Edward Brooke Served in a Different Era of Senate Politics

The former Massachusetts senator, who died Saturday, exemplified a brand of liberal Republican politics that doesn't exist today.

Former Massachusetts Senator Edward W. Brooke, III was the first African American to be elected by popular vote, and the first to be seated since Reconstruction.

(Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Edward Brooke, the former Massachusetts Republican lawmaker who died yesterday at the age of 95, served in the Senate in a political environment much different from today.

A member of the Senate from 1967 to 1979, Brooke was a part of the Republican Party's liberal wing, which was geographically concentrated in the northeastern states. At that time, Democrats still held sway in the conservative South. Those days have faded as the two major parties have undergone regional as well as ideological changes.  

Brooke racked up high marks for his Senate votes from left-of-center groups like Americans for Democratic Action and the League of Conservation Voters that would make him anathema to conservative activists. In 1976, near the end of his two terms, Brooke received a rating of 3 from the American Conservative Union—the same score as Ted Kennedy, the liberal Democratic icon and Brooke's home-state Senate colleague for a dozen years. It is doubtful that someone of Brooke's politics could win a Republican primary today.

Brooke's ideological allies in the Senate included moderate-to-liberal Republicans Jacob Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and Chuck Mathias of Maryland. They were part of a "Wednesday Club" of moderate Republicans who talked policy over weekly lunches and also voted as a bloc, Brooke wrote in a 2007 memoir, "Bridging the Divide."

"When I arrived in the Senate, the moderate, so-called Rockefeller Republicans held the balance of power," Brooke wrote. "The Democrats were in the majority, but their southern members usually opposed civil rights and other progressive legislation. Often only by forging alliances with Republicans could the Democrats pass their progressive agenda. I was entirely comfortable reaching across the Senate aisle to work with Democrats."

You don't see big bipartisan alliances like that much anymore, as party-line voting by senators and voters has increased and outside political groups demand more ideological loyalty. Case in 1972, Mathias in 1980 and Weicker in 1982 were the most recent Republicans to win Senate elections in their states. Brooke, who left the Senate in 1979 after losing to Democrat Paul Tsongas, was the last Republican senator from Massachusetts until 2010, when Scott Brown won a special election. Brown was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012. It's been more than two decades since a Massachusetts Republican served in the House.

Today, the parties are more homogeneous and elections are more nationalized. Conservatives align with the Republican Party and the liberals' home is the Democratic Party. There isn't much crossover: the least conservative Republican lawmaker in Congress is still probably to the right of the most conservative Democratic lawmaker. 

"The polarization of Congress; the decline of civility; and the rise of attack politics in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the early years of the new century are a blot on our political system and a disservice to the American people," Brooke wrote. "I do not see any signs of a return to civility, and I can only look back on my time in the Senate as a golden era that I pray will come again."

Brooke's death also calls attention to how few black senators have held a seat in the legislative body in the entirety of our nation's history. Just nine have served, five of whom were elected by the voters. Brooke in 1966 became the first black senator elected by popular vote. President Barack Obama, who was the third, said in a statement that Brooke "stood at the forefront of the battle for civil rights and economic fairness" and "sought to build consensus and understanding across partisan lines, always working towards practical solutions to our nation's challenges."

Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, are the only black senators serving today.

"My fervent expectation is that sooner rather than later, the United States Senate will more closely reflect the rich diversity of this great country," Brooke wrote.

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