Our One Hundredth: Tornado Politics Reemerge…
Amidst the innumerable Western Mass name drops that Senator Scott Brown snuck into his local guy shtick during Wednesday’s debate in Springfield, only one was (hopefully) a once-in-a-life time event. The tornadoes of June 2011 made their Senate debut, albeit briefly in that debate. Their appearance was not a coincidence either. Timed to coincide with Brown’s laundry list of Western Mass icons was a Springfield-specific ad about last year’s devastating storms.
The storm took place more than three months before Elizabeth Warren joined the race and even before it was clear, to the public at least, that she was not going to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Brown, along with virtually every elected official, in the following days surveyed the damage that stretched from Westfiled though Springfield and to Brimfield.
By far, Springfield and Monson probably received the most significant damage as the storm plowed through the city’s urban core and the center of Monson. Three people also died, including one women sheltering her child in West Springfield. The impact upon the landscape touched people and, by extension their elected representatives up and down the ballot.
It presented a unique challenge to politicians who wanted to avoid the obvious cynicism of touting the disaster for political benefit, but also felt it was okay to note that they did their job. Domenic Sarno, arguably the only politician facing a contested election in 2011 in an affected community, walked this line well.
Although supporters of both Antonnette Pepe and Jose Tosado decried Sarno’s mentioning of the tornado during the campaign, he did not appear to overtly politicize the disaster generally. In debates, he would introduce the disaster, often to some dramatic effect, and it would become an item of debate. Tosado shied away from criticizing the mayor’s response, but Pepe did not. Either way, it became a subject of debate, however raw and often testy. Sarno himself declined comment on this story.
Other politicians, unwilling to identify themselves because of the sensitivity of the matter, also wished to abstain from any overt or cavalier uses of the tornado, including, in some cases photographs from the aftermath.
Brown’s ad goes a step further, politicizing the disaster overtly and on television. The ad does not credit Brown with any particular action directly, although it does show him interacting with victims. Brown describes how people came together after the storm and his “love” for the spirit of people in Western Mass. However, like many of his “Scott Brown from the Road” ads, it is devoid of any apparent substance, specifics or connection to the places he visits. Instead, the people of Springfield and its landscape become a prop, like the truck Brown only drives in the commercials. Brown usually travels by SUV to fundraisers and the like.
The ad drew a rebuke from G. Michael Dobbs, the editor of the Reminder a weekly newspaper published in East Longmeadow. Dobbs recalls a press event with Brown and Sarno, which WMassP&I attended, that included visits to the very block where Dobbs lives. His home did not sustain significant damage, but his car was totaled by the storm.
During the walk around the neighborhood, Sarno pointed out Dobbs‘s house to Brown, knowing Dobbs was nearby to report on Brown‘s visit. Dobbs did not say that Sarno introduced him to Brown as a reporter, although it would probably have been obvious. However, Dobbs does remember Brown ignoring Sarno’s introduction.
“He refused to talk to me,” Dobbs remembers noting that Brown just walked on. Dobbs added that he had wanted to talk to the senator about working with the insurance company.
Brown’s ambivalence to Dobbs did not appear unique. As WMassP&I reported at the time, Brown barely acknowledged residents in the neighborhood, including one man who praised him near Rifle Street.
Dobbs has been critical of both candidates in his coverage of the Senate race writing recently about a conservative law professor claims about Warren’s legal work and Brown’s staffers use of offensive tomahawk gestures at a rally in Boston.
Dobbs’ neighborhood was among the hardest hit by the tornado not only because of the damage, but because it is also heavily impoverished. The streetscape still bears the deep scars of the tornado with numerous vacant lots and condemned properties. It is markedly different from wealthier and better insured East Forest Park, also heavily damaged, which Brown in his ad ostensibly has visited with more vigor.
The tornado ad fit perfectly into Brown’s series of ads that could just as easily be promoting a Travel Channel special as a US Senate campaign. In general Brown has emphasized personality and a connection to Massachusetts. By contrast Warren has gone after Brown’s voting record and national issues, often describing such issues’ local impact.
However, the politicization of the tornadoes may evoke Mitt Romney’s mention, by name, of one of the victims of attack on the Benghazi consulate. The friends and family of Glen Doherty were not happy with Romney’s politicization of their slain loved one. Only after Doherty’s mother spoke out did Romney agree to refrain from using the reference.
Brown’s ad does not mention the dead in the ad, but politicizes the humanity of the disaster no less. Unlike other “from the road” ads, according to the Republican, this one is set for airplay in the Springfield market only.
Dobbs, speaking to WMassP&I shortly after Brown met the press after Wednesday’s debate at Symphony Hall, was visibly perturbed by the politicization of the disaster. “This is too big an issue to be reduced to a soundbite,” he said.