In a Hurry, Brown Defies Party Bosses

Posted April 11, 2005 at 6:12pm

Matt Brown is a “doer.”

Maybe that is the best explanation for why the 35-year-old Rhode Island secretary of state has launched a Senate campaign just halfway through his first term in elective office.

“He’s somebody who has strong leadership skills and he wants to make a difference, and he doesn’t want to wait around,” said Darrell West, a Brown University political science professor who runs a Web site on Ocean State politics.

That philosophy has not endeared Brown to the state’s Democratic hierarchy.

In 2002, he decided to make his first political run. He picked a statewide office with a Democratic incumbent, albeit an appointed one, as his target.

This year, while national and state Democrats tried to talk Reps. James Langevin (D) and Patrick Kennedy (D) into challenging Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), Brown waited for no one, assembling a staff and raising more than $500,000 in about two months.

Brown says his mother raised him to be involved in civic life and to help others. After spending 10 years in the nonprofit sector, he decided government was the place where he could have the most impact.

“The establishment was behind the incumbent and thought we couldn’t do it,” he said of the secretary of state race. “I had a groundswell of support no one expected.”

As for the Senate contest, while the others “were waiting and watching,” Brown decided to act.

“When you know what you want to do and why you are doing it, you go ahead and do it to the best of your ability and you win,” he said.

Brown started in 1993 as a staffer on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He worked on the legislation that created AmeriCorps, then-President Bill Clinton’s initiative to promote volunteerism.

That prompted him to return to his native Rhode Island to start City Year, the community service program on which AmeriCorps was modeled, in Providence.

After five years heading City Year, Brown went to South Africa to help bring the program to a new continent. Shortly thereafter, he launched what became Vote for America, a civic education initiative.

Running for secretary of state was the next logical step, Brown figured.

All of his work to that point had been centered on promoting civic involvement, engaging young people in the political process and working to promote small businesses — all issues that the Rhode Island secretary of state handles.

But there is one prominent issue Brown has tackled that does not traditionally fall under the purview of a secretary of state, a move that has Rhode Island politicos clucking.

The secretary of state’s Web site now offers residents access to discount prescription drugs from pharmacies in Canada and the United Kingdom.

“There were politicians who said it’s not in my job description, but that’s the worst kind of politics,” Brown said, attempting to deflect criticism about the program. “What are people in my state struggling with every day?”

The effort has raised eyebrows.

“He’s moving a little too quickly without proving himself in the office he currently holds,” said Jim Hagan, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, repeating what many in Rhode Island political circles think. “One of Brown’s challenges is he’s so obvious, he’s so aggressive, it could backfire on him.”

But being perceived as the upstart could work in Brown’s favor, West said.

“He’ll run an insurgent campaign against the establishment; he’ll say he’s the young guy with new ideas and energy,” West said.

When Langevin and Kennedy both turned down entreaties to enter the race, far from embracing Brown, Rhode Island party bosses lined up behind another candidate, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

While the state party chairman says he is neutral, Kennedy and Langevin have just signed on as national co-chairmen of Whitehouse’s campaign.

“I think most of the establishment will be supporting Whitehouse,” West said. “Whitehouse is definitely favored in the primary.”

Brown is not deterred.

“We have incredible support from those who actually turn out the vote,” Brown said. “We’ve shown we have what matters. This election is going to be decided by the people of Rhode Island and not politicians.”

Despite the rhetoric, Brown knows support from groups such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also matters, which is why he took a quick trip down to Washington, D.C., last week.

“I think we’re beginning what’s going to be a very good relationship,” he said.

The DSCC does not endorse in primaries, spokesman Phil Singer explained, but the committee makes time to meet with many candidates, including a recent visit with Whitehouse.

The early prognosticators give the advantage to Whitehouse, but West said that does not necessarily mean Brown is washed up if he loses.

“If he runs a credible campaign and comes fairly close, he’ll have a political future,” West said. “If the race becomes hopeless and he’s very far behind, then his future is more problematic.”