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Caryl Rivers

Caryl Rivers

Posted: January 20, 2010 11:42 AM

It's time to remember the immortal words of Tip O'Neill: all politics is local.

The chattering classes who spend little time in the state keep referring to "liberal" Massachusetts. They seem to think we are a collection of Harvard intellectuals, radical students, gay rights advocates, tree-huggers, feminists and thousands of Kennedys.

In fact, we are a state chock full of independents, and have long since evolved from a place filled with traditional lunch bucket Democrats and aristocratic Republican Yankees to a much more diverse population. Yes, it's a shock that unknown Scott Brown could take Ted Kennedy's seat, but that had more to do with facts on the ground than on any seismic shock that prefigures national politics.

Brown's election is not a referendum on Barack Obama. Obama remains very popular in the state, but the election is a reminder that personal charisma can rarely be transferred, especially to a candidate who doesn't have much of it. Martha Coakley, a much admired attorney general, ran a gaffe-prone campaign, mocking her opponent for shaking hands at Fenway park, taking a Caribbean vacation and apparently calling heroic Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling a Yankee fan.

Look at the red-blue map in the Boston Globe and you see at a glance what happened in the state. The cities went blue -- Boston, Worcester, Fall River, Springfield. The suburbs, north and south of Boston and in much of central Massachusetts, went red.

The south shore, near Boston, is where a lot of Irish folks moved when they got out of the city neighborhoods. One reporter I know refers to it as a haven for the "Triple TI" -- three-toilet Irish. You'd have though this area would have voted in memory of Ted Kennedy. It didn't. People here didn't respond to the traditional Democratic rhetoric about working families. Many of them are affluent, and were more worried about higher taxes than about lunch bucket issues. In less affluent neighborhoods, the adage, "It's the economy, stupid," held sway. In The north shore suburbs, it was the same story.

One of the biggest growth sectors in the state is biotech, and the tekkies are notoriously independent. They often trend libertarian, because they are employed or expect to be so even if they are not, and more optimistic than voters in industries that are failing.

Central Mass, once a stronghold of lunch bucket Democrats, is a sea of red on the Globe map. Worcester, the home of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is becoming a biotech hub, and while the city went blue, the suburbs are all red.

Ted Kennedy was able to pull all these disparate elements together, drawing on JFK's legacy and his own great track record in getting goodies for the state. One suspects that if Ted's wife, Vicki Kennedy, or his nephew, Joe Kennedy had run, they might have been successful at rekindling the glow. Still, many Massachusetts residents are young, drawn here by the universities, and for them, JFK is a historic figure, not a living presence. (Ironically, it was Scott Brown who drew on JFK's legacy, not Coakley.)

Remember, Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, and when he was here, he wasn't the right- wing Mitt who ran for president. He was the moderate Republican who passed the state's universal health care. Scott Brown has the same good looks, the same moderate style, and some of the same people who worked for Romney. Coakley's attack ads went over the top; you'd have thought Brown was going to sprout fangs at any minute, and they only made Coakley look desperate and mean. Especially for a woman candidate, that was lethal.

But also remember that Brown has only a little more than two years to make his mark. If he runs too quickly into the arms of the Tea Party crowd, he will turn off voters who didn't vote for him because of some populist outrage, but because they were scared about the economy, or didn't like Coakley or were fed up with the democratic establishment. Recently, too many Democratic pols here have gone to jail, and Deval Patrick, the governor, is unpopular. Like Schwarzenegger in California, he came in with really bad economic times.

Still, politics is a blood sport in this state. Some Democrats are smiling inside today because Martha Coakley didn't get in, and didn't get a chokehold on a plum Senate seat. They are already planning their campaigns.

In two years, it may be a whole new ball game.