When United States Senator Scott Brown stepped up to the podium at the Grange Hall to address constituents at a Chamber of Commerce Monday morning breakfast, the Republican lawmaker knew he was in tough political territory.
Bucking a statewide vote that landed Mr. Brown in the Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy for nearly 47 years, all six Martha’s Vineyard towns voted for his Democratic opponent, state attorney general Martha Coakley, by substantial margins in the January, 2010 special election.
Sen. Brown acknowledged the political tightrope he walks as a conservative in a state considered among the most liberal in the nation.
“I know there’s probably not a lot of Republicans here,” Sen. Brown said. “But there’s a lot of good independents, Democrats, and Republicans here. More important is, there are good Americans here. We’re all Americans first.”
With equal amounts of aplomb, charm, and the time-honored political skill of deftly sidestepping pointed questions, Sen. Brown engaged a crowd of about 100 in a free ranging discussion about jobs, taxes, national debt, immigration, tourism, and other issues.
While the assembled activists, political junkies, and just plain curious sometimes disagreed with his positions, they appeared unanimously appreciative that the senator included the Island on his whirlwind cross-state itinerary.
In a brief interview with The Times before his chat with constituents, Sen. Brown hammered a familiar theme, one he said has drawn too little attention as the nation struggles with ongoing economic challenges.
“There is seven percent unemployment around this area, and it should be lower,” Sen. Brown said. “There is a lot of money on the sidelines right now. They’re very nervous, whether it’s regulatory uncertainty, or tax uncertainty, they just don’t know what’s next, so everyone is kind of just hunkering down, not growing and expanding.”
Leaping from a relatively obscure state senate seat on Beacon Hill, to the glare of the national spotlight in Washington, D.C. has included some surprises and frustrations for Sen. Brown. He disagreed with the notion that as a member of the Senate, he is now part of the beltway establishment he campaigned against.
“I don’t know if that qualifies to be an insider,” Sen Brown said. “I have an inside knowledge now of the breakdown. I’ve been there a year and a half, and we’ve spent very little time doing anything to do with jobs, job creation, or anything, and that’s been very frustrating.”
Sen. Brown opened his talk with Vineyarders by highlighting economic uncertainty.
“When you see what happened with the S&P downgrade, it’s a wake-up call,” Sen. Brown said. “We need to get spending under control. We need to do a whole host of things to stimulate the economy, and take off that wet blanket facing individuals and businesses.”
He spoke forcefully against raising gas taxes, an idea floated by Lt. Governor Tim Murray last week. He also blasted new regulations that would have forced craft beer brewers to buy half of their hops and grains from local farms, a market he says does not exist. The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick retreated from both those proposals following criticism from Sen. Brown and many others.
He also spoke of his work on tourism issues in the Senate. “I know you’re going to have the first family here, and obviously it will be a boost to tourism, and tourism is critically important to Massachusetts,” Sen. Brown said.
As he has on many stops during his two-week trip around the state, Sen. Brown asked for questions from the audience. The first two were about immigration.
“Martha’s Vineyard is a sanctuary Island, and Massachusetts is a sanctuary state for illegal aliens who are taking our jobs and draining our resources,” Woodrow Williams of Tisbury said. He wanted to know more about the senator’s position on immigration reform.
Sen. Brown said he voted against the Dream Act earlier this year, a measure strongly supported by the Obama administration, that would establish a path to citizenship for students with no criminal record.
“I felt it was back door amnesty, and I felt that we should secure the borders first, and provide a stronger program for employers to make sure they are not hiring people that are here illegally,” Sen. Brown said. But his positions stop short of sanctioning companies that unknowingly hire illegal workers.
“If in fact they’ve acted in good faith and done their due diligence, and someone has still circumvented that legality, the employer should not be hurt by that,” Sen. Brown said.
Earlier he said the federal government needs to ensure that businesses can secure the proper visas for foreign workers who want to take tourism jobs here.
Pat Gregory, who owns the Vineyard Haven office supply business Educomp, asked a pointed question about tax policy, an issue he said his staff talks about.
“Across the United States, there’s growing income disparity between the haves and the have-nots,” Mr. Gregory, West Tisbury town moderator, said. “Do you think tax policy can affect that, and whether your pledge to not ever raise taxes would impede that?”
“Raising taxes in the middle of a 2.5 year recession is a job killer,” Sen. Brown responded.
James Cage of Oak Bluffs wanted to know more about the special committee established by the recent political agreement on the national debt. A 12-member committee is charged with recommending $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions by Thanksgiving. If they cannot reach agreement, or if Congress rejects the committee’s recommendations, mandatory spending cuts would kick in, affecting most federal programs.
Mr. Cage said he was concerned about a small committee making those decisions, with no amendments allowed.
Sen. Brown explained there would be an up-or-down vote on the committee’s final recommendations.
“They’re not going to be the only ones participating in the process,” Sen. Brown said. “Every member (of Congress) is going to go and work for their priorities to get a consensus. If they don’t do their job, then you’re going to have education, military, and Medicare affected dramatically.”
That drew a reaction from Mr. Cage.
“You shouldn’t scare people,” Mr. Cage said.
“That’s not a scare tactic,” Mr. Brown said. “That was put in there by members to ensure the people on the committee did their job.”
“There’s waste, fraud, and abuse,” Mr. Cage said. “Eliminate that.”
“That’s a small amount in the overall picture,” Sen. Brown said. “The amount we’re in debt, it’s really a small amount.”
Moderator Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Martha’s Vineyard, moved on to Phil Hale, owner of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven.
“I understand cutting taxes is supposed to create jobs,” Mr. Hale said. “I haven’t seen any jobs being created in the last ten years, never mind the last eighteen months. How do you reconcile the fact that decreases in taxes have not increased jobs?”
“I respectfully disagree that we haven’t had job creation,” Sen. Brown responded. “We’ve only really been in this financial emergency for the last couple of years. Frankly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s not as simple a fix as doing one thing. We have to do a combination of things.”
As the senator answered the question, the event halted abruptly when a woman in the audience collapsed. Among several people in attendance who rushed to help her, Melinda Loberg, a Tisbury emergency medical technician, and Edgartown police officer Tom Smith stepped up. Tri-Town Ambulance responded and took the woman to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for evaluation.
By that time, Sen. Brown found himself in a situation many of his constituents often experience. He was late for the Steamship Authority ferry. He wrapped up his appearance quickly, thanked the crowd for helping in the medical emergency and for attending the breakfast.
After a pitch for his website, scottbrown.com, he left the Grange Hall through the rear door, and headed for his next stop in Mashpee, to talk about jobs for veterans.
Following Sen. Brown’s appearance, several people commented on the event.
John Newsom of Oak Bluffs, a supporter, said he thought the senator was very sincere.
“Doing his best in a very difficult situation in Washington,” Mr. Newsom said. “I would like to see a little more fire in the belly. I guess that’s not his modus operandi. I hoped to hear more positive and forceful things.”
Oak Bluffs selectman Walter Vail said he thought Sen. Brown could be a real leader in Congress. He had hoped to ask Sen. Brown about health care costs.
“As I get deeper into municipal finance, it’s clear to me that as health care costs go higher and our revenue stream remains the same, we have only once choice, cut people,” Mr. Vail said. “There goes jobs. There’s a disconnect there. We’re going to have to keep cutting people, or raising taxes, and raising taxes, I happen to agree with him, is not the right answer.”