Francis Bellotti, a former Massachusetts Attorney General and one time political opponent of Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) described Brooke’s passing in a recent Boston Globe op-ed as an “end of an era in politics that will never return: an era of true trailblazers and political powerhouses.”
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of Senator Edward W. Brooke as we lost a truly remarkable public servant. A war hero, a champion of equal rights for all, and an example that barriers can be broken, Senator Brooke accomplished more than most aspire to. Our party, Commonwealth, and nation are better for his service.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the election of Senator Brooke and stated, "despite appeals to bigotry of an intensity and vulgarity never before witnessed in the North, millions of white voters remained unshaken in their commitment to decency."
Senator Brooke was the first African-American elected as the Massachusetts Attorney General and the first African-American elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction. He passed away early this year at the age of 95. His legacy is still felt today in Massachusetts and nationally.
In 2000, the Massachusetts state courthouse at the corner of New Chardon and Merrimac streets in Boston was named after Senator Brooke. Since his time in the U.S. Senate, only six African Americans have served in that chamber; fewer have been elected. Today, Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) remain the only African-Americans in the Senate.
Mr. Brooke started out in politics twice running for the Massachusetts legislature from Roxbury and both times losing. Nearly ten years later, he would run for Secretary of State, winning the Republican nomination but losing to Kevin White, the future four-term mayor of Boston, by only 12,000 votes. In 1960, with a name like White, race was an underlining factor.
Later on, Brooke would serve on the Boston Finance Committee, and then be elected as the state’s Attorney General, defeating Elliot Richardson along the way. As the Attorney General, he brought indictments against a former governor, and two speakers of the House. He was reelected in 1964 with the largest plurality of any Republican running in the country that year. Mr. Brooke later coasted into the Senate, easily defeating his Democratic opponent, former Governor Endicott Peabody, by more than 400,000 votes. Time magazine featured Senator Brooke on their magazine cover on more than one occasion.
I never met Mr. Brooke, but I have read his autobiography, Bridging the Divide. My wife was fortunate enough to meet him once and had the honor of guiding him at a ceremony. In my previous job, I worked in an office that was named after him and located in Washington, D.C., Mr. Brooke’s birthplace. For a number of years, I had the opportunity to work closely with Betsy Werronen, Mr. Brooke’s longtime scheduler, personal assistant, and political gatekeeper.
Mrs. Werronen grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and first met Mr. Brooke when he was the Attorney General. After moving to Washington, Werronen recalls her seven and a half years working for Brooke, both as his Finance Director and in his Senate office. She described him as someone who “thrived with people, it was natural for him. He did that with all people, with different backgrounds. He brought people together and he did that in the Senate. He bridged the gap. He was able to find common ground with two different points of view. “
Werronen, who now lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, kept in contact with Brooke long after he left politics. She continued to tell me that Brooke was the type of political giant that would “remember you and know you, he was engaging. He ran against Elliot Richardson, part of the old guard. He had to build his own organization. State conventions were highly contentious back then.”
A noteworthy moment for Mr. Brooke came in 2004, when President George W. Bush awarded Brooke with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian. Werronen recalls being invited to attend the ceremony with approximately a dozen of Brooke’s closest friends and family members. Later this year, Mr. Brooke will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as he was also a decorated WWII veteran.
As we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this week, Massachusetts residents would be remiss not to include Edward W. Brooke in their thoughts and reflection. A veteran, part of the greatest generation, a civil rights pioneer and a political giant who paved the way for future generations, Edward Brooke is no longer with us but his legacy benefits us all today. Those in the Massachusetts legislature and serving as public servants elsewhere don’t have to look further than the life of Edward W. Brooke for a role model worth pursuing.
Paul D. Craney is the executive director of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.
Follow him on Twitter @PaulDiegoCraney.
This column was published in the Taunton Daily Gazette, Fall River Herald News, Milford Daily News, Metro West Daily News, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and Wicked Local