Newton Mayor Setti Warren talks about his candidacy for U.S. Senate during a recent at-large Boston City Council debate. (Yawu Miller photo)
The youngish black man in the conservative gray suit, whose parents named him after an Egyptian Pharoah, stands with microphone in hand and jokes that he feels like “a warm-up act.”
But Newton Mayor Setti Warren clearly had a larger purpose as he pressed the flesh in the small, crowded room filled with active Democrats in the Back Bay — to introduce himself and his campaign to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. Warren made state history in 2009 by becoming the first black mayor elected in Massachusetts, along with Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua, who is Hispanic and black. After just 18 months in office, the 40-year-old mayor of Newton is trying to make a great leap to the Senate. He has joined a shapeless field of Democrats seeking the nomination to challenge Brown, the former state legislator who earned the seat vacated by the late Ted Kennedy.
So far, Warren appears to be the only black Democrat in the country running for the Senate, which has not had a black member since Senator Roland Burris, appointed to President Barack Obama’s seat, left office in January.
Warren draws inspiration and the model for his campaign from Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick.
“Certainly they’re people that have inspired me — particularly how they ran their campaigns,” Warren says in an interview. “Their service is a model of how to really reach people at the grassroots level.”
His campaign theme, not yet reduced to a slogan, is similar too. It conveys a sense of commonwealth, with everyone having a shared responsibility for those in need and the greater good.
“I believe that we have a shared sense of responsibility. We can actually lift our fellow citizens in need,” he tells the gathering in the First Church of Boston, where the Ward 5 Democratic Committee held the council candidates forum last week.
Somewhat surprisingly, Warren is running on his experience in government. Before being elected Newton’s mayor, he served on the White House staff and directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New England, both during the Clinton administration.
Right after 9/11, he joined the Navy Reserve and spent a year in Iraq as an enlisted intelligence specialist. He worked as an aide handling small business issues for Sen. John F. Kerry until launching the mayoral campaign.
Altogether, Warren spent almost a decade working for the federal government. “I think it gives me the exact skill set we need in the United States Senate,” he says.
The forming Democratic field includes two candidates who have run statewide before. Alan Khazei lost in the Democratic primary for the same Senate seat in 2009, and Bob Massie was defeated as the nominee for lieutenant governor in 1994.
An independent poll taken in April showed Brown, who remains popular despite some wavering and waffling on major legislation, leading even more prominent Democratic elected officials in theoretical matchups, including Patrick. Brown led Warren, a month before he officially entered the race in May, 52 percent to 9 percent.
Warren knows he is not well-known around the state.
“It’s one of the reasons why I got into this race so early because I understood I needed time to introduce myself to people across the state and that’s what I’m trying to do, to really get out there and speak to people and introduce myself. And build really a grassroots statewide organization to put us in a position to win,” he explains.
At this early stage, David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., projects Warren as a very long shot.
“I would be very surprised that this guy would get the nomination,” Bositis says. “First of all, I don’t expect a mayor because, especially in Massachusetts, mayors don’t usually end up winning senatorial nominations.”
Warren winning the Democratic nomination and defeating Brown would be a political feat comparable to what Patrick, who had never run for elected office before, did to capture the state’s governorship in 2006.
The mayor has some political strengths, including his recent connection to Kerry. The Senate candidate’s late father Joseph D. Warren was a respected political insider in the state going back to the governorship and presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis in the 1980s.
Warren also displayed his skills as a campaigner in his 20-minute talk in the Back Bay. He has high energy, an easy smile and a ready laugh. His campaign remarks flowed and indicated a familiarity with the major issues facing the state and country.
In 2006, Patrick scored with Massachusetts voters by telling his life story, an improbable rise from a slum on the South Side of Chicago to Milton Academy and then to Harvard University and Harvard Law School.
Warren starts his story with his father. The candidate uses the account to reflect his view of governments’ and citizens’ roles in helping the less fortunate.
“My dad was born in Harlem in what was stated the worst neighborhood in America by CBS News. Just the drugs, gangs and violence,” Warren says. “He got out of that life because of something called the Police Athletic League. A city-sponsored organization — government program — literally saved his life.
“[He] went on and joined the Air Force. Served in Korea, came home. Met my mom when my parents got to college. Put their lives on the line for the Civil Rights Movement, marched to desegregate lunch counters and movie theaters all over this country. And then they found Newton, and they purchased a home, where I live and my wife and my two kids, with GI Bill benefits. Government program, folks.
“My father understood the enormous opportunities he was given in life. He passed away a little bit over a year ago. But he spent his career paying that back, by giving other kids opportunities to do the things he did, by educating them. He instilled in me and my sisters a real sense of dedication to public service and shared responsibility to my community and to others.”
Warren echoed a theme that has worked for Patrick. But the governor did not have to defeat an incumbent to win office.