Ed Brooke: A politician of integrity

A leader not cut from partisan cloth

Some men define their times; others are defined by them. Ed Brooke was a political leader who helped define his times, both here in Massachusetts and on the larger national stage.

He was above all a man of principle. As a United States Senator, he was a traditional Massachusetts Republican who stood for progressive values. Those values included racial equality, but also integrity in public life. When Brooke parted company from his party’s president and openly sought Richard Nixon’s resignation, he was not grandstanding – he was simply following his moral compass.

Brooke entered politics in part because of what he described in his memoir, Bridging the Divide, as his “growing distaste for the political corruption” in Massachusetts. It was a time just following the Curley era, a time when many leaders were striving mightily to change the impression of Boston, and the Bay State, as chronically politically corrupt environments. John Hynes was doing this on a grand scale as mayor of Boston. Brooke looked to do the same from a statewide platform. Brooke recalled that “[d]ishonesty was practiced not just by the corrupt at heart; good people were led into bribery and pay-offs, told this was the right way to proceed. It was a shameful mess.”

Brooke was a man on a mission, but he did not run as a public scold or as someone with a holier-than-thou attitude. The man exuded charisma. He was young, good looking, and dynamic, fitting comfortably into the political times characterized by the charm of the Kennedys and JFK’s call for a “new generation of leaders.” He had what Boston Globe columnist George Frazier called “duende,” that certain something that separated ordinary mortals form extraordinary people.

He first made a mark with his service on the Boston Finance Commission and later an attorney general of Massachusetts, taking on the political underworld and ferreting out corruption in the administration of the Boston Common Underground Garage. He put together a strong and capable team led by Gael Mahoney, later a highly regarded partner at the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow. Mahoney (who I knew when I was a partner at the firm) was one of Boston’s most capable lawyers and he was also a man of great charm, personal rectitude, and grace – qualities that Ed Brooke shared, qualities that earned the fear of the political wise guys and the respect of the public.

Perhaps one of Brooke’s greatest moments came in 1966. He was running that year for the United States Senate against former Governor Endicott Peabody. Elliot Richardson was running for Brooke’s open seat as state attorney general. Richardson’s Democratic opponent was Frank Bellotti, the former lieutenant governor who had run unsuccessfully in 1964 for governor, losing what remains the closest election for governor in the state’s history.

Bellotti long suffered from false accusations and innuendo about his honesty. Whisper campaigns that attempted to tie Bellotti to the mob exposed a dark side of politics, one that used stereotypes to raise baseless questions about people simply because of their ethnic background. Bellotti was a formidable campaigner and strong candidate, and toward the end of the campaign Richardson accused Bellotti of “moral insensitivity” for allegedly improperly receiving compensation from an Ohio insurance company while he served as lieutenant governor. Richardson called on Brooke, who was still attorney general, to conduct a grand jury investigation. The charges were serious and became a media blockbuster in the final days of the heated campaign. Bellotti had little ability to fight back except to deny the charges.

Brooke had a choice to make: he could support his party’s nominee for attorney general by going forward with an investigation that would lend credence to Richardson’s claim, or he could take a step back and not enable the last-minute smear campaign. He chose the latter course.

Brooke recalled in his memoir: “[the] problem was that there was no clear evidence of abuse of the public trust. Elliot insisted that Bellotti had acted in an illegal fashion. I asked him to produce evidence, but he offered none. Since there was no plausible reason for Elliot to withhold such evidence, I had to conclude that he had none.” Facing the possible enmity of his party and its nominee for attorney general, Brooke did the right thing – he would not bring charges without evidence. A special commission was eventually convened to review Richardson’s charges, and Bellotti (who would later be elected for three terms as attorney general) was exonerated.

What Ed Brooke did in that instance was demonstrate that he was not cut from a partisan political cloth. Rather, he took his job and his public role seriously, and attempted to conduct his public affairs in a way that was above-board and apolitical. It is a story that may not be well remembered, but it remains for me an example of political courage and rectitude that ought to be celebrated.

Meet the Author

The cycles of life are often unfathomable. One of the state’s great leaders has passed, a traditional Massachusetts Republican who led on both the state and national stages. This week another traditional Massachusetts Republican takes office as governor, offering a bipartisan approach to leadership that appears to follow in Ed Brooke’s large footsteps. We can tip our hat this week to each man, for different reasons, but with the same hope and faith that Massachusetts will thrive with leadership that looks beyond labels and seeks to appeal to the better angels of our nature.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.