Keeping Up with the Browns

U.S. senator, ambassador to New Zealand, and dean of New England Law Boston—Scott Brown has been there and done that. So what do he and his family want next? The answer may surprise you.

scott brown gail huff brown

Photo by Webb Chappell

It was a sunny September day when I pulled up to an athletic field in New Hampshire and found the man I was searching for. He was directing the tail end of the day’s cross-country practice with a gaggle of sportswear-clad middle schoolers who were running up and down the field, laughing it up in a game of ultimate Frisbee. As I watched him make a few solid throws and catches, it was hard to tell who was having more fun: the kids or their coach.

This is not, to say the least, the context in which I am used to seeing former U.S. Senator Scott Brown, who on this day is wearing black shorts, red sneakers, and a slim-fitting biking T-shirt. Yet at the same time, he was still the Scott we all know and remember: tall, athletic, and ruggedly handsome with beach-tousled hair and chiseled features. He has a limp from a biking accident some 20 years ago that landed him in the hospital and resulted in a handful of surgeries, but it couldn’t keep him off his bike. To this day, he still cycles obsessively.

I’ve known Scott since around the time he had that crash, when I was a State House reporter for the Boston Herald and he was one of a handful of Republican state senators. He’d been elected after serving as Wrentham property assessor and selectman, and after three terms as a state representative. While a state senator, he snuck up on the Massachusetts political glitterati in 2010, mounted an underdog campaign for Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat, and defeated then-Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to become a U.S. senator.

It was one of the greatest political upsets in recent history. Overnight, Scott became Massachusetts’ most popular politician, with many predicting he would join the list of moderate, well-liked Republicans who’ve ended up in the governor’s office. Meanwhile, in Washington, he became a GOP star—enough so that he was parodied on Saturday Night Live and even mentioned by Donald Trump as a possible vice-presidential candidate.

Scott’s political glory days came crashing to a halt in 2012, though, when he lost a reelection bid to Elizabeth Warren. After that crushing defeat in the Bay State, there was only one place left to go: New Hampshire. So the Browns packed their bags and fully moved into their New Hampshire home in Rye. In the process, Scott decided to get serious about learning to play guitar, teaching himself with YouTube tutorials. In 2014, he lost another contentious political battle, this one an effort to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

As in cycling, however, crashing and burning was no excuse for Scott to quit his career in government. He remained a GOP force as an early mainstream backer of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, and a year later Trump tapped him to serve as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and the Independent State of Samoa.

When his four-year stint as a diplomat ended, Scott came home, said he was disgusted with politics, and began a new career as the president and dean of New England Law Boston in early 2021, settling into a life outside of government for the first time in more than two decades. It appeared to be the end of his political career…until a short eight months later, when he resigned from the job. In a letter he sent the school’s board after stepping down, he wrote that he would be “reengaging in the political arena in support of candidates and causes who share my vision of rebuilding the Republican Party…goals that were incompatible with my role as the leader of a non-partisan academic institution.”

The announcement unleashed a wave of speculation: What was next for Scott? Would he run for senator in New Hampshire again? Would he run for governor of the state? After watching his career for decades, I, too, was curious to know what he would be up to.

It turns out Scott’s next act isn’t a run for office. In fact, the next phase of his charmed career isn’t what anyone—much less Scott himself—ever expected.

As parents shuttled their kids away from cross-country practice, Scott hustled over to his car, drove back home to shower and change, and then headed back out again to attend a political fundraiser with his wife, Gail Huff Brown. For decades, this has pretty much been standard operating procedure for the couple. Usually, though, Scott is the guest of honor.

That evening, it was Gail who addressed the friends and donors gathered in the yard behind an attractive Portsmouth home where the well-manicured lawn ended at the river’s edge. As the last of the day’s sun reflected off the windows of buildings along the Portsmouth skyline, she told the small crowd assembled before her that she was seeking the Republican nomination in the race to unseat the incumbent Democratic U.S. Representative Chris Pappas. Emphasizing an “America first” agenda, she assured the fishermen among them that she wanted to cut back on red tape and regulation in their industry and vowed to address the mounting challenges faced by small-business owners across the country. While she spoke, Scott, in blue jeans and a T-shirt, stood off to the side, beaming at her.

This may have been the first time Scott was filling the role of political husband, but it certainly wasn’t the first time his wife usurped him in star power. When the couple met one night at the Paradise Rock Club, Scott had just returned from officer training camp and was studying for the bar; Gail was a model. In 1993, seven years after they married, Gail landed a job as a reporter at WCVB and became a familiar face in living rooms across the region while her husband worked his way up in local politics.

When the couple became parents, it was Scott whose schedule as a lawyer and local politician allowed him to take on most of the morning childcare duties. “When the kids were little, he was the support system at home while I was out working and fulfilling my dream of being a news reporter,” Gail explains. While she was running out of the house before dawn to report on breaking news, Scott was happily dressing their two daughters, packing their lunchboxes, and getting them off to school. Stanley Forman, a cameraman for WCVB since 1983 who worked with Gail for years, says she was one of the first reporters to respond to a big story, even those she had to hop out of bed at 4 a.m. to cover. “If it was happening around her, she was right on it,” he says.

The couple’s roles reversed in 2010 when Scott became a U.S. senator. Soon after he decamped to Washington, Gail signed off at WCVB and moved to DC to be with him. When the couple relocated to New Hampshire in 2013, Gail worked as a correspondent for NH1 News in Concord for a while, but the gig was short-lived. She soon became an ambassador’s wife, moving with Scott halfway around the world. “We have done role reversals throughout our marriage,” Gail tells me.

It took the birth of a granddaughter to prompt the next big shift in the Brown household. When baby Cecelia came along, Gail says, she began to wonder, What kind of country is she going to have? Scott, for his part, had been pondering his next political move after leaving his post at New England Law but steered mostly clear of the public eye. He says he didn’t think Gail was serious when she began hinting about a career in politics—until, that is, the withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer.

Scott came home from coaching one day in August to find his wife watching the coverage of the news. Turning to Scott, she told him that this was the last straw: She was running for office.

Gail gets impassioned when she talks about Afghanistan. “My experience overseas in New Zealand changed me, because most of my friends were women from Muslim countries and Asian countries,” she says. “When I see the women and the girls being pushed back into their houses, their cars being taken, being pushed out of school, I think, Who’s going to stand up for them? We have come so far here in America, but we still have a responsibility to be leaders for women in other countries.” Her goal is to be part of a sea change in Washington that will flip the House back to Republicans. “I just can’t sit on the sidelines and complain,” she tells me. “I have to try and do something.”

Of course, Gail can only do something if she wins—but the odds may be in her favor. Thomas Whalen, an author, political historian, and professor at Boston University, says Gail would be well suited to run in Massachusetts because of her media profile, but she is a “great unknown in New Hampshire. But this is going to be shaping up as a change election with the midterms, and that would work in her favor.”

When the wife of a former politician runs for office, there is often the assumption that she will be an extension of her husband’s term in office, or that her husband will be the power behind the throne. While Scott has pledged to put all of his political fundraising muscle behind Gail and support her at home, he is quick to say that she needs to step out on her own and define herself. “These are her values and her ideas,” he says. “I’m not running.” Scott, it turns out, has other plans for how to spend his time.

When I first walked up the wooden steps to the front door of Scott and Gail’s farmhouse-style home in Rye, Scott led me straight through the open kitchen and living room, past his wife and two members of her campaign staff, barely stopping to say hello. He had something else he was eager for me to see first: his rock ’n’ roll dojo.

Inside the room, situated at the back of the house, I noticed a few framed articles hanging on the wall, including a front-page piece from The Sun Chronicle of Attleboro, recounting his Senate win over Coakley. I mentioned the clipping, telling him I worked at that paper for two years in my twenties. He was hardly interested. Instead, he directed my attention to memorabilia from another momentous event in his life: signed photos of him playing guitar onstage with Cheap Trick.

Scott’s work on legislation in the U.S. Senate to protect songwriters and monetize their music earned him some serious street cred in the rock world—so much so that he befriended one of the bill’s supporters, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen. In 2013, soon after Scott started studying guitar, he found himself chumming around with Nielsen at the Hampton Beach Casino. “I was pretty shitfaced and told him, ‘Hey, Rick, if you need anyone to play guitar, I’m your guy,’” Scott recalls. Shortly after, the tour manager came over and asked Scott if he could really play and if he knew the songs. Scott assured them that he did, so Nielsen invited him up to jam on the band’s smash “Surrender.”

“It’s in the key of G,” Nielsen told him.

“I have no idea what that means, but if it’s the same as the Live at Budokan album, we are good,” Scott replied. He got on stage, played his heart out, and a budding star was born. He went on to perform at other concerts by ’80s hair-metal groups, including FireHouse and Warrant.

In New Zealand, Scott’s musical career picked up speed. When the couple moved into the ambassador’s estate, they chose not to decorate it with pricey art, as other ambassadors before them had done. Instead, they turned it into their own personal rock museum, complete with concert posters, gold records, signed guitars, and even a full drum kit given to Scott by Kiss drummer Eric Singer. The rock vibe, Scott predicted, would be a universal ice breaker among their new neighbors, setting a casual, friendly tone for visits with the many diverse personalities from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds who would come to see the American ambassador.

It worked like a charm—and not just diplomatically. As word of the rocker-ambassador spread, Scott received more invites to join bands on stage. In 2018, he jetted to Sydney to join Cheap Trick at the Enmore Theatre—the fifth and most recent time he has played with the band. “Sold-out show,” he told me with pride. “It was one of the highlights of my life.”

Next, Scott showed me a bass drumhead signed by the legendary drummer Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge, and a black guitar signed by the band, which he played with in 2019. On the wall were more signed guitars, photos, drumheads, drumsticks, posters, and other memorabilia from the likes of FireHouse, Bret Michaels of Poison, and Alice Cooper. A gold Vanilla Fudge record was embossed with a plaque that read “Presented to Ambassador Scott Brown.”

Scott pointed out pictures of himself onstage with Warrant, telling me he’s played with them twice. Then he broke out in song: She’s my cherry pie. “It’s exhilarating,” he told me, scanning the memorabilia from his music career. “This is what I grew up with. These are all the bands I grew up with.”

Now, after leaving his post at New England Law, Scott is spending even more time with the classic-rock cover band he formed, Scott Brown and the Diplomats, which includes accomplished session musicians, some of whom have played for years in his daughter Ayla’s touring band. The group practices weekly in the guitarplayer’s North Attleboro basement music room and performs at local bars and clubs and at private gigs around New England.

After seeing Scott connect with kids on the cross-country team and hearing him talk—and sing—about his musical escapades, it’s easy to imagine we won’t see him on the campaign trail again unless it’s as Gail’s husband. After all, he’s found more than enough activities to keep him busy.

Before I left, though, Scott had one more thing he wanted to show me: a wooden bench in the yard. The back of it is the metal tailgate from the famous forest-green GMC Canyon pickup truck that he put some 343,000 miles on and used as a symbol of his working-classroots during his 2010 race against Coakley. It’s still adorned with a “Scott Brown U.S. Senate” bumper sticker. Gail recently tracked down the vehicle at a junkyard in Concord, New Hampshire, salvaged the tailgate, and had the bench made for her husband. It sits in their yard as a monument to his historic win from a wife who was willing to pause her own career in order to support his.

As he stared wistfully at the tailgate, I began to wonder if he was remembering the thrill of being on the trail—not as a political spouse, but as a candidate. Before we parted ways, I blurted out the question that had been on my mind all day: Will you ever run for office again? In response, Scott smiled broadly and told me he is only 62. Then he admitted what everyone has long suspected: “I have another run in me,” he said, adding, “just not right now.”