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Scott Brown and the 99 percent

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US Sen. Scott Brown has jumped feet first into a controversy that complicates his Senate campaign.

Last week, the Obama administration back-peddled on a mandate to require institutions and universities with religious affiliations to provide birth control coverage.  President Obama pretty much solved his political problems by allowing those organizations to avoid the mandate as long as the insurers provide contraceptive coverage.  A New York Times/CBS News poll shows that 61 percent of Americans support a mandate that would require religious employers to provide contraception coverage.

Brown, by contrast, ventured into more dangerous territory. “One of our most cherished liberties is freedom of religion,” he said in a recent statement. “Like Ted Kennedy before me, I support a conscience exemption for religious organizations in health care.”

Brown could have left it there. Instead, he signed on to a proposal sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, that would allow businesses and health insurers to opt out of providing contraception or any other care or services that conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs. Brown and other 35 Republican senators support the measure. Only one Democrat backs it.

The plan is cloaked in appeals to religious liberty. But the vast majority of women won’t see it that way: access to birth control is a settled issue. Nationally, 99 percent of American women use birth control; 98 percent of Catholic women do.

Until now, Brown managed to avoid being linked to the most conservative of the national Republican big ticket items, but getting out in front of of a debate over birth control is highly unlikely to be a winning strategy in Massachusetts. Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren blasted Brown’s position and claimed that the plan would pave the way for other exclusions. She told The Washington Post, “It opens the door to outright discrimination. It would let insurance companies and corporations cut off pregnant women, overweight guys, older Americans, or anyone — because some executive claims it’s part of his moral code. Maybe that wouldn’t happen, but I don’t want to take the chance.”

Harvard School of Public Health’s John McDonough, the former director of Health Care for All who played a key role in designing the state’s landmark heath care law, also criticized the plan and breaks down what it would mean for Massachusetts residents here.

Why would Brown bring this culture war skirmish to Massachusetts, especially with polls showing that the race is already very close? The controversy has only prompted his critics to take a closer look at his State House voting record.  In 2002, he voted to mandate that insurers provide contraceptive coverage for women, but also supported a failed amendment that would have excluded church-affiliated organizations.

As usual, money changes everything. Brown has nearly double the cash in his war chest that Warren has, according to a Boston Globe analysis. But Warren is drawing more support from beyond the Bay State than Brown has to date. What better way for Brown to gin up out-of-state dollars, particularly from potential donors who are already skeptical about his conservative bona fides on issues like Planned Parenthood funding, than to take up the religious liberty standard?

Brown has gotten as far as he has by charting a careful course through the minefield that is national Republican party politics. But this move would appear to be a major blunder. Unless the junior senator plans to abandon Mitt Romney and start auditioning for a spot in a Rick Santorum cabinet, it’s unclear how using contraception to stake out a position on religious liberty helps his chances in November. 

                                                                                                                                                    --GABRIELLE GURLEY


BEACON HILL

New regulations being crafted by state housing officials would cap the salaries of housing authority directors at $160,000 and bar them from working full- and part-time jobs, the Lowell Sun reports. In Methuen, public housing residents come to the defense of the housing authority director, who earns a total of $184,057 working as the full-time director in Methuen and part-time director in Ayer, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins says he won’t take political donations from employees following a WBZ-TV report that 300 employees have given a total of $400,000 since 2005, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

CASINOS

Taunton officials confirm the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and their consultant, former US Rep. William Delahunt, have been scouting land near the Silver City Galleria and an industrial park as possible sites for a new casino.

Gary Loveman, the Caesars Entertainment chief who is pushing a casino at Suffolk Downs, commutes from Wellesley to Las Vegas, WBUR reports.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Lowell City Council votes for a crackdown on liquor licensees, the Lowell Sun reports.

Cohasset selectmen are trying to remove the town manager without cause just six months into his tenure and promise to air the reasons at tonight’s meeting.

Attleboro narrowly approves a measure allowing the city to borrow money to pay off its redevelopment authority’s debts.

Fitchburg cracks down on delinquent taxpayers.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Governing examines politicians who get elected as Democrats but govern as Republicans.

ELECTION 2012

President Obama’s improving chances for reelection based on beating up congressional Republicans and really rich people has consequently made a GOP takeover of the Senate harder. A new New York Times/CBS survey finds Obama’s poll numbers rebounding with an improving economy; the poll also finds national support for a national mandate on birth control coverage in health insurance, and for legal recognition same-sex unions.

Rick Santorum is forcing Mitt Romney to the right, not somewhere he wanted to go, writes the Globe’s Michael Levenson. The Times argues that Santorum is simultaneously squeezing Romney from the left and the right. Romney returns to Detroit to talk auto bailouts. David Bernstein ponders Romney’s conundrum: Faced with right-wing voters who think he’s only telling them what they want to hear, all he can do is say more of what they want to hear.

Sean Bielat is up in arms over the AFL-CIO’s recent endorsement of Joe Kennedy III, who’s still not officially a candidate for Congress. It’s almost as if the union isn’t taking Herb Robinson seriously.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Bristol County commissioners voted to join a planned suit by Plymouth and Norfolk counties against the Mortgage Electronic Registration Service, which registers two-thirds of the nation’s mortgages, for skirting laws in registering who owns mortgages when they changes hands.

New England Biolabs of Ipswich is one of 44 companies seeking tax credits that can be converted into cash from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the Salem News reports.

If you think the housing market is bad, consider what it’s like in the central Mass. town of Athol, where houses are going for the cost of a Camry.

EDUCATION

Hundreds of early education providers rallied at the State House yesterday to push lawmakers to increase salaries of early education teachers who work in low-income areas.

Boston will try, yet again, to refashion its school assignment process in a way that promotes neighborhood schools.

The Cape Cod Times casts a wary eye on Gov. Deval Patrick’s community college centralization plan.

The MetroWest Daily News applauds the Bay State’s exit from No Child Left Behind.

HEALTH CARE

A WBUR-MassINC poll indicates 62 percent of the state’s residents support the Massachusetts health care law. Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group discusses the Brown-Warren race on Radio Boston.

An editorial in the Brockton Enterprise slams the City Council for buckling to the Brockton unions in rejecting a move to a cheaper health care plan that would have saved the cash-strapped city $4.9 million.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a growing movement among physicians to reject patients who reject vaccines.

Wendy Kaminer is fine with Catholic bishops debating the morality of birth control, so long as they “keep specious claims about religious freedom out of it.”

TRANSPORTATION

A Republican proposal in Congress would remove the money from the federal gas tax that goes to public transportation, including the MBTA, and replace it with a $40 billion, five-year grant but no explanation on how to pay for it. Meanwhile, it’s Framingham’s turn to give MBTA officials an earful about service cuts and fare hikes.

Sen. Jim DeMint argues for cutting the federal gas tax and pushing states to pay for infrastructure projects, at non-union wages, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

It’s not just ski resorts and snow plow drivers who are not pleased with the paucity of snow this winter.

Anti-wind power advocates led by Green Berkshires’ Eleanor Tillinghast descend on a State House hearing to critique the state’s recent report on the health effects of wind turbines. Tillinghast, who was profiled in a 2010 CommonWealth story, compares state officials downplaying the turbines’ effects on people to the original lukewarm response of federal officials to the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.

Dolphin rescue efforts on Cape Cod may fall victim to lack of funding.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

More than a dozen Facebook pictures of Massachusetts high school students end up on a porn website, NECN reports. The FBI is investigating.

Nine black Boston police officers are suing the department, claiming its promotional exam is discriminatory.

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