The Other Guy Named Brown Now Has Problems, Too

by Stuart Rothenberg March 8, 2006 · 11:10 PM EST

Apparently, there is something about being named Brown. In Ohio, the decision by Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) to enter the U.S. Senate race after first turning down pleas to run has divided Democrats. Party insiders rallied behind Brown, forcing Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett out of the contest, even though those same insiders had initially begged Hackett to run before Brown jumped in.

Now, in Rhode Island, another Brown seems to be in the middle of a major screw-up.

Secretary of State Matt Brown, who has fashioned himself as an outsider and reformer, miraculously received contributions from three state Democratic parties. One of those parties, the Massachusetts party, received a contribution from a Brown donor who had already “maxed out” to the Senate hopeful, raising questions about whether the state party checks constituted “laundering” of illegal contributions.

The news, and the developing controversy, was first revealed by Roll Call, and while Brown’s campaign has denied that it did anything wrong, the whole situation smells like a week-old flounder left in the hot summer sun.

There obviously are a number of concerns here.

First is the issue of money laundering. It sure looks and sounds as if the Brown campaign and the state parties engaged in a quid pro quo by which Brown contributors would send the parties contributions and the state parties would send contributions to Brown. If that indeed is how things happened, Brown is in deep doo-doo.

Second, why would state parties give to a Democratic Senate candidate who’s engaged in a primary? The answer, in part, appears to be that Brown has a staffer who has “friends” in those parties. But that’s no answer. State parties never get involved in primaries in other states, and it is hard to imagine what interest the Hawaii Democratic Party could have in a primary in a state 5,000 miles away. Is this part of Howard Dean’s new strategy of beefing up state Democratic parties?

Someone at each of the three state parties probably should be fired.

Third, how gullible does the spokeswoman from the Massachusetts party think we are — the one who told Roll Call that the Massachusetts party intended to send $5,000 checks to both Brown and Whitehouse but ended up sending two checks (one for the primary and one for the general election) to Brown? Do we look that stupid?

My growing suspicions about the Brown campaign are fueled by an incident that occurred just a few weeks earlier.

Earlier this year, Brown’s campaign launched a TV blitz, spending much of its limited resources to promote the relatively unknown state officeholder. Not surprisingly, a poll conducted after the blitz showed Brown surging and overtaking his primary opponent, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. The campaign gambled its early funds to boost Brown’s name and image in the hope that he would “catch fire,” raise more cash and alter the fundamentals of the race, which clearly favored Whitehouse at the outset.

The campaign rolled the dice and, in a sense, won when its poll numbers spiked.

What bothered me was a Brown campaign release, in which press spokesman Matt Burgess was quoted as saying: “This dramatic 20-point movement in poll numbers can’t be explained as just the result of a few weeks of television ads. It’s because Matt Brown stands up for what he believes. That’s the kind of leadership people are hungry for — not the same-old politics as usual.”

Apparently, Burgess, too, figures that we are all brain-dead. Of course, Brown’s dramatic movement in the polls is solely a function of the TV ads. So what? There is nothing wrong with that. Why not just admit it? Why spin it in a way that looks like a lie?

Now comes another controversy — a bigger one that involves possible violations of the law. I’m expected to accept another feeble excuse, even though it sounds just as bogus as Burgess’ interpretation of his campaign’s poll results? Judge for yourselves, but the evidence is mounting about Matt Brown.

Finally, I can’t help but reflect on another political controversy that surfaced in the Ocean State this cycle.

Brown University political science faculty member Jennifer Lawless, who is challenging incumbent Rep. James Langevin in the Democratic primary, found herself in a controversy last year when the Brown Daily Herald reported that she had received $5,500 in contributions from students and their families. At the time, Lawless apparently had a role in evaluating the students’ work at Brown.

After the matter became public, Lawless agreed to return the contributions, though she said she didn’t believe that “giving or receiving these contributions was at all improper.” Not improper? Having taught political science at Bucknell University for three years, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which accepting money from students (and the families of students) with whom I had any academic relationship would have been even close to proper.

At a time when voters are concerned about honesty and integrity, and when Democrats clearly have the advantage nationally on matters of ethics, Democratic candidates ought to make an extra effort to be squeaky-clean. Someone should relay that to Rhode Island and to Democratic state parties around the country.