THE OLD-SCHOOL Democrats behind Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast always send a message to insiders. This year, it was all about Senator Scott Brown. He’s their guy.
Brown, the only Republican in the Bay State’s congressional delegation, was given a starring role at the annual fete. He spoke early, and the camera lingered on him often - especially because he was seated next to state Senator Jack Hart of South Boston, the breakfast host.
Brown also served as inspiration for a little ditty warbled by Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan, also of South Boston. To the tune of “Oh Danny Boy,’’ Linehan sang that “Lizzie’’ - Elizabeth Warren, Brown’s likely Democratic challenger - would be campaigning with “Deval and Barney close at hand.’’ If Brown’s in luck, crooned Linehan, “she’ll bring them to Southie.’’ For Democrats like that, he went on, “Southie’s a foreign land.’’
Those lines played on the fact that Deval Patrick is the first African-American governor of Massachusetts; and that Frank, who is leaving Congress after three decades, is gay. But to this crowd of old-time Boston pols, jibes like that are all innocent fun and games. Whether voters in Linehan’s district - which now includes the South End - were also amused is a question for another election day.
For better or worse, the calcified crowd at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is Brown’s crowd. From that perspective, the morning’s festivities offered up a timely snapshot of the bigger political picture that frames this nationally watched US Senate race.
Brown was working his base - conservative, working-class Democrats. They were the obvious target of his obvious jokes about Warren having trouble finding her way from Cambridge and betting a bottle of Dom Perignon that she isn’t an elitist. Brown’s base, in turn, gave the senator’s liberal challenger the same treatment that Michael Dukakis and Scott Harshbarger received: the cold shoulder. Warren was not given a seat at the main table, a placement that kept her mostly out of camera range. The breakfast started at 10 a.m.; she spoke at 11:47, right after Brown’s daughter, Ayla, sang “God Bless America.’’ To be fair, the state’s constitutional officers and Joe Kennedy III, who is running for Frank’s seat, followed Warren.
Warren’s a political newcomer, so that accounts for some, but not all of the morning’s insider-versus-outsider dynamics. She was a Democrat, in a room filled with them. Yet her fellow Democrats appeared to be signaling their support for a Republican who is trying hard to avoid the GOP label in Massachusetts.
Elizabeth Warren got the same cold shoulder that Dukakis and Harshbarger received.
Brown is campaigning as an independent, or better yet, as a Red Sox fan, as demonstrated by his radio-ad tributes to Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek. But he runs the risk of sending another message when he basks in the approval of these breakfast-goers.
Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray was a hit when he made a grand entrance sporting a NASCAR helmet and racing jacket. But how many voters beyond the head table found his jokes about speeding and crashing a state car all that hilarious? Murray’s relationship with Michael McLaughlin, the ousted head of the Chelsea Housing Authority, is also under serious scrutiny. Does Brown really want to be seen smirking over Beacon Hill scandals past, present, and future?
There are traps on both sides of the political spectrum. The recent controversy over health insurance coverage for birth control was a test for both candidates, and each played to their respective base. Warren decried the assault on women, and Brown stood up for religious freedom.
Voter surveys show an up-and-down battle ahead for both candidates. The most recent survey by Public Policy Polling had Warren up by 5 points. Previous polls showed Brown ahead of Warren, including one that had him ahead by 10 points.
The PPP poll found Brown would win 89 percent of Republican voters, 17 percent of Democratic voters, but only 48 percent of independents. That is far less than the 64 percent of independent voters that Brown won in his January 2010 special election race.
Those independent or unenrolled voters are the prize. To some of them, the humor at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast is a throwback to another time.