Features » November 21, 2005
Who is Sherrod Brown?
An unabashed progressive takes aim at a Senate seat in Ohio
There are two small but revealing items affixed to Ohio’s 13th District congressman Sherrod Brown. On his lapel, he wears not an American flag, but a pin of a yellow bird in a cage. On a Thursday morning in October, as we leave his office to walk to the Capitol for a committee meeting, Brown hands me a bookmark-sized slip of paper that explains: “The canary represents the struggle for economic and social justice.” It recounts how miners once took canaries into the mines so that when the birds died, they knew the air was too toxic to breathe. “Miners were forced to provide for their own protection. No mine safety laws. No trade unions able to help. No real support from their government. … It has been a 100-year battle between the privileged and the rest of us.”
Clipped to Brown’s belt is a small blue pedometer, one of a pair worn by him and his wife Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He walks, or perhaps more accurately, stalks all over Capitol Hill, leading with his chest pitched forward just slightly in a gait that is halfway between a bounce and a prowl. “He never takes the elevator,” his spokesperson Joanna Kuebler tells me as we wait for Brown to emerge from a meeting with a group of scientists advocating for nuclear disarmament. When it’s time for a vote on the Hill, he eschews the underground subway that whisks members from their office buildings to the Capitol.
Handsome, with a slightly weathered face, curly hair and a deep, warm voice, Brown is universally described as “down to earth.” In person he’s as unposed as any politician I’ve ever met. “Those are the columns my wife wrote that won the Pulitzer,” he says, dumping a pile of papers into the lap of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, who’s waiting for the underground shuttle as we trot past. “He’s a Republican,” Brown whispers as we walk away, “but I like him. How could I not? He represents Cooperstown.”
Brown, a huge baseball fan and an avid athlete, will to need to marshal every last bit of his considerable energy in the next year as he seeks to be become the first Democratic senator from the state of Ohio since John Glenn retired in 1998. He faces a primary challenge from Iraq war veteran and Internet darling Paul Hackett; if he wins the primary, he’ll face Republican incumbent Mike DeWine, a senator with some of the lowest approval ratings in the country, but a seat that the Republicans will zealously defend. With Ohio still the nation’s premier political battlefield, the race will be one of next year’s most-watched campaigns: If a bedrock economic populist like Brown can win in a red state, it will explode the post-Clinton conventional wisdom that anything resembling “class warfare” is a non-starter for the Democrats.
But Brown’s decision to enter the race after first saying he wouldn’t prompted paroxysms of recrimination and anger in the blogosphere. “Brown’s indecision created an ugly and totally unnecessary scene,” wrote blogger Lindsay Beyerstein, one of Hackett’s most prominent online supporters. “If he’d declared in the first place, Hackett probably wouldn’t have challenged him for the nomination. Now, there’s probably going to be a nasty little primary and lasting bad blood amongst Ohio Democrats. These are very real costs that Brown chose to inflict on his party.”
Hackett, whom many bloggers treat like the local boy made good, and who was recently the subject of a glowing profile in Mother Jones titled “The Democrat Who Fought,” provides the blogosphere an opportunity to prove, unequivocally, its own influence. “The reason to support Hackett over Brown is simple,” wrote Beyerstein, “if Hackett wins (and he can win), the progressive blogosphere makes history.”
Blog opinion on the race is by no means uniform. Many support Brown, but it’s a strange feature of the blogosphere that a newcomer to politics like Hackett is widely considered a known quantity, while Brown, who’s spent his entire adult life in public office, is a mystery. One skeptical blogger on the Web site Swing State Project summed up his reservations with a post titled: “Who is Sherrod Brown?”
Brown lacks the national profile of colleagues like Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders, but for the duration of his six-and-a-half terms in office, he has been one of Congress’s most stalwart progressives. “I’ve known him for many years,” says Sanders. “What’s very clear is that Sherrod Brown knows which side of the struggle he is on.” And when Brown’s friend John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, says, “Sherrod Brown is one of us,” he means it in the literal, familial sense. Brown’s older daughter Emily is a union organizer for SEIU. When I met Brown, Emily had just lost a union election in a New Jersey nursing home. “She was crushed,” Brown told me. “I mean, it’s horrible. Have you ever sat and watched an election? They count the votes publicly and you can tell within 15 votes what’s going to happen, and the workers are scared. … It’s pretty depressing for the organizer but it’s more depressing for the workers.”
If Brown had announced a decision to enter the U.S. Senate race over the summer when he was being recruited by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, he likely wouldn’t be facing a primary challenger and the “netroots,” as progressive bloggers have taken to calling themselves, would be four-square behind him. But Brown demurred. His first marriage had ended in divorce, and he was aware of the strain that a campaign can place on a relationship, particularly a new one. After spending most of his first year of marriage in D.C. organizing against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), he and Schultz had not even moved in together. Brown was preparing for Emily’s wedding and sending Schultz’s daughter Caitlin off to college. And there were also questions about how a Senate candidacy would affect Schultz’s job at the Plain Dealer.
Some Democrats, frustrated with Brown’s dithering, are convinced that he was reluctant simply because he wasn’t sure he could win. “I think he’s cautious,” says one Democratic Hill staffer who knows Ohio politics well and supports Brown. “I think that’s the real reason. He values the seat he has and he’s only willing to give it up if he’s got a really good shot at winning.”
On August 17, Brown posted a letter on his Web site GrowOhio.org, announcing he wouldn’t run for Senate, and since 17th District Congressman Tim Ryan had also declined to run, it looked like the Democrats might have trouble finding a candidate. That’s when Hackett stepped in. The 43-year-old attorney gained national attention this summer when he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq to his suburban Cincinnati home and ran in a special election to replace the 2nd District’s Congressman, Rob Portman, who’d been appointed United States Trade Representative.
At first Hackett, who’d never held an office higher than city council in a small suburb, escaped the attention of the national media and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But his campaign was followed avidly by blogs, and Democracy for America, which together raised more than $500,000 and pushed him into the national spotlight. Hackett’s credibility to talk about the mistakes in Iraq, coupled with his tough-talking demeanor (he called Bush a “son of a bitch” and Rush Limbaugh a “fatass drug addict”) made the netroots swoon. It was like Howard Dean in uniform. Hackett ultimately lost the August 2 election in an overwhelmingly Republican district by just four points. A star, of sorts, was born.
In mid-September, Hackett started to lay the groundwork for a Senate run and paid Brown a call at his D.C. office. Brown had supported Hackett during the special election, paying the salary of online organizer Tim Tagaris and loaning Hackett his trusted political organizer Dan Lucas. Hackett says that in the meeting Brown spoke “in a general way” about supporting him in the Senate race; Brown says it was clear that he gave no endorsement. In either case, the take-away was that Brown wasn’t getting in the race.
But three weeks later, Brown changed his mind. Schultz was able to make sure his candidacy wouldn’t jeopardize her job at the Plain Dealer; Emily was married; Caitlin had gone off to college; friends and colleagues kept urging Brown to run; and as Schultz put it, “We moved into a really new house where we could open a window without a hammer, and we both said, ‘There is a real danger here of getting too comfortable, and we didn’t work this hard to get too comfortable.’”
In early October, Brown called both Hackett and DeWine to let them know he was in. “Telling those two guys,” he says, “it wasn’t the most fun day of my life.”
Born to run
Sherrod Brown was born in Mansfield, Ohio in 1952, the youngest of three sons. His father Charles was a physician. His mother Emily hailed from Georgia and was an early supporter of the civil rights movement, introducing her boys to political activism at an young age. Sherrod was elected president of his high school student council. “He caused people a lot of headaches because he was such an activist,” says his mother. “The principal didn’t really care for him at all.”
In 1970, he and his friends organized a march in Mansfield for the first Earth Day. “We did this really cool march and we had a really big crowd,” says Brown with pride. “But we get down to the square and none of us had thought about what you do when you get down there. We didn’t have any speakers, and it was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ So we just disbanded.”
Brown enrolled at Yale, where he split his time between Russian Studies and campaign work for liberal candidates, including George McGovern. He so impressed Don Kindt, his local Democratic County Chairman, that the next spring, when Brown was back at Yale finishing up his senior year, Kindt called Brown and asked him to run for state representative. “I remember him calling me,” says Sherrod’s older brother Charles, who was in Yale Law School at the time. “‘You just can’t believe this, this is the most exciting news. Don Kindt wants me to run!’”
Sherrod graduated and moved back home, where his father, a Republican, was initially skeptical. “My dad says, ‘I’m not voting for you, you’re too young,’” says Sherrod. “But he helped a lot.” Mrs. Brown recruited neighborhood kids to lick stamps and stuff envelopes in the basement of their house, and Charles spent nearly the whole semester in Mansfield running the campaign. By the time the election rolled around, Sherrod had knocked on 20,000 doors, nearly half the households in the district. In a stunning upset, he beat the Republican incumbent. She never saw it coming.
In 1982 at age 29, after eight years in the state House, Brown was elected Secretary of State. He spent two terms in Columbus, where his signature effort was voter registration outreach. He convinced McDonald’s to print voter registration forms on their tray liners. “You could see voter registration cards with ketchup and mustard on them,” he says, “and we accepted them.”
Brown’s first electoral defeat came in 1990, at the hands of a Hamilton County Commissioner with a franchise name: now-scandal-ridden governor Bob Taft. Taft’s media consultant was none other than one-time Nixon aide and current head of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Brown says, “It was the worst campaign I’ve ever run.” By all accounts the race for governor was brutal and the ads vicious. At one point, Brown showed up at Taft’s campaign office and confronted him. The scene quickly devolved into a shouting match.
After the defeat, Brown moved back to northeastern Ohio and jumped into a crowded primary for an open congressional seat near his old home district outside Cleveland. He won the primary and immediately began a district-wide bike tour that passed through every township. It worked to great effect. He reports in his first book, Congress from the Inside, that in a debate with his opponent late in the race he challenged her to name the high schools in the two largest towns in the district. She couldn’t. He also made a series of promises, including a pledge to pay for his own health care out-of-pocket until Congress passed universal coverage. For the past 13 years, he’s kept that pledge, turning down the insurance offered to members and purchasing his own, until recently, when at the cajoling of his wife, he joined her plan.
A Capitol story
Brown entered Congress at a heady time, one of 110 freshmen in the most diverse House class in history. Bill Clinton had ended the Democrats’ exile, and for the first time in more than a decade the party had control of both the White House and Capitol Hill. Two years later, of course, after Clinton’s health plan had gone down in defeat and Gingrich had assiduously laid the groundwork for an insurrection, 54 House seats swung from Democrats to Republicans, ending 40 years of Democratic control. Brown barely survived that year’s anti-incumbent sentiment to return for a second term to a Congress in which, as he wrote in Congress from the Inside, the “sometimes chaotic, no-one-seems-to-be-in-charge days of the Democratic majority were over. A hierarchical, military-like style with one man in charge was in place.”
The “man in charge” has changed from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay, but for the last decade, life as a Democratic congressman has been frustrating if not downright depressing. “It’s Kabuki theater,” says Kuebler. “I stand over here and make a speech. You stand over there and say a speech. Then we pass what the Republicans want.” The majority rarely allows amendments or opposition bills to come to a vote, and any Democratic changes to legislation that do make it out of committee are promptly gutted before reaching the floor. Perhaps most maddeningly, House Republicans now hold votes open two to three hours past the customary voting period while they break enough kneecaps to win. In a 2003 op-ed about the Medicare vote, Brown described one Republican hiding in the Democratic cloakroom to avoid the bullying of DeLay’s enforcers. These votes are, “always in the middle of the night,” Brown wrote. “Always after the press had passed their deadlines. Always after the American people had turned off the news and gone to bed.”
Despite all this, Brown seems to relish the legislative process. When I ask him if he ever feels that being a minority-party congressman is an exercise in futility, he says “Well, the one thing about this place is that if you focus on an issue, particularly one that other members don’t know anything about, you can really get something done.”
One such issue is tuberculosis, the global scourge that infects one third of the world’s population and kills 2 million people every year. After Joanne Carter, the legislative director for the NGO Results, first broached the topic of TB with Brown in 1997, he began using his position as ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee to lobby for increased funding. He traveled with public health advocate Paul Farmer to Haiti and visited Siberia, where rates of multi-drug resistant TB are frighteningly high. “It was an issue that was dying for lack of attention,” says Carter. “He saw that as an opportunity. It was kind of an ego-less thing. It wasn’t about ‘this is my issue,’ it was more: ‘Who can I work with to get more resources for this and make sure the resources get better spent’” In 1997 Congress appropriated no funds for combating global TB and today it budgets more than $90 million. “He certainly deserves some of the credit for that,” says Carter. “He helped create attention for this out of nothing.”
Other than public health, the issue for which Brown is best known has been his energetic and sustained opposition to the free trade agreements pushed by both the Clinton and Bush White Houses. In his second book, The Myths of Free Trade, Brown argues that “[a]n unregulated global economy is a threat to all of us,” from “the child in Avon Lake, Ohio, who eats raspberries grown in Guatemala by poorly paid farmers who use pesticides banned in the United States,” to “the Chinese prison camp laborer.”
As wages in the United States have continued to stagnate and the trade deficit explodes, free-trade agreements face stiffer opposition among Democrats. While NAFTA passed with support from 40 percent of Democrats in the House, CAFTA passed with the support of only 7 percent.
For almost all of the last year, Brown was in D.C. coordinating the effort to block CAFTA, which will create a NAFTA-like “free-trade” agreement between the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. While corporate America pushed the bill hard with talk of opening markets, Brown pointed out that the combined purchasing power of the countries included in the agreement was roughly equivalent to Columbus, Ohio. He argues that it was cheap labor that CAFTA’s corporate supporters were really after. The agreement was also loaded with intellectual property protections for big American corporations, but included no serious labor or environmental standards.
In an op-ed published on July 24, four days before the vote, Brown predicted, “If the House of Representatives passes the Central American Free Trade Agreement, it will take place in the middle of the night, the normal 15-minute roll call will be extended to about three hours so that House leaders can twist arms, and the legislation will pass by one or two votes.” He was exactly right: The bill passed 217 to 215, in an extended vote that gaveled closed just three minutes after midnight. One hundred eighty-seven Democrats voted against the bill, joined by 27 Republicans. (According to The Hill, the 15 Democrats who voted for the bill have since reaped their rewards. Pro-CAFTA business interests have hosted more than a dozen fundraisers on their behalf.)
‘A nasty little primary’?
One online organizer familiar with Hackett told me that if primary voters thought the race was going to be decided by Iraq, they’d be inclined to vote for Hackett, whereas if they thought it would come down to domestic issues, they’d vote for Brown. Hackett’s recent service does give him undeniable credibility on Iraq. But Sherrod Brown is no John Kerry when it comes to the war. He has been an outspoken critic from its inception, and he voted against granting the president authority to wage it. In early 2003, as the United States massed troops and U.N. inspectors were allowed to return, Brown co-wrote a letter to the president, signed by 133 other members of Congress, affirming their belief that the “U.S. should make every attempt to achieve Iraq’s disarmament through diplomatic means and with the full support of our allies.”
Inspired by a biography of John Quincy Adams that described his practice of reading letters of constituents opposed to slavery, Brown took to the House floor nearly every night to read letters from constituents opposing the war. As the war has dragged on, he voted for some supplemental funding, but repeatedly called for a fuller accounting by the administration of both the mistakes leading up to the war and the billions of dollars that continue to be unaccounted for. He’s currently a co-sponsor of a bi-partisan bill calling for the president to present a plan for withdrawal by December 31 and to begin removing troops by next October.
Hackett says that because Brown voted for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which expressed “the sense of Congress” that the United States should “support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq” and “promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime,” Brown voted for the war. “How do you do regime change without invasion?” Hackett asks. “Did he think Tinkerbell was going to come down from outer space and wave her magic wand? I don’t think so. Guys like me have to go in and do that. Sherrod Brown voted for regime change; he voted for military intervention in Iraq.”
But the text of the bill itself explicitly contradicts that logic. “Nothing in this Act,” it reads, “shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces” with the exception of training and weapons for Iraqi opposition groups. If Hackett’s standard is to be applied, then Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, who both voted for the bill, and Ted Kennedy and the late Paul Wellstone, who were in the Senate where it passed unanimously, are all pro-war.
Brown could hardly believe Hackett’s assertion. “Paul’s failure to make a distinction between something like that and a vote to attack a sovereign country shows either his inexperience or his willingness to say anything to get elected,” Brown said. “My position on the war has been consistent. Over the last three months, from his congressional race to now, he’s had three positions. I think he’s decided the only way for him to win is to be the most antiwar candidate, but he’s danced too much for that.”
During his campaign in the 2nd District, Hackett firmly opposed calls for withdrawal, saying, like Bush, that the United States could not “cut and run.” On October 19 Democracy for America sent out an e-mail from Hackett asking recipients to sign a pledge that they would only support candidates who “[a]dvocate for a responsible exit plan with a timeline.” Yet when I interviewed Hackett in early November, he called congressional requests for a mandated timeline “absolutely ludicrous,” and said instead it was the role of Congress to “pressure the executive branch to issue the order to the Pentagon to develop the plan to withdraw the troops.”
More than substantive differences on the issues, those supporting Hackett seem most seduced by his blunt manner. “I’m sure Brown would win my support if it were based solely on a checklist of issue positions,” wrote one commenter on Beyerstein’s blog Majikthise. “But the thing about Hackett, besides the merely neat and cool netroots stuff, is that the guy’s got pizazz. I mean it. Pizazz counts. PH is a straight shootin’, hairy chested, bare knuckled, ‘bite me’ war vet [sic].”
Brown, who’s been intimately connected to the progressive grassroots for the entirety of his career, evinces more than a little bafflement at the portion of the new blog constituency that has been lobbing rhetorical hand grenades in his direction. “My wife says it’s like when you have a cold sore, you keep running your tongue over it,” Brown says. “I keep telling her, ‘Connie, stop reading the blogs!’ But she can’t help herself.”
But Brown’s a shrewd campaigner, and seems to grasp the potential of online organizing. Back in June, he started GrowOhio.org, a “community-based project with the goal of empowering the grassroots of Ohio’s Democratic Party.” Upon entering the race, his campaign took out blog ads announcing his candidacy on all of the top progressive blogs. He also hired Jerome Armstrong, formerly of MyDD, and one of the original netroots gurus. He even posted a help wanted ad on the blogs seeking a campaign Web manager. “Hackett started out with an edge in the blogs,” Brown tells me, “but we should have that neutralized soon.”
Part of the reason for all of the rancor in the early stages of the primary is that the eventual opponent, two-term Senator Mike DeWine, seems so tantalizingly beatable. Survey USA ranks DeWine in 97th place among senators, with a 45 percent approval rating. In June, DeWine’s own party’s voters offered him a stinging rebuke, when his son Pat finished fourth in the Republican primary for the special election for Ohio’s 2nd District. Many observers viewed this as fallout from the base’s anger at DeWine for his role in the so-called Gang of 14, who stopped the GOP from carrying out its threat to use the “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster. In a recent Columbus Dispatch poll, Brown was ahead of DeWine 35 to 31. In the same poll, Hackett was down a point in a head-to-head match-up with DeWine, but earlier polls, without Brown, also had Hackett beating DeWine.
Hackett argues that with his military service and pro-gun stances he will be immune from the God, guns and gays campaign that Republicans pull out of the drawer for every race against Democrats these days. “2006 won’t be the year of musical chairs for career politicians,” he says. “At the risk of sounding overly impressed with losing the race in the 2nd District, I demonstrated I can cut deeply into Republicans and independents.”
Brown believes his long progressive record will help rather than hinder. “For 10 years I won in a congressional district that was slightly Republican,” Brown says. “I think that voters that don’t agree with me on some issues will still say, ‘Brown’s on my side.’ On economic issues I’m clearly not just in the mainstream, but in the great majority. The overwhelming number of people think the drug companies, the oil companies and the insurance companies rip Americans off. They don’t like the Medicare bill, they want a minimum wage increase and they think our trade agreements hurt our country. On every one of those issues, I beat DeWine.”
“I’ll debate those with anybody.”
Christopher Hayes is the Washington Editor of the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times. Read more of his work at www.chrishayes.org.