Edward Brooke: The first popularly elected black US senator, acclaimed for his support for fair housing policies

Housing was his passion and he co-sponsored the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which prohibited ethnic and religious discrimination

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In 1966 Edward Brooke became the first African-American popularly elected to the US Senate. He went on to influence anti-poverty legislation before his career unravelled over allegations of financial impropriety. A liberal Massachusetts Republican, he was one of only two African-Americans to serve in the Senate in the 20th century and the first since Reconstruction, when state legislatures appointed senators. Six have served in the Senate since he left office in 1979, including Barack Obama

He grew up in a racially divided Washington, and after distinguished service in the US Army during the Second World War he forged a legal and political career in Massachusetts, becoming the state's hard-driving attorney general before winning election to the Senate. He was one of the state's most popular politicians, known for his independence from civil rights leaders and from conservative members of his party. He was charismatic and vigorous in a way that reminded many voters of another Massachusetts political figure, John F Kennedy.

In the Senate Brooke served on the powerful Appropriations Committee and Banking Committee, which gave him influence over commerce, monetary and housing policy. He was a black, Protestant Republican representing a state that was more than 95 per cent white, overwhelmingly Catholic and two-thirds Democratic. "I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people," he said. "I intend to do my job as a senator from Massachusetts."

Because he represented an overwhelmingly white state, he found it expedient to play down race and instead pushed for civil rights legislation discreetly. He opposed two Richard Nixon nominees for the US Supreme Court over civil rights issues yet refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus, though he did speak at its annual convention. He voted in favour of bussing to desegregate schools, although many of his Boston constituents hated the policy.

As state attorney general he fought the NAACP's efforts to boycott Boston's public schools over segregation, ordering students to attend class because the law required it. It was an early instance of his independence; during the Watergate scandal he was the first Senate Republican to call for Nixon's resignation.

Housing was his passion. With the Democrat Senator Walter Mondale he sponsored the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited ethnic and religious discrimination. He hoped to influence civil rights through housing policy. "It's not purely a Negro problem," he said in 1967. "It's a social and economic problem – an American problem." An amendment he introduced to the 1969 Housing Act capped public-housing rent at 25 per cent of income, and he later introduced the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which allowed women to obtain credit independently of their husbands.

Brooke cultivated friendships with segregationist senators, including Strom Thurmond and John Stennis. "They invited me to join them and urged me to use the [Senate] pool as often as I could," he wrote in his 2006 memoir Bridging the Divide: My Life. He was considered a potential presidential or vice-presidential contender but his career nosedived after he filed for divorce in 1976. He and his wife, Remigia Ferrari-Scacco, had been separated more than a decade, but she contested the divorce.

His deposition revealed that he had incorrectly reported to the Senate a loan from a friend and that he had helped his mother-in-law conceal money to help her qualify for Medicaid assistance for nursing-home care. He used some of the money to buy a Watergate condominium. He said his deposition disclosure was a mistake, based on misunderstandings of his own finances. A Senate ethics investigation followed and he was charged with welfare fraud.

He lost the senate election in 1978 to Paul Tsongas, although the charges were later dropped because the district attorney said the mis-statements had no outcome on the divorce. The Senate ethics panel in 1979 said the offences were not serious enough to warrant punishment, and because he was no longer in the Senate, the committee's role was moot.

The youngest of three children, he was born in 1919 in Washington; his father was a Veterans Administration lawyer. At Howard University he became president of the chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the US's oldest black collegiate fraternity. He pursued pre-medical studies then switched to sociology, graduating in 1941. During the Second World War he served in the all-black 366th Infantry Regiment in Italy and was awarded the Bronze Star for leading a daylight attack on an artillery bunker. After the war, still in Italy, he met Ferrari-Scacco, the daughter of a paper merchant. They married in 1947.

After the war he moved to Boston after Army friends told him it was friendlier towards blacks than Washington. He entered Boston University Law School on the GI Bill and edited the university's law review. Graduating, he opened a law firm in Roxbury, a burgeoning black community in Boston.

Friends prodded him to run for the state House of Representatives in 1950. He ran in both Republican and Democratic primaries, a strategy known as cross-filing that was then legal. He received the Republican nomination but lost the election. He ran again in 1952, but attacks on his interracial marriage were so brutal that he renounced politics to focus on law.

In 1960 he ran for Massachusetts secretary of state. He lost the election but was appointed to the Boston Finance Commission, a watchdog group, where he earned a reputation for rooting out corruption. In 1962 he was elected state attorney general, combining moderate politics with adroit campaigning and becoming the first African-American to hold that post in any state. He served two terms, vigorously prosecuting corrupt politicians and organised crime.

After his Senate defeat he became chairman of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and practised law, later sitting on several company boards. In 2002 he was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. In 2008 the journalist Barbara Walters acknowledged a long-running affair with him during his first marriage. In 2009 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Edward William Brooke, politician: born Washington 26 October 1919; married 1947 Remigia Ferrari-Scacco (marriage dissolved; two daughters), secondly Anne Fleming (one son, one stepdaughter); died Coral Gables, Florida 3 January 2015.

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