Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hail to the Party

The news came in around 9:40 tonight. The liberal, Democratic U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for more than four decades, and by his brother, John, before him, is going to a conservative Republican who believes in, according to the NY Times, “waterboarding as an interrogation technique for terrorism suspects; opposes a federal cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions; and opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants unless they leave the country.”

I’ll leave it to the pundits to dissect the story behind the story. I don’t know about you, but I get pretty nauseated hearing all this political carping day after day, night after night. I’m a pretty political person, but enough already.

Scott Brown’s upset victory reminds me of the first political campaign I covered for The New Haven Register. It was 1972. Conservative Republican state legislator Ronald Sarasin was waging an uphill battle to unseat seven-term Congressman John Monaghan. Sarasin was from Beacon Falls, a mill town south of Waterbury along the Naugatuck River. The Fifth Congressional District includes Waterbury, Meriden, Danbury, plus factory towns and elite communities in Fairfield County.

Sarasin had two things in his favor. One was the Nixon coattails. McGovern had no hope to unseat a sitting president not yet soiled by Watergate. In some ways, Scott Brown’s victory is a mirror image of presidential influence. A vote for Brown today was a message of displeasure with Obama.

Sarasin’s second advantage was his outsider status. Monaghan was portrayed as an incumbent more concerned with his cushy Washington seat than the problems confronting his district. A glib, handsome, prematurely grey Sarasin (my bureau chief boss often referred to him as “Razor Cut Ronnie”) energized voters with his enthusiasm. He crisscrossed the 41 towns of the district in an old school bus painted red, white and blue. He stressed he would be a responsible representative. Indeed, after he won election, Sarasin kept riding his bus every weekend, making sure his constituents could personally deliver to him their requests for road repairs, job programs and lower taxes. Had he not opted to run for governor in 1978 (he lost), he might well still be representing the district. Instead he became a lobbyist, and is now married to the the head of the Food Marketing Institute, the supermarket industry trade association.

(Full disclosure: In 1976 I left The Register to serve as press secretary to a Democratic candidate trying to replace Sarasin. Sarasin trounced him, as I knew he would. He was, as I implied, a responsive, well-liked congressman.)

Scott Brown’s victory, to me, runs parallel to Sarasin’s. He touched a nerve with the electorate. He didn’t take voters for granted. He did his homework. He benefited from running against a vulnerable candidate.

I’m not happy the GOP won in Massachusetts. I really don’t want to hear the spin from both parties. We’re now going to see if Obama is as good a politician as Clinton became after Republicans won big in 1994. For the sake of the country, I hope he is.