Some of Boston’s most prominent African-American ministers put their support behind Elizabeth Warren Thursday and denounced Senator Scott Brown’s attacks on her purported Native American heritage, saying the issue has become a divisive distraction from more pressing concerns about poverty and violence.
Some of the ministers had strong words for Brown, part of what appeared to be a growing backlash among Warren supporters to Brown’s strategy of driving the charged issue in the campaign.
“It’s a dead issue,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a group of ministers that seeks to reduce youth violence. “I know that, as the commercials continue to roll, I cringe. It’s an issue that has no relevance to things that I care about.”
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who also attended the event at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, accused Brown of trying to divide the electorate, while Governor Deval Patrick, in a television interview, called Brown a “Bay State birther,” an allusion to the conspiracy theory about President Obama’s birthplace.
Menino and Patrick previously endorsed Warren, but their more heated rhetoric seemed to reflect an emotional boiling point in the bitterly fought race.
“Scott Brown, throughout this campaign, has taken on an issue that I think is very derogatory to” Warren and her claims to Native American heritage, said Menino, who stood with Warren and about a half-dozen ministers. “Elected officials take on those issues because they’ve got nothing else to say. It’s about dividing people.”
Brown’s campaign responded by dispatching two African-American activists, both of whom praised Brown for his attentiveness to the black community, from his days as a state senator backing the METCO program to his work helping to secure the safe return of a black minister from Boston who was kidnapped in Egypt last summer.
One of the activists, Harold Sparrow, former executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance, said Warren, not Brown, is to blame for the prolonged focus on her ethnic roots.
“It was a credibility issue that was raised, and Elizabeth Warren has said she should have responded sooner,” said Sparrow, who has been Brown’s friend since they were teammates on the Tufts University basketball team. “If she would have responded sooner, it would have gone away. But she didn’t.”
The other activist recommended by the Brown campaign, the Rev. Talbert W. Swan II, president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, said Brown has been responsive to his community’s needs, pointing to Brown’s participation in a charity basketball game in August. But unlike Sparrow, he echoed some of the frustration expressed by Warren supporters over the unrelenting focus on the Native American controversy.
“I’m hoping in the last 30 days we can focus on some of the issues of concern for the residents of the Commonwealth, as opposed to getting hung up on one issue, especially if it’s concerning someone’s heritage,” Swan said. “I think both Senator Brown and professor Warren are above that.”
Warren has acknowledged that, from 1986 to 1995, she listed herself as a Native American in a legal directory often used by law school recruiters. She says she believes she is part Cherokee and part Delaware, based on family lore, but has not provided documentation. Warren says she never sought or received any professional benefit from her claims, a statement backed up by those who hired her.
Brown has called on Warren to release her personnel records from Harvard to prove that she did not benefit from her claim, and has run two ads stoking the controversy.
On Thursday, Colin Reed, a Brown spokesman, said, “This is a problem of Elizabeth Warren’s own making, and the only reason it continues is because she refuses to release the records that would put it to rest. All the available evidence suggests she is not being forthright with the people of Massachusetts.”
Patrick denounced Brown’s tactics using harsher language than he has in the past during an interview on WCVB-TV. “Senator Brown has turned into a Bay State birther, for goodness sake,” he said. “And it doesn’t have anything to do with solutions to help the people of Massachusetts.”
The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, a Dorchester pastor, was among those who backed Warren Thursday, even though he had publicly questioned whether she benefited from her claims to Indian heritage.
Rivers said he and others met with Brown’s staff about a possible endorsement six weeks ago, but Brown’s staff was unresponsive.
“I and others were leaning toward the Brown camp,” said Rivers, who worked with President George W. Bush on his faith-based initiatives. “But there was no substantive follow-through. It was the failure to tangibly communicate that black votes were a priority that tipped me and others in the other direction.”
The Brown campaign declined to comment. Rivers added that Menino’s endorsement was also “a significant factor,” in pulling him and other Boston ministers into the Warren camp, “because he’s the mayor.”
At the church, the ministers placed their hands on Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann, and prayed for them. Warren quoted Scripture, saying, “I was a stranger and you took me in,” and vowed to work “not for some of our children, but for all of our children.”
Warren declined to comment on the Native American controversy. “I think the mayor and the reverend have taken care of this,” she said.