “Yes they are, but Coakley is my candidate.”

Nigerian Zionists for Coakley. Irish Republicans for Brown. It was becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of any of this.

Massachusetts: Not As Liberal As You Think

This much is, and has always been, clear: The working-class Massachusetts Democrat isn’t so hip to, say, gay rights or political correctness and cannot be counted on as a natural liberal. One registered Democrat I spoke to launched into an incoherent rant about a friend who has a “faggot purple phone.” These guys support labor unions, not civil unions. And if they can ignore the social stuff that makes them uncomfortable and pull the lever for a Democrat, what’s to stop them from rolling the dice on Brown, whom the Coakley campaign accused of being a mustache-twisting free trader who would ship Massachusetts jobs to “India and China”? 

Outsiders who see Massachusetts as a contiguous bloc of blue electoral districts assume the state is reliably liberal, when in fact it is has been semi-reliably Democratic. Yes, Massachusetts voted for George McGovern. It also voted twice for Ronald Reagan, elected the Mormon Republican Mitt Romney as governor, and has city governments long honeycombed with conservative Democrats. It was two Democrats, Louise Day Hicks and Billy Bulger, who led the charge against forced busing in the 1970s. It was Boston Democratic City Councilman Dapper O’Neil who, in the words of his Boston Globe obituarist, “railed against feminists, gays, and immigrants.” Tom Finneran, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1996 to 2004, is pro-life, anti–gay marriage, and famous for attacking the fiscal profligacy of his fellow Democrats.

The diversity of Massachusetts Democrats, the prickliness of the commonwealth’s voters, has a long history of baffling nonnatives. Upon arriving in South Boston High School at the height of anti-busing fervor, the school’s new superintendent, fresh from Kansas City, commented that he “always had this feeling of Boston as this great bastion of liberalism” but now realized that the city was more “backwards” than the Midwest. After Brown’s victory, a North Carolina transplant living in Cambridge said almost the same thing to the Globe: “It makes us realize that we’re not really as different as we’d like to think, like, ‘Oh, we’re this Democratic liberal state.’ We’re not.’ ”

When Obama parachuted into Boston on the Sunday before the election in a hopeless attempt to save Coakley’s Hindenburg of a Senate campaign, the union guys were hard to spot (though a small contingent of “SEIU for Brown” supporters were camped in the middle of Huntington Avenue). Perhaps they were all inside the Obama revival tent, but the pro-Brown contingent outside the Northeastern University venue was large, loud, and energized, while the Coakley sign carriers looked drained of energy, defeated, and depressed. 

And they were also in no mood for dialogue. As I walked toward the front lines, looking to take the temperature of Coakley’s shrinking base, a small woman in a North Face jacket and New Balance sneakers—the middle-aged Cambridge liberal uniform—shouted at me.

“We have been here since this morning,” she said. “Go stand somewhere else.” They were waiting to catch a glimpse of the Obama motorcade.

“No, no,” I reassured her. “I don’t want your space. I just wanted to ask you a few questions.”

Another shouted, “Who do you write for?”

Reason magazine.”

Heathen magazine?”

“No. R-E-A…”

“You want a quote?” someone yelled. I made eye contact with a flame-haired, sign-toting Coakleyite. He looked like an extra from Gangs of New York or a prize fighter from 19th-century Sligo. “Here’s your quote: Scott Brown sucks.” 

And there you have it. As one Massachusetts libertarian said to me, no one was voting for Martha Coakley. They were voting against Scott Brown.

So what was wrong with her opponent? Brown, as voters were constantly reminded by Coakley’s campaign ads, is a Republican—a foreign virus in the Massachusetts body politic—and his talk of tax cuts echoed rhetoric employed by those mad Tea Party rubes. When he wasn’t conspiring with the knuckle-draggers, Brown was spending time at one of his “five properties,” which include an Aruba timeshare valued between $10,000 and $20,000. It was more than a little bizarre to accuse Brown of being too rich, too bourgeois, to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

The Boston Tea Party

Brown might be popular in Massachusetts, but he is really popular with the Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank–hating Tea Party crowd, people who previously thought of Massachusetts as a state that would vote an Alger Hiss/Owen Lattimore ticket if given the chance. In the press pit at the Park Plaza Hotel—Brown HQ—on election night, the credentialed reporters included a representative from the right-wing conspiracy site WorldNetDaily, a New York–based blogger who believes Barack Obama is the illegitimate son of Malcolm X, and various mouth-breathing weirdos passing along “news” that ACORN was in the process of stealing the election for Coakley. They might be happy now, dancing in the aisles as returns poured in from Worcester, Lowell, and Cape Cod, shouting that “we are winning,” but it wasn’t entirely clear if they knew much about Scott Brown other than his opposition to Obama’s health care bill.

While Brown is a semi-moderate Republican and almost all of his local supporters with whom I spoke were well-informed, engaged, and genuinely concerned about spiraling deficits and the unknown unknowns of ObamaCare, the out-of-state activists who came to Massachusetts would, in most any other time in recent American history, likely denounce the candidate as a namby-pamby RINO (Republican In Name Only) sell-out. Scott Brown is not a “teabagger,” as Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and MSNBC sputterer Keith Olbermann maintain. Nor is he anyone’s idea of a social conservative, identifying himself as pro-choice and telling the Boston Herald that gay marriage in Massachusetts is “settled law.” But he isn’t a small-government Liberty Caucus Republican either.

In trying to stop Obama’s muddled health care bill by destroying Martha Coakley—a feat, incidentally, that she performed without outside help—conservative activists, bloggers, and Brown fan boys are going to soon have to deal with a guy who is not all that right-wing. And if Brown attempts to assuage the fears of the conservative Republicans who assisted his campaign by diving to the right on social issues, when he comes up for re-election in two years, the people of Massachusetts could very well punish him for selling out.

As election night wound down it became clear that Brown would soon morph from a pickup-driving everyman from the suburb of Wrentham to “Senator 41,” destroyer of ObamaCare. News trickled into the hall where his supporters were gathered that Coakley had conceded. After midnight, at the hotel bar, an incredulous Brown staffer relayed a stunning bit of information: He had won the Kennedy stronghold of Hyannis Port.

So how could such a thing happen in Massachusetts, a state so progressive that Cambridge Bolsheviks can purchase the complete works of Josef Stalin and receive training at the Center for Marxist Education within a few short blocks; a state so lefty that, in the 1980s, my hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, became a “sister city” of Sandinista-ruled San Marcos, Nicaragua? What was the Kronstadt moment for my fellow Bay Staters? 

Two things: a monstrous health care bill (and the swelling government it would precipitate) and a Democratic candidate almost Dukakis-like in her incompetence on the campaign trail. 

Brian McGrory, a columnist at the Coakley-friendly Boston Globe, accused the candidate of being a “diva” who dodged debates and skipped the customary meet-and-greets. When asked by the Globe why she wasn’t out stumping like Brown, if she wasn’t being “too passive” in her campaigning, she fired back: “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”

When she was a rising star in the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, the Globe admitted in an otherwise obsequious profile that Coakley was “Relentless. Icy. Unflappable. Never nice.” It was an assessment many Massachusetts voters would endorse.

Obama’s defenders say a poorly run campaign and a lackluster candidate—not skepticism of ObamaCare—were responsible for Coakley’s spectacular implosion. A long string of gaffes and her Brezhnevian charm doubtless contributed to her troubles, but there is substantial evidence that health care and the prospect of massive budget deficits were more important factors. 

A Suffolk University poll taken before the election found that “51 percent of voters [are] saying they oppose the ‘national near-universal health-care package’ and 61 percent [are] saying they believe the government cannot afford to pay for it.” A poll conducted by The Washington Post and Harvard University after the election found that “health care topped jobs and the economy as the most important issue driving Massachusetts voters.”

After the election, some Obama partisans raged against the Bay State as a backwater of intolerance. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann thundered that Massachusetts had elected “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, sexist, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” Liberal Boston Globe columnist James Carroll accused his fellow Massachusettians of “practic[ing] the politics of misogyny.” (“When it comes to positions of real power, no women need apply,” he wrote in The Daily Beast. “Martha Coakley was croaked by an electorate that could not get past her gender.”) By blaming a Bobby Riggs electorate (or, in the case of Olbermann, a state of George Lincoln Rockwells), Obama’s media boosters hoped to convince him to press ahead with his health care plan, arguing that the real reason for Democratic failure had little to do with big government. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told a befuddled Chris Matthews on MSNBC that the election results were a subconscious endorsement of health care reform. 

If Democrats wish to avoid repeating Martha Coakley’s disastrous performance, if they wish to prevent a midterm election fiasco later this year, they would be well-advised to stop diagnosing dissenting voters with an acute case of false consciousness and start realizing that even reliably blue states can no longer be counted on to support an ever-expanding federal government. But in Boston’s liberal enclaves, among Obama’s true believers, there is little sign this realization will hit anytime soon. Pouring me a coffee, the barista at a Harvard Square coffee shop tells a coworker, “If there are Scott Brown voters in this state, I’ve never met them.” 

Senior Editor Michael C. Moynihan (mmoynihan@reason.com) grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Michael C. Moynihan is Senior Editor, Reason Magazine


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