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The world could be his oyster
Secretary of State Matt Brown is young, intelligent, and ambitious. Can he vault into the Senate in 2006?

SECRETARY OF STATE MATTHEW A. BROWN says his natural instinct is to want to do everything at once, to tackle the mandates of his office, like improving elections, increasing civic involvement, and aiding small businesses, while doing his bit to make government in Rhode Island more open and ethical. "To be effective, you have to make very good choices about what the best ways to solve those problems are," he notes. The importance of making sound strategic decisions applies just as much to Brown’s nascent political career. Two years after using his first run for office to win the secretary of state’s post, the 34-year-old Democrat has shown clear signs of interest in challenging Republican Lincoln Chafee for the US Senate in 2006. But just as an effective officeholder needs to wield the right mix of focus and energy, a rising political star must tread wisely to avoid a costly misstep.

Brown, a native of Providence’s East Side who boasts degrees from Columbia University and Yale Law School, seems adept at blending idealism and pragmatism while making his own opportunities. As a civic organizer, he helped to launch the youth service program City Year in Providence, and was then the driving force behind the Democracy Compact, a statewide get-out-the-vote effort in 2000. Although the goal of increasing voting remains unassailable, Brown’s ability to use the compact to leverage widespread public and private sector participation seemed just as noteworthy.

When it came to jumping into the political fray, the secretary of state’s office in 2002 represented a prime opportunity. Embarrassing staff controversies marked the brief tenure of Edward S. Inman III, a former state representative from Coventry, who had been elevated a year earlier by the General Assembly to fill the unexpired term of US Representative Jim Langevin. Inman also suffered from terrible timing. A former member of House Speaker John B. Harwood’s leadership team, he sought election as the Wendy Collins controversy was ushering in the end of the autocratic speaker’s decade-long reign. (Just to hedge his bets, Brown ran a highly aggressive campaign, seriously outspending his Democratic opponent, and he won the primary, and effectively the office, on a decisive margin.)

Even the shifting tides of public attention have proven advantageous for the first-term secretary of state. Although Brown targeted increased oversight of lobbyists before the late 2003 outbreak of ethics controversies involving Democratic lawmakers, the emergence of a more reform-minded climate at the State House neatly dovetails with some of his legislative efforts. After the Station nightclub disaster overshadowed the state for much of 2003, the current landscape on Smith Hill also offers a far better platform for raising Brown’s profile – a must if the relatively obscure general officer is going to run for the Senate in two years.

Asked about his plans for 2006, Brown raises his eyebrows and almost exclaims, "I don’t know, and I keep getting asked." Offering the pro forma response recited by other prospective Democratic candidates for governor and Senate, he says he’s focused on the tasks at hand.

Other Democrats haven’t missed noting, however, how Brown, while he was still paying off debt from his 2002 campaign, last year donated $25,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats. (On a related note, Brown was a leading fundraiser among Rhode Island politicians in the third quarter of 2003, raising almost $97,000.) Brown also injected his office into health-care issues by forming a health-care task force, an untraditional focus for the secretary of state’s office that — along with the general sense of his ambition — has peeved some Democratic peers at the State House and elsewhere.

"I think from the public’s perception, he’s doing a fantastic job," says one Democrat. "However, as a political observer, one word that would come to mind would be ‘opportunistic.’ Certainly, his ambitions for office are clear and evident. Certainly, he’s a public official with a great deal of potential. I wouldn’t want to say he has to wait his turn, but he may be trying to do too much, too quick. He will be an incredible asset for the Democratic Party for years to come, but by moving too fast and too quick, he may run out of steam too quickly, both in terms of political capital and in terms of energy."

Of course, much depends on the political landscape in 2006. Republican Governor Donald L. Carcieri is expected to seek reelection, and despite some periodic gaffes, he seems to enjoy a strong measure of public support. For experienced, upwardly mobile politicians — namely Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty and former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse, now ensconced at Edwards & Angell — the question becomes whether they should run for governor or the Senate.

Some Democrats are quietly hoping that Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey — who is seen as a less formidable general election opponent than Rhode Island’s idiosyncratic, Democratic-leaning junior senator — challenges Chafee in a Republican primary. Langevin, meanwhile, who moved up from secretary of state to the US House in the 2000 election, is another potential question mark when it comes to which Democrats may run for Chafee’s Senate seat.

Asked about a scenario in which Whitehouse and Fogarty run for governor, and Langevin remains in the House, Bill Lynch, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, says he’s not sure who — other than Brown — might be interested in gunning for the Senate. "Certainly, Matt Brown has the potential to be a very strong candidate for any office, should he seek to move, as opposed to running for reelection." Lynch says, adding that he wouldn’t fault someone for thinking big when it comes to their political prospects. "I think a natural part of that process is to want to continue to move up. I am always a little perplexed when people say that he or she is an opportunist because they want to run for higher office. I don’t know what’s wrong with that."

Maureen Moakley, chair of the political science department at the University of Rhode Island, however, says, that the prospective field of more experienced candidates poses something of a bind for Brown. "Clearly, he’s politically ambitious, and he finds himself in the middle of what is emerging as a very aggressive field of ambitious politicians," Moakley says. "My sense is that there’s going to be tremendous competition for a lot of races, and his disadvantage, if you look at poll-recognition numbers, he always comes out the lowest. So . . . he has to become more well-known without appearing to be self-aggrandizing. That is very hard to do when you’ve only been secretary of state for under two years. He’s got to walk that fine line of getting his name out there and not giving the appearance of being overly ambitious."

ALTHOUGH HIS SECOND-FLOOR corner office at the State House offers an impressive view of College Hill — not far from where he grew up (and presently resides) near Elmgrove Avenue, Brown says he never envisioned one day working at the capitol. The matter of why he gave up community service for politics, however, is "a great question that I thought about a lot." After 10 years, Brown says, he decided to run for office because government has more influence over the issues he is concerned with. As such, the public realm represented an obvious focal point if he wanted "to make as much of a difference as I could."

Asked about how some people see him as being opportunistic or ambitious, Brown exhales, questioning aloud how to respond, before saying, "I think I’m doing what I’ve always done — just in a different office, a much nicer office." When City Year was first launched, the community service program was based in an unfinished basement at the International Institute in South Providence. Similarly, the Democracy Compact operated for part of its tenure from a basement in a Bank Rhode Island branch in Cranston. Despite the more rarefied surroundings at the State House, Brown says, he remains committed to "doing whatever I can, working as hard as I can, getting really good people to work with me to solve the problems facing the state. For people who’ve known me for a while, they know this is what I do. It’s just that I have a fancier title."

Brown’s boosters describe him as the real deal. "I would say his desire is to create change," says Melba Depeña, executive director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, who served as the field director of Brown’s 2002 campaign. "He’s never satisfied about how things are, he always wants to make things better. In doing that, he models for other people." Depena, who hopes that Brown will run for the Senate in 2006, describes him as a tireless worker. After late nights during the campaign, she says, he’d draw the consternation of his supporters by calling for a meeting early the next morning.

To his critics, though, Brown’s health-care commission is a prime example of his political opportunism. "He’s a little too overly aggressive in terms of taking on issues that don’t fit his office," says a State House source. During the Super Tuesday presidential primary in March — which was marked by abysmal voter turnout — there was some chuckling on Smith Hill about how Brown had time to pursue health-care issues, "and he had almost shifted off promoting voter turnout, which is something he ran on, to something which is polling much higher, which is health-care," the source says. "It’s almost like jumping on, like this is hot, so let me take this on."

Brown explains his 35-person health-care panel as a natural extension of the role that the secretary of state’s office plays in assisting small businesses. The cost of health-care was by far the leading concern, he says, during four small business forums he held last summer. And while Rhode Island has a relatively low percentage of uninsured residents, it has one of the largest percentage increases in uninsured residents over the last three years, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, he says. "I felt like we needed to do something now to get the costs of health-care under control," Brown says.

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Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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