BOSTON – Former U.S. Sen. Edward W. Brooke, a liberal Republican who became the first black in U.S. history to win popular election to the Senate, died Saturday. He was 95.Brooke died of natural causes at his Coral Gables, Florida, home, said Ralph Neas, a former Brooke aide.Brooke was surrounded by his family.Brooke was elected to the Senate in 1966, becoming the first black to sit in that branch from any state since Reconstruction and one of nine blacks who have ever served there – including Barack Obama.Brooke told The Associated Press he was “thankful to God” that he lived to see Obama’s election. And the president was on hand in October 2009 when Brooke was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress has to honor civilians.Obama hailed Brooke as “a man who’s spent his life breaking barriers and bridging divides across this country.”A Republican in a largely Democratic state, Brooke was one of Massachusetts’ most popular political figures during most of his 12 years in the Senate.Brooke earned his reputation as a Senate liberal in part by becoming the first Republican senator to publicly urge President Richard Nixon to resign.He told ABC News that Nixon had “lost the confidence of the country and I don’t know of anything he could do to turn it around.”He helped lead the forces in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and was a defender of school busing to achieve racial integration, a bitterly divisive issue in Boston. He also lent his name to the Brooke amendment to the federal housing act, passed in 1969, which limited to 25 percent the amount of income a family must pay for rent in public housing.However, late in his second term, Brooke divorced his wife of 31 years, Remigia, in a stormy proceeding that attracted national attention.Repercussions from the case spurred an investigation into his personal finances by the Senate Ethics Committee and a probe by the state welfare department and ultimately cost him the 1978 election. He was defeated by Democrat Rep. Paul E. Tsongas.In a Boston Globe interview in 2000, he recalled the pain of losing his bid for a third term.
“It was just a divorce case. It was never about my work in the Senate. There was never a charge that I committed a crime, or even nearly committed a crime,” Brooke said.
“I would certainly not be truthful if I didn’t say I was sorely hurt when the people of Massachusetts voted against me and didn’t look beyond the allegations and didn’t remember what I had tried to do for them.”
In 2008, Barbara Walters said she had an affair with the then-married Brooke in the 1970s, but it ended before he lost the 1978 election. She called him “exciting” and “brilliant.”
The first blacks served in the Senate in the 1870s, just after the Civil War, when senators were still selected by state legislatures rather than by popular election. Mississippi’s postwar legislators sent two blacks to the Senate. Hiram R. Revels served about 14 months in 1870-71, and Blanche K. Bruce served a full six-year term from 1875 to 81.
Not long before Obama was sworn in as president, Brooke told the AP that he had been frequently asked if he thought Obama could be elected.
“And I’d say I’m the last person to say it couldn’t happen. I’ve already shown that white voters are open to voting for black candidates, so it made sense to me,” he said.
“Though I was pleased, I’m not that surprised that he was able to pull it off. But I am thankful to God to live to see this happen.”
When Brooke received the congressional honor in Washington later in the year, he cited the issues facing Congress – health care, the economy and the wars overseas – and called on lawmakers to put their partisan differences aside.
“We’ve got to get together,” Brooke said, turning his eyes to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “We have no alternative. There’s nothing left. It’s time for politics to be put aside on the back burner.”
As Brooke sought the Senate seat in 1966, profiles in the national media reminded readers that he had won office handily in a state where blacks made up just 2 percent of the population – the state that had also given the nation its only Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
Brooke had parlayed his probes of local corruption into a successful run for state attorney general in 1962 when he became the highest ranking black elected official in the nation.
Brooke said at the time that his election proved “people will elect a man on the basis of his programs.” But, he added, “I don’t presume that the election of one man will solve the racial problem.”
He won re-election as attorney general in 1964 even though Democrats dominated other races, commenting later: “I won by 797,510 votes. I’ll remember that figure as long as I live.”
Somewhat aloof from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, especially the militant wing, he said blacks had to win allies, not fight adversaries. But he also said of civil rights leaders: “Thank God we have them. But everyone has to do it in the best way he can.”
He had refused to endorse Sen. Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, commenting later, “You can’t say the Negro left the Republican Party; the Negro feels he was evicted from the Republican Party.”
“I want to be elected on my own ability. Only then do you have progress. … People should not use race as a basis for labeling me,” he told The Washington Post in early 1966.
He beat Democrat Endicott Peabody, a former governor who also supported civil rights, by a 3-to-2 margin despite predictions of a “white backlash” against him.
Commenting on Brooke’s election and other developments that day, Martin Luther King Jr. commented that “despite appeals to bigotry of an intensity and vulgarity never before witnessed in the North, millions of white voters remained unshaken in their commitment to decency.”