Who is Sherrod Brown?

An unabashed progressive takes aim at a Senate seat in Ohio

Christopher Hayes

Brown and wife, Connie Shultz, in downtown Cleveland.

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 régime head­ed by Sad­dam Hus­sein from pow­er in Iraq” and pro­mote the emer­gence of a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment to replace that régime,” Brown vot­ed for the war. How do you do régime 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 régime 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 host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. He is an edi­tor at large at the Nation and a for­mer senior edi­tor of In These Times.
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