BOSTON — State Sen. William Brownsberger, picking through a kale salad at a Kendall Square cafe last week, searched for the right way to describe his politics.
“Iconoclast is not the label I’m interested in,” he said. “The label is someone who is forthright, does his homework and goes where it leads.”
Brownsberger is one of five Democrats vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, who won a promotion to the U.S. Senate in a special election last month.
And the success of his campaign may hinge on whether he can draw the distinction he made over lunch — casting himself as a principled, data-driven problem solver rather than a mere contrarian.
He has a couple of big breaks with liberal orthodoxy to explain, after all.
In the WBUR interview, he defended the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which helped clear the way for unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns, on free speech grounds.
And he said he would not favor any congressional intervention to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast, arguing that the project is little more than a footnote in the fight against climate change.
The state senator is aware that his positions on those two issues could sink him in the solidly Democratic 5th Congressional District, which bends through the suburbs north and west of Boston.
But he’s betting that a tell-it-like-it-is approach can distinguish him in a crowded field. Indeed, he seems to be staking his campaign on the notion.
“I think the interesting question,” he said, “is whether [voters will] appreciate the frankness I have to offer — or whether people aren’t ready to hear what I have to say.”
Brownsberger, who served in the Massachusetts House for five years before winning election to the state Senate last year, is a liberal legislator. But he’s been unafraid to cross ideological boundaries now and again — sometimes in the space of a few weeks.
In September 2011, a panel appointed by the conservative Pioneer Institute gave him an award for a plan to streamline the state’s pension system.
Two months later, he was one of a handful of representatives to vote against the first iteration of a popular “three strikes” criminal sentencing bill that would eventually become law.
“I would describe Will as annoyingly principled,” said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, who has donated to Brownsberger in the past but is not taking sides in the election. “If he went to Washington, he would be one of the most progressive Congressmen, but he would from time to time take these [unconventional] positions that are thought out as best he can and true to his values.”
Brownsberger’s atypical positions have already created the first kerfuffle of the campaign.
Democratic rival Peter Koutoujian, the Middlesex sheriff, pounced with a statement arguing that Brownsberger’s “support for the Citizens United decision should be troubling to anyone who is fed up with the tidal wave of special interest money that this Supreme Court ruling has unleashed.”
The other three Democrats in the race — state Sens. Katherine Clark and Karen Spilka, who voted for the resolution Brownsberger opposed, and state Rep. Carl Sciortino, who backed a similar measure in the House — all tell WBUR they favor a repeal of the decision.
Brownsberger argues that the Citizens United decision is in keeping with the country’s free speech tradition.
He says he doesn’t like the idea of third parties swamping elections with big expenditures — he’s endorsed a “People’s Pledge” among the candidates, designed to discourage just that sort of spending.
But corporations have the First Amendment right to play in elections, he says. And in the end, he argues, the public has a responsibility to sort through the advertising and arrive at the right decision.
“The 99 percent,” he said, “have 99 percent of the vote.”
Brownsberger maintains that direct contributions to candidates are a more corrupting influence than outside spending. And that, he says, is why he doesn’t accept donations from lobbyists or political action committees. Last week, he challenged his opponents to join him in swearing off those donations as part of an enhanced “People’s Pledge.”
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, says selling a nuanced approach to campaign finance reform will be difficult.
“Those two words together — Citizens United — are visceral,” he said. “People have a very powerful response them. And political campaigns are not public policy seminars.”
But in a well-educated district, he says, the thoughtful brand Brownsberger is offering could sell better than it would elsewhere.
Central to his success, Ubertaccio says, will be communicating authenticity.
He may face some challenges, there, when it comes to campaign finance. Until last year, Brownsberger made an exception to his ban on lobbyists’ donations — accepting contributions from those who were also constituents.
But when it comes to environmental policy, he has a more straightforward story to tell. He frequently rides his bicycle to work. And his house is one of the most energy efficient in New England.
Over lunch in Kendall Square, the state senator said he eats a semi-vegetarian diet and limits his air travel. He also spoke of his role in pushing through the Global Warming Solutions Act, the state’s framework for reducing its carbon footprint.
That could give him some room to argue that Keystone is, ultimately, a minor concern.
The pipeline, Brownsberger acknowledged, would allow for the extraction of more Canadian oil. But “the truth is what causes climate change is not taking oil out of the ground, it’s burning it,” he said.
“The problem is us,” he said. “The problem is not the oil industry.”
If Congress wants to get serious, he suggested, it should impose a carbon tax designed to reduce consumption of oil.
Brownsberger, if all alone on Citizens United, is not quite so isolated on the Keystone pipeline.
That may have something to do with the fact that organized labor, viewed as an important constituency in the race, sees jobs in the construction of the pipeline.
Eric Hyers, the campaign manager for Spilka, emphasized in a statement that her “number one priority is creating jobs” before adding that “she is concerned about the environmental impact of this project and will continue to study it with the rest of the delegation.”
Clark said she understands labor’s perspective, but is opposed to the pipeline on environmental grounds. “I think it’s a matter of priorities,” she said.
“The Keystone pipeline is simply bad for the environment while doing nothing to decrease the US dependence on foreign oil,” said Koutoujian, in a statement.
Sciortino’s campaign said he is opposed to the pipeline. And the candidate, who is attempting to position himself as the true liberal in the race, broke sharply from Brownsberger on Keystone and Citizens United.
“These issues show a clear difference between us,” said Sciortino, “and the difference between someone who calls themselves a progressive at election time and a progressive leader who knows what it takes to protect the environment and keep corporate money out of campaigns.”
It’s the sort of stark contrast Brownsberger will have to avoid, analysts say, if he’s to succeed in the congressional race.
The state senator, though, has always believed he could communicate nuance.
“Will is a unique individual in politics because he has this Mr. Smith goes to Washington quality about him,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute. “He actually thinks that you can reason with people, within a certain context of what’s practical…and over time win them over.”
With the Democratic primary expected to take place some time in October, he’s got about three months to make his case.