Repeating history

Looking at this year’s race for junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, we can’t help but recall the 1992 race in the Second Berkshire District of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

In 1992, during our senior and junior years at the College, we coordinated campus re-election efforts for a freshman state representative named Shaun Kelly. Kelly was a moderate Republican out of Boston College with working-class roots in Dalton, Mass., then the southernmost end of a legislative district stretching up to Williamstown.

Challenging Kelly was Judy Grinnell, a Williamstown community organizer, property owner and Smith graduate married to prominent Williamstown attorney Bruce Grinnell ’62.

Apart from the fact that both Kelly and Grinnell had bands of enthusiastic supporters on campus, the two campaigns were as different as the candidates were. Whereas Kelly’s campaign consisted of a handful of his high school buddies, Grinnell hired a fulltime campaign manager (an Amherst grad, no less) and conducted a professional poll of the district – unheard of in a state legislative race at that time.

Kelly’s campaign pitch was simple: He was a capable citizen-legislator who represented the rural and small-town citizens of his district well. (Until his death in 1991, the liberal Republican Silvio Conte had represented the First U.S. Congressional District of Western Massachusetts.) Like most freshman legislators, Kelly did not have an impressive record of legislative achievement, but having done a solid job in his first term, he hoped to serve his constituents for another.

Grinnell’s campaign sought to tie Kelly to the very unpopular Bush-Quayle presidential ticket. The popularity of her staunchly liberal positions in her Williamstown base, the enthusiasm generated by Bill Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket and her own impressive organization gave her a strong advantage going into the final weeks of the race.

The morning of Election Day the Record ran an article in which we predicted that Kelly would nevertheless keep his seat (“Republican campaigners predict election results,” Nov. 3, 1992). Despite the valiant efforts of the Grinnell campaign to place him in the back seat of Lee Atwater’s (the Karl Rove of the day) car, we said, Kelly was “too moderate, too bipartisan and just too damn nice” for these charges to stick.

The parallels to the 2012 Senate race are difficult to miss: In Scott Brown, we have a Massachusetts Republican who is anything but an ideological Tea Partier, a decent public servant who has served his constituents well and an attractive and personable candidate who ought to be able to keep his seat even in a strongly Democratic state.

Like Grinnell, Elizabeth Warren is an ambitious candidate from the right schools in her first run for public office. Like Grinnell, Warren has an aggressive and well-funded campaign, fueled by the hopes (and resources) of a Democratic party that sees a seat ripe for takeover. And like Grinnell, Warren is a strident liberal so far to the left there’s a lot of daylight between herself and even a very moderate Republican.

(On the other hand, nobody ever accused Grinnell of scamming affirmative action programs … Warren’s in a league of her own there.)

Kelly held strong in Dalton and the rural towns between Pittsfield and Williamstown, while Grinnell held her Pittsfield precincts and Williamstown as well. But her margin in Williamstown was far smaller than what anyone would have projected when the race began and far smaller than what she needed, as students at the College as well as sympathetic faculty and staff decided a decent public servant had earned the right to keep his job. Kelly continued to serve his district until 2005.

We’ll be watching to see if Williams helps Brown do the same.

David Kensinger ’93 lives in Topeka, Kan. Jason Poling ’94 lives in Baltimore, Md.

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