Sunday, March 28, 2010

Me and Scott Brown's Mom: How I Took Down a Fence, Sparked the Tea Party Movement, and Almost Killed Health Care Reform

In the winter of 2003 my wife Christine and I purchased our home from the Brown family. At that time George Bush was President, health care reform was a distant dream, and Scott Brown toiled in obscurity. On that day, as we signed those papers, we had no way of knowing what would transpire in days ahead. We had no way of knowing how our fate would intertwine with that of the Brown family. We could not know how our rash decisions in the years to come might endanger the health of this great nation. Now we know. Only now, can this story be told.

That fateful winter the Brown family was divesting their holdings in Portsmouth following the untimely death of Scott Brown's Grandfather. Their lands were substantial. Standing in what is now our yard, members of the Brown family could look out in any direction and rightly say that everything they laid their eyes upon belonged to them. The houses are in there pretty tight. You can't really see very far. Nonetheless, such a sight must have instilled in the Browns a sense of majesty and pride. Unless they were looking through the window at the pile of black trash bags and the random metal step ladder the tenants kept in the dining room. That was not so majestic.

This corner of Portsmouth was the Land of Brown. It has been thus for many a generation. The sale our home was held up due to a title dispute. Some great ancestor had been willed a portion of the land in the 1860's. The land hadn't been bought or sold since. The lawyers had to locate the papers lost during the Civil War before the sale could proceed.

Proceed it did. We moved into our first home and set about repainting, renovating, and making it our own. This was a time of transition for the Brown family as well. They sold most of the property in the area keeping only the duplex behind our our house as a rental unit. With the substantial income generated by the sale of these homes members of the Brown family would have the opportunity to follow their dreams. An ambitious Brown might have found the means to go into politics, become a nude model in a woman's magazine, or buy a truck.

Looking back now, I can see that the years that followed were, for us, a time of peace and stability. A contributing factor in the neighborhood tranquility was an lovingly constructed but decaying set of white picket fences that ran along each of the property lines, separating all the homes and duplexes. Those who know me best may not be surprised that I purchased a home with a white picket fence. They might also suspect that the painting and maintenance of such a fence is not a task I approach with a lot of energy or enthusiasm.

It was during the fateful spring of 2008 that we decided to take down the back fence. Many have questioned our motivation in this. But our reasons were simple. We had a fence on our property. And we didn't want it. The previous summer, the neighbors had all collaborated on a coordinated fence painting project. The Browns declined to participate claiming the fence was ours to maintain. Considering this and the property line, Christine asked me if we might take down the fence. We would have a more pleasant view from the back porch. Our children would have more space to frolic with their friends and neighbors. I said "Ummm. Sure." The die was cast. Saws and crowbars were deployed. The fence came down. 

For a time the decision to take down the fence seemed like the right one. The new view was an improvement and the neighborhood boys enjoyed multi-family nerf battles. But the good times would not last. Within two weeks Scott Brown's Mom discovered the section of fence had been removed. She was not amused.

Christine observed Scott Brown's Mom examining the space where the fence had been and went outside to confer. My wife was met with a flood accusation. Scott Brown's Grandfather had constructed that fence with his own hand. Why would we tear down a perfectly good fence? Like the Little Tailor confronting an angry giant with a piece of cheese, Christine tore off a chunk of fence remnant with her hand and presented it to Scott Brown's Mom. Scott Brown's Mom was not intimidated by this show of strength. Neither was she convinced of the fence's imperfection. She stormed off cursing our names. We knew she would return.

The men came the next day. They inserted thin metal posts in the ground and attached a 4 foot tall, bright orange, thin, plastic snow fence that ran the full length of the property line. The new fence was an abomination. It came be known as the Fuck You fence. It was a flimsy eyesore that mocked us with it's vastness, it's pointlessness and it's cheapness. It served no aesthetic or protective purpose other than to say "fuck you" to all who gazed upon it.

I placed a call to Scott Brown's Mom seeking to negotiate a settlement between our warring factions. Sadly, the call was not returned and the stand-off continued. For weeks we endured the tyranny of the orange snow fence. Then, one day, we looked out. The Fuck You fence was gone.

That same day, Scott Brown's Mom returned. Christine saw her exploring the fenceless void. Once again she went out in the spirit of inquiry and to extend a neighborly hand. Christine was subject to yet another verbal assault. This one was even more violent, sustained, and expletive laden than the last one. The orange snow fence had not been deliberately taken down by Scott Brown's Mom. It had been dismantled. This was vandalism. Sabotage.

Scott Brown's Mom found the orange fence rolled up on the ground. She tossed it into her car and departed in a storm of rage and recrimination. This would not be the end. This crime would not go unavenged. The police would be looking into this matter.

No doubt the fine officers of Portsmouth Police Department heard about the severed snow fence. They committed all the resources to the investigation that a crime of this severity warranted. And they must have conducted their inquires with great cunning and discretion as their presence went undetected by all.

Within the neighborhood, the case was the subject of intense speculation. Who would dare to perform this brazen deed? Who could have snuck out and struck down the dreaded fence in the dead of night? A thorough canvasing of the neighbors was conducted as well as a full forensic investigation. My son held up a thin strip of orange plastic before me. "Look Dad. This was cut. With scissors." The culprit was never identified.

The new fence was erected within the week. This fence would not be so small or flimsy. Nor would the new fences be constrained by the dimensions of the missing segment. Soon the house behind ours was wrapped end to end in a 9 foot stockade, creating the general impression of a frontier fort meant to repel Apache. But it wasn't quite as ugly as the Fuck You fence.

With the lines of demarcation so firmly established, tranquility returned to the neighborhood. We thought this would the last time we would have to concern ourselves with the Browns. But, of course it wasn't the end. It was just the beginning. 

During the winter of 2010 the nation was embroiled in a great debate about reforming the countries patchwork, expensive health care system. Contributing to that debate was a small but very vocal group of radical right-wing pseudo-revolutionaries that called themselves the Tea Party. At that time Scott Brown was a Massachusetts State Senator. Following the death of Ted Kennedy a special election was being held to determine who would fill the seat of the Lion of the Senate. Scott Brown aimed the win that seat. The Tea Party prepared to rally behind him.

At first glance, it is surprising that hard-line members of the Tea Party would make common cause with a moderate Republican like Scott Brown. The Tea Party was violently opposed to health care reform. Scott Brown has been an advocate and supporter of the Massachusetts health care reforms that had become the model for the national system. What could they possibly have in common?

That winter the Tea Party risked obsolescence. Without an electoral victory they would be forever branded an insignificant fringe movement. They were propped up by partisan media executives that hyped and magnified their every utterance. But their message was incoherent. Their numbers small. And they were seen as beholden to the paranoid ramblings of a crackpot television show host. If they could be seen as crucial to victory in Massachusetts it would catapult them to national prominence. More than anything, the Tea Party was enraged by what they saw as the systemic destruction of the barriers, carefully constructed by the Founding Fathers, between the rights of individuals and the powers of government. They turned to someone who was similarly enraged about the careful dismantling of barriers erected by fathers. They turned to Scott Brown. The Tea Party wanted victory. Scott Brown wanted revenge.

As a state senator Scott Brown's powers dissipated at the New Hampshire border. In the United States Senate he might hold the power to stop health care reform. From this mighty perch he would be able to strike our health, our pocketbook, and our ideals. His formidable will combined with the power of the Tea Party proved unstoppable. He won the election.

But would Scott Brown be too late to stop health care reform? In the weeks before the special election the reform bill had already passed the US Senate with an overwhelming majority. But Scott Brown was sure the Democratic majority would want to try and pass it through the Senate again. This time he would be waiting. With Scott Brown, the Republicans had a 41 seat super-minority. If they stood together they could not be overwhelmed. Heath care reform would be totally impossible. Because lots of people on television said so.

Panic ensued among Democrats and health care reform advocates. Suddenly the dreams of health care reform seemed to be unobtainable. The plan of Scott Brown and the Tea Party was working perfectly.

Just when it seemed that all hope was lost, a Democratic strategist discovered a little-known procedure called "reconciliation". This obscure parliamentary provision has only been used before by every single session of Congress to pass nearly every major piece of legislation in the past 30 years: including the Bush tax cuts, COBRA, and Medicare expansion. It was a bold  gambit but it might just work. They tried it. It worked. Health care reform became law. Scott Brown would not have his revenge.

Are we safe? Or is it just a matter of time before this feud changes form and the battle is joined anew? Even as I write this words, I cannot say what the future will hold. I don't know what fate awaits me, my family, or health care reform. Will we ever be able to extend a hand across the barriers that come between us? I fear there are some rifts that can never be repaired.

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