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JOAN VENNOCHI

Ray Flynn’s pitch to Catholics

With his working-class roots, former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn definitely stands for the average guy. He’s also a pro-life Democrat, who once served as US ambassador to the Vatican.

The combination explains the true value of his television ad endorsing Republican Senator Scott Brown over Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warrren. Flynn describes Brown as “a regular guy . . . honest . . . hardworking . . . an independent voice . . . a person you can work with.” For those who know Flynn’s history, that ad packs a lot of symbolism into a short pitch.

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As mayor, Flynn stood for racial unity in a city often defined by racial division; given his South Boston heritage, that meant a lot. He also made sure neighborhoods shared in downtown prosperity. That’s the Flynn who connected with progressives.

But ever since he left the mayor’s office in 1993 to become Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican, you can’t look at Flynn and not think about the message he sends to conservative Catholics. Opposition to abortion is his guiding principle. When he and five other former ambassadors to the Vatican endorsed Republican Mitt Romney for president, they wrote that their concerns in the 2012 election “lie with fundamental rights, beginning with religious liberty.”

In a joint letter, they praise Romney as a “faithful defender” of traditional marriage and said he will be “a faithful defender of life.”

Flynn’s ad for Brown makes no mention of any of those issues. But in endorsing the pro-choice Brown, Flynn sends a subtle message that helps Brown with conservative Catholics.

Catholics are not monolithic in their thinking, but they represent a constituency Brown is actively courting — and winning, according to some polling data. In a May blog post on CommonWealthMagazine.org, Steve Koczela, president of Mass Inc. Polling Group, noted that 44 percent of Massachusetts voters identify as Catholic — and that Brown had a seven-point edge with them over Warren. He had a lower level of support among Catholic women, where he was tied with Warren, according to the Mass Inc. data.

Brown’s Senate website touts his support for Roe v. Wade, and his opposition to taxpayer funding for abortion. He recently broke with his party and voted for an amendment allowing women in the military to use federal funds for abortion in cases of rape or incest. He also opposed the effort by House Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood.

But last winter, Brown backed the so-called Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed religious groups and employers with moral objections to deny health care coverage for birth control. The issue galvanized the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and also won sympathy from voters who viewed it as an issue of religious freedom versus women’s rights. Supporting the Blunt Amendment (which did not pass) was a gamble, as it pits Brown against liberal women. But it makes him the preferred choice for Catholics like Flynn and allows Brown to send the kind of mixed message he prefers on most issues.

Brown’s recent endorsements are all aimed at keeping his party affiliation and ideology in the fuzzy zone. Flynn and a handful of other Democrats have come out for him. Michael Bloomberg, the independent mayor of New York, also endorsed him and announced he would hold a fundraiser for him.

Brown is also benefiting greatly from Mayor Tom Menino’s silence; the Boston mayor has yet to endorse Warren, a fellow Democrat.

Warren’s pitch to voters remains skewed to her liberal base. She’s tying Brown to the Romney-Ryan ticket, and drawing sharp distinctions with him on taxes, health care, and Wall Street. Her strategy is to be the smartest candidate in their upcoming debates and slide into office on brainpower and the surge of Bay State voters who are expected to turn out to support President Obama.

Brown is battling back on the tax issue. He’s accusing her of seeking to imposing “the largest tax hike since World War II.” She’s accusing him of defending tax breaks for oil companies and the wealthy.

In the midst of their tax battle, there’s Flynn and his testament to Brown: “That’s the name of the game. Electing people you can trust.”

Trust Brown on what? Flynn doesn’t say. It’s up to the voter to decide what he means.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.
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