Last week, he appeared before a dozen or so seniors at the Taunton Plaza high-rise in East Providence in a blue shirt and red tie. His speech — touching on his law enforcement career and quoting Scott Brown on the need for more bi-partisanship — was fine.
But it meandered a bit. It didn't seem tailored to an older audience. And while Doherty shook a few hands afterward, the conversations — if cordial — were clipped. Republican insiders say he is better one-on-one. And that was evident when I chatted with him after the speech, standing at the end of the ice cream station his volunteers had laid out for the assembled.
We got to chatting about his personal history and he told me a longer version of a story he'd told me once before — a story that's appeared a couple of times in the press.
When he was finishing high school, Doherty said, his father grew ill and closed his dental practice. After overhearing his parents talking about their financial straits, Doherty — who had a half-scholarship to play basketball at Bryant University — decided the bill was too much for his father to pay.
It was a tough decision. Basketball was his life, Doherty told me. But he made the jump to the cheaper Rhode Island College just before the start of the semester. And even that was a struggle. "I remember sitting there . . . one day counting quarters and dimes to see if I had enough money — there was a gas station right near RIC — just to get home," Doherty said.
It was a powerful story. But I could tell that when he wandered past its broad outlines and into the details — particularly about his father, whom he considers a singular influence — it made him uncomfortable. The broad-shouldered cop turned a little dewy-eyed, looked away.
And when I asked him if he would share the story — the longer, more emotive version — on the campaign trail, he demurred. "I'm not trying to make people feel bad for me," he said.
I couldn't help but think, here, about Brown, who has been very public about his brutal childhood — a drunken mother, violent stepfathers, a camp counselor who sexually abused him.
Brown wrote about that childhood in his best-selling memoir Against All Odds. And just a couple of weeks ago, The Boston Globe took its own, gently skeptical stab at the story with a front-page story headlined "A lost boy, seared by abuse, he somehow found his way."
Doherty's story, of course, is not nearly as dramatic. And his apparent struggle to tell it is, in a way, a reminder of his regular guy ethos: what says blue-collar, New England male like emotional reserve?
But silence, of course, is not an effective means of communication.
'IT'S NOT MY FIRST TIME THERE'
If Doherty isn't suited to Brown's confessional politics or back-slapping bonhomie, there is still plenty he might pluck from the senator's repertoire.
Brown, for instance, has made skillful overtures to Catholic voters — hoping to win over the kind of conservative Democrats a Republican must sway to have a shot in a deep blue state.
The best campaign ad in Brown's 2010 race had the candidate walking around South Boston, the capital of Irish America, asking for votes.