It was only 11 a.m. on Sunday, two days before Massachusetts voters were scheduled to choose Ted Kennedy’s successor in the Senate, and the bartender at 99 Restaurant in Charlestown was already imposing Belfast pub rules. “There will be no discussion of politics in here today,” the squat barmaid grumbled toward a knot of debaters at the end of the bar. “Not until this goddamn election ends.” The politically engaged customers—all male and, by the looks of it, all Irish-American—offered a collective shrug and went back to arguing over the race for what one of them called “Teddy’s seat.”
The bartender’s concern was understandable, for the people of Charlestown have been known to be a bit excitable politically. Around the corner from here, back in 1976, a disagreement over the wisdom of using court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools ended in a stone-throwing riot. In 1995, at this very bar, a “mob-related” dispute culminated in the shooting deaths of five people. Now a droopy-faced local with a Lech Walesa mustache—four beers deep before noon, dressed head-to-toe in New England Patriots–branded clothes—announced calmly that Tuesday would be the most important moment in modern Massachusetts history.
In this bluest of blue states, I had been following Republican state legislator Scott Brown and Democratic gaffe master and Attorney General Martha Coakley as they weaved their way toward Tuesday’s finish line in Boston. I had spent hours talking to union members, former Democrats, current Democrats, Kennedy voters, and gay rights campaigners who were—as almost all of them said—Scott Brown supporters worried about the “explosive growth of government.” All natives of the Commonwealth and reflexively Democratic, they kvetched about what they viewed as reckless government spending, rising taxes, and a risky overhaul of a health care system that treats them rather well. As one member of a pipefitters union told me, “None of the guys in my union trust that Obama won’t hit us with that 40 percent health care tax.”
When I was a college student in this state, before the days when you could get any book overnighted from Amazon.com, I had to special-order Road to Serfdom at a local bookstore. Two days before the election, at a rally in front of Northeastern University, I chatted with a Massachusetts native with a Boston accent as broad as the Shannon who was carrying a hand-lettered sign that alluded to F.A. Hayek’s classic 1944 defense of the market order. The following day, at a Republican rally in the tiny town of Littleton (Obama, 58; McCain, 41), almost every car that drove by honked in support of Scott Brown. A surprising number of Brown sign holders said they had always voted for Teddy Kennedy but insisted they pledged no allegiance to the Democratic Party.
On Tuesday, January 19, they backed up that talk with shocking action. Brown upset Coakley and the entire Massachusetts political establishment, taking 51.9 percent of the vote in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1. By the end of the week, Congressional Democrats’ plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system was falling apart. If an unknown Republican can singlehandedly shatter hopes for a health care bill by winning the Kennedy family seat, anything in American politics is now possible.
Nigerian Zionists for Coakley, Irish Republicans for Brown
No one in state politics expected anything like this. For Brown to lose by 15 points would have, in December, been considered a respectable result. To win was inconceivable.
Everywhere I turned I found r-dropping Bostonians complaining about government, insisting that Americans need to “take their country back.” One woman, who seemed overly familiar with all of my childhood neighbors—the Flynns, the McBreens—compared herself to a passenger on Flight 93 who wants to yell “let’s roll” and regain control of our hijacked nation. Or perhaps she was suggesting that President Obama is a Muslim. It was, like many of the arguments I heard, not completely clear. But the anger was palpable.
Those dismissing the foot soldiers who came out in the bitter and wet cold to hoot and holler for Scott Brown as both “teabaggers” and carpetbaggers are engaged in wishful thinking. I came across a man from Michigan selling “second American revolution” flags; an Atlanta native who, veins popping on his neck, told me that the government was run by “thieves”; a woman from Pittsburgh who “blogs on Facebook” (whatever that means); and a handful of people from New Hampshire who, according to their license plates, would rather die than not live free. But most of the Brown backers I met were like Nick Redmond, a native of Dorchester—the neighborhood famous outside Massachusetts for bequeathing New Kids on the Block and Donna Summer to American culture—who was voting for Scott Brown because, under the current administration, “the middle class is getting screwed.” Or John Camuso, a gay man from Boston who said he was “proud to give [Brown] my vote,” despite thinking that Coakley, whom he knew from his neighborhood, was a “nice lady.”
I didn’t see Redmond on election eve at Dorchester’s Eire Bar, a redoubt of working-class, union-affiliated Irish Catholics, where Coakley made one of her final campaign appearances. The crowd was surprisingly small and unsurprisingly sedate. The candidate gave no speech, was surrounded by union heavies and representatives of local media outlets, and quietly sipped a pint of Guinness. Across the bar, a boisterous Belfast native named Larry was holding a Brown sign and telling the sign-hoisting Coakley people surrounding him to “fuck off.”
When we spoke, Larry identified himself as a conservative, a union member, a supporter of Sinn Fein, and a Scott Brown voter. “Obama has demonized every facet of the private sector, [and his policies] have given us huge unemployment,” he told me. When I slipped outside for a cigarette, a Nigerian man wearing a red, white, and blue vest and holding a Coakley sign patiently explained to me that Israel was his “favorite country in the world,” that African Americans need lessons in entrepreneurship from Nigerians, and that because of a Muslim student in the chemistry department at his local university, he received an unfair C+ on a recent exam. “I am the American dream,” he proclaimed. When I told him his politics sounded rather conservative, he nods. “Yes they are, but Coakley is my candidate.”
Nigerian Zionists for Coakley. Irish Republicans for Brown. It was becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of any of this.
Massachusetts: Not As Liberal As You Think
This much is, and has always been, clear: The working-class Massachusetts Democrat isn’t so hip to, say, gay rights or political correctness and cannot be counted on as a natural liberal. One registered Democrat I spoke to launched into an incoherent rant about a friend who has a “faggot purple phone.” These guys support labor unions, not civil unions. And if they can ignore the social stuff that makes them uncomfortable and pull the lever for a Democrat, what’s to stop them from rolling the dice on Brown, whom the Coakley campaign accused of being a mustache-twisting free trader who would ship Massachusetts jobs to “India and China”?
Outsiders who see Massachusetts as a contiguous bloc of blue electoral districts assume the state is reliably liberal, when in fact it is has been semi-reliably Democratic. Yes, Massachusetts voted for George McGovern. It also voted twice for Ronald Reagan, elected the Mormon Republican Mitt Romney as governor, and has city governments long honeycombed with conservative Democrats. It was two Democrats, Louise Day Hicks and Billy Bulger, who led the charge against forced busing in the 1970s. It was Boston Democratic City Councilman Dapper O’Neil who, in the words of his Boston Globe obituarist, “railed against feminists, gays, and immigrants.” Tom Finneran, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1996 to 2004, is pro-life, anti–gay marriage, and famous for attacking the fiscal profligacy of his fellow Democrats.