If Scott Brown Wins, Democrats May Turn Their Lonely Eyes to Tom Conroy

Friday, September 7, 2012

Democrats are hoping that Elizabeth Warren is to senator what Deval Patrick was to governor: someone who comes out of nowhere to capture a highly coveted, powerful position in her first run ever for public office.

The only thing is, they don’t make Deval Patricks every day of the week.

Our governor has been in office for six years and often seems to dominate, rather effortlessly, the news.  We’re so used to him as governor that it’s easy to forget he was a longshot when he announced for governor in 2005.

Patrick was then considered the least likely to succeed in a primary election field of three Democrats, including the sitting attorney general, Tom Riley, and a popular entrepreneur and philanthropist, Chris Gabrieli, who had run for Congress in 1998 and lieutenant governor in 2002 as the nominee on a ticket headed by State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.

Of course, Deval Patrick had a platinum resume and a compelling personal narrative, having risen from a poor household on the South Side of Chicago to Milton Academy, Harvard University, Harvard Law and President Clinton’s Justice Department, and then on to remunerative work as a lawyer for corporate giants Coca Cola and Texaco. 

All that would have meant nothing, however, if Patrick had not also been blessed with rare political gifts.  He was a warm, smooth and indefatigable campaigner, an inspiring speaker, and a natural before the television cameras.  Most important, he had a surplus of that essential ingredient of political success: likability.

Seldom do rookie politicians, and more seldom still, 50-year-old rookies, arrive in such a complete package.

Go up to the Massachusetts State House and ask legislators at random about their rookie campaigns for public office.  You’ll hear how hard it was, the first time out of the gate, to get elected state rep.  They’ll also say that, if your first foray in politics is a state senate race, you’re almost bound to fail, (as the estimable Joseph Kearns Goodwin of Concord learned to his chagrin last night).

Now comes Elizabeth Warren, a rookie pol at 63.  A self-made woman from a down-on-its-luck Oklahoma family and a distinguished professor of law, Warren has never held elective office, even one as humble as school board member.  Yet she believes she’s the one to take the seat of the political phenom who took Ted Kennedy’s seat: Scott Brown.  Maybe she’s right.  We’ll find out in less than two months.

Did you watch her speech at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte the other night?  It was a good speech, with an undercurrent of working class grievance just right for the audience of party stalwarts.  As the frequent interruptions of applause indicated, she delivered it well, although I thought she was a little too hyper and a little too wide-eyed at times.   

Now if I had walked off the staid campus of Harvard University and found myself one night, several months later, addressing thousands of jacked-up politicos in a convention hall and millions of my fellow Americans on television, I’d be excited out of my mind.  My eyes would have a positively wild sheen.  No matter what I was saying, I would be thinking:  “I’m speaking to world! They’re listening to ME.  I’m going to be a Senator, a United Freaking States Senator!”

Elizabeth Warren may have killed in Charlotte.  But will she play in Charlton?

Will the Warren package of super-bright lawyer, super-accomplished career woman, acknowledged champion of consumer rights and Democratic Party avenger add up to a likable whole? 

Will she have the indefinable “stuff” to do what has seldom been done before in the modern era: move in one leap from private citizen to member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, the U.S. Senate?

Is it possible for her new, untested brand to eclipse the well-established Scott Brown product, with its handsome, friendly exterior and its common-sense, just-folks interior? 

She and Brown may be neck-and-neck in the polls, but my guess is that will change as Massachusetts voters look ever closer at the candidates as the election nears and the candidates begin debating face-to-face.

One bit of unsolicited advice for Brown: Don’t be tempted to slug it out, point by point, with Warren in those debates. 

This is a woman who received a debate-team scholarship to George Washington University when she was 16 years old.  When battle-tested in D.C., she stood up like granite to Republican senators criticizing how she aggressively pursued the implementation of the federal Consumer Protection Act of 2010 as a special assistant to President Obama.

Brown’s got that nice brand firmly set in the minds of the Massachusetts electorate.  When sharing the stage with Warren, all he has to be is likable Scotty Brown, no matter what she throws at him -- and avoid getting nasty or cutting with her.

As I watched Warren revving up the troops at the convention, I found myself thinking how she is similar to Mitt Romney, of all people, in how she used her reputation, stature, and fund-raising chops to dispatch her Democratic primary opponents.

You probably remember how Romney and his minions moved aside the acting governor, Jane Swift, in 2002 to become the Republican nominee.  The state’s first woman governor was basically annihilated, politically speaking, by the wealthy hero of the Salt Lake City Olympics.   He took the GOP nomination because he could.  Hey, that's politics.

But do you recall the names of the six Democrats who were in the Senate race last year when Warren, urged on by national and state leaders of the party, began exploring a candidacy.  It wasn’t long before she was drawing most of the media’s attention and most of the contributions from Democratic bigwigs.  One by one, her outgunned opponents dutifully shuffled off the stage: Herb Robinson, Bob Massie, Setti Warren, Alan Khazei, Tom Conroy and Marissa DeFranco.

Of those six, the one I feel the most regret for is Tom Conroy, a three-term state rep from Wayland.  He holds three college degrees: a bachelor’s from Yale, a master’s in international economics from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.B.A. in finance from Boston University. He’s worked in refugee resettlement programs in Southeast Asia and in Haiti, as a foreign policy and national security assistant to Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and as a management consultant.  He and his wife, Sarah, are the parents of four beautiful children.  While maybe not as movie star handsome as Scott Brown, Conroy is a tall, athletic, photogenic and energetic  50-year-old.  He’s as articulate as a college professor and as approachable as a church greeter.

Should Warren lose to Brown, there will be many Democrats, in my opinion, who will look back and wonder if it would have been better if Conroy had somehow stayed the course and become the nominee.  I can hear them now in their alternative universe:

“Sure it was ‘only’ some rep races, but Conroy had run and won before.  He could have caught fire statewide.  Scott Brown was a man of the legislature.  HE did it.”

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