Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s decision last week to skip the 2020 Democratic presidential race took a lot of people by surprise, but not those who know him well or have studied his long political career. “I think he wanted to be president, but he wasn’t as driven as some candidates who say, ‘I absolutely have to have that at all costs,’ ” says Herb Asher, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University and a longtime observer of the Ohio and national political scenes. “He may have actually made a very sane decision to say, ‘The issues I care about, and my ability to take the stands I care about, are enhanced if I stay in the U.S. Senate.’ ”
After testing the crowded waters in four early primary states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—Brown’s message and what Asher calls his “authenticity” as a progressive populist were beginning to move the needle on his lack of national name recognition. (In December, 77 percent of national voters in a Quinnipiac University poll said they didn’t know enough about Brown to form an opinion.) But with more than 20 declared and likely Democratic candidates now in the running, “the chances for any individual candidate [breaking out of the pack] are low,” Asher says.
For his part, Brown says he had “as good a path to being president as anybody in that race. I still think that. But I just thought it was a better use of my time and my ambitions to stay in the Senate and fight there.”
What he’ll fight for in Washington, D.C.—and what could aid Democrats still in the race—is his theme of restoring the “dignity of work” across America. It’s a phrase Brown traces back to a groundbreaking encyclical on economic justice, Rerum Novarum, penned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and a potential campaign message that’s already been picked up by a number of presidential hopefuls like U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and surprise newcomer Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana.
One of them, or another 2020 front-runner seeking a dose of Midwestern authenticity on his or her ticket, could look to Brown as a vice presidential partner. He says the prospect doesn’t appeal to him at this point, but the campaign still has a long way to go—the Democratic caucuses in Iowa are 11 months away.
“Far too many [Americans] are working harder and producing more than ever before,” Brown tells me. “But their wages are flat and the cost of everything from health care to rent to college tuition is up. Even people with good-paying jobs don’t feel stable. And many people find it difficult, if not impossible, to save for retirement. Hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do.”
Like FDR’s New Deal or today’s reminted Green New Deal being offered by Progressive Democrats, a dignity of work theme falls safely into the long American political tradition of avoiding any mention of, dare we say, class and class conflict. Never mind that the wealth gap in America is approaching Third World proportions.
400 very rich Americans—few enough to fit into a private airplane hangar—own more than the collective majority of working Americans.
According to a paper released in February by University of California-Berkeley economics professor Gabriel Zucman, the 400 wealthiest Americans now own more than the 150 million adults in the lower 60 percent of the nation’s wealth distribution. Put another way, 400 very rich Americans—few enough to fit into a private airplane hangar—own more than the collective majority of working Americans. That 60 percent of working adults saw their share of the nation’s wealth plummet from 5.7 percent in 1987 to 2.1 percent in 2014. “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,” Zucman wrote in his report.
Brown’s message basically translates into policies advocated by Democrats since FDR’s Four Freedoms speech in 1941. They include strong unions, progressive taxation, fair trade, a living minimum wage, government-backed health care, and humane hours and benefits for working people. They’re all now labeled “progressive” policies because they’ve been steadily eroding under conservative and corporate pressures over the past 50 years.
Brown has had the courage, or perhaps foolishness, to openly agree with President Trump’s trade goals, although not with Trump’s misguided tactics. Brown says the President “was right in his opposition to TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement]. He was right that tariffs can work. And he was right that we should renegotiate NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. But the NAFTA his people are renegotiating [with Canada and Mexico] is kind of like NAFTA 1.6—it doesn’t change things much to help workers.”
And although he agrees with Trump’s use of tariffs in dealing with China and Turkey’s trade cheating—i.e., subsidizing private companies and “dumping” exports at prices lower than they charge their own people—Brown says that Trump “should have built alliances with our economic and diplomatic friends in Canada and Europe and gone in together on those tariffs. Instead, he’s gone after Europe and Canada with tariffs, and it just hasn’t worked. Steel workers and steel users are now paying the price because it wasn’t done right.”
While Trump has been demanding action in recent tweets to reopen the General Motors auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, Brown says he twice called the president for his help and Trump did, well, nothing. Brown called the White House first in June 2018 asking for help when GM announced it was laying off its second shift at Lordstown. He called again in November 2018 after GM announced it was closing the plant altogether and moving more jobs to Mexico. Brown asked the President to support his “American Cars, American Jobs Act” that would offer discounts to consumers who bought cars made in America and revoke the GOP tax cut on overseas profits for auto manufacturers that ship jobs overseas. Trump said he liked the bill, but when Brown’s office sent a copy to the White House, the president took no action.
Brown told Late Night show host Seth Meyers in January about that second call to Trump. “I said, ‘You know, there is a provision in the law that says, if you’re manufacturing in Ohio, you pay a 21 percent tax rate. If you move to Mexico, you pay a 10.5 percent tax rate. It’s sort of a 50 percent tax coupon encouraging these companies to move offshore. That’s a real problem.’ ” Not just for Ohio but the whole country, Brown added.
“And the president said, ‘Where did that idea come from? I never heard of that.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, that was actually in your tax bill.’ ” Meyers interjected with a quip, “So you’re saying he’s not a policy wonk?”
Unlike Trump, Brown has a deserved reputation in Washington as a trade policy wonk, having written a respected book on the subject, The Myths of Free Trade, in 2004. “In the parlance of the U.S. Senate, they have work horses and show horses. And Sherrod is definitely a work horse,” Asher says.
Brown has argued for decades that American trade policy favors corporations over workers by creating a “race to the bottom” as companies move jobs to foreign countries that don’t pay a living wage or respect the environment. Instead, he argues, the U.S. should pressure our trade partners to increase their wages and regulate polluters in a “climb to the top” for all workers.
For Brown and his backers, the “dignity of work” theme is more than just a catchy slogan. The Mansfield, Ohio, native has walked the pro-labor talk since launching his political career as an Ohio state representative fresh out of Yale University in 1974—hitting the picket lines with striking workers, pressuring companies to keep jobs in Ohio, and fighting for fair trade policies long before Trump was bragging about “the art of the deal.”
Ron Davis, a retired steelworker and former union leader in Mansfield, went to high school with Brown, who was a year behind him and from the more well-to-do south side of town. Brown’s father Charles was a family physician, and his mother Emily was a schoolteacher and known civil rights activist. “The guys who ran with him back then said he was quite the little prankster,” Davis remembers. But Brown was also an Eagle Scout and student council president. Not to mention his grades were good enough to land him at Yale.
But even in a town the size of Mansfield (pop. 46,000), growing up on the more working-class north side meant Davis didn’t really get to know Brown until Davis rose in the local steelworkers’ union in the 1970s and Brown became a state rep. “Sherrod was well-known at our local union hall,” Davis says. “He’d drop by and we’d get to know what was going on in Columbus, and he’d want to know what was going on with us.”
Davis said Brown proved his populist stripes in 1999 when AK Steel bought out the Armco plant in town and tried to bust the union during a three-year lockout. Davis was head of the strike and defense committee then, trying to prevent others in the union from losing their car or their house during the lockout. Then a U.S. representative, Brown “kept in contact with us and was working behind the scenes for us that whole time,” Davis recalls. “We’d hold rallies and events and he’d be here to address the crowds and show his support. There are a lot of politicians who say they care about working people, but few of them really show it.”
AK Steel rehired most of the striking workers, but with new rules that included mandatory overtime. “It was a hard pill to swallow,” Davis says, one of many for Mansfield workers over the last five decades. Both Davis and Brown have watched as their hometown, like most Rustbelt cities in Ohio and the Midwest, lost decent-paying manufacturing jobs to automation and offshore relocation.
“Sherrod always wants to meet with the rank-and-file, and they’re always surprised to find out that they aren’t there to listen to him. He wants to listen to them.”
Davis went to work at Armco two days after his 18th birthday in August 1969, and managed to remain there until his retirement in 2009. “I remember the old saying in Mansfield back then: You could lose a job after breakfast and find another job by lunch. It wasn’t just Armco. It was Westinghouse, General Motors, and Ohio Brass. There was just endless manufacturing. Now GM is gone, and so are about 75 percent or more of those manufacturing jobs.”
So how did Brown, the son of a second-generation doctor growing up on the “right side of the tracks,” develop empathy for the working class? “We talk about this a lot, because I came from the working class and Sherrod did not,” says his wife, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist while at The Cleveland Plain Dealer and now an instructor at Kent State University. “But his mother was such a civil rights activist and had always put such an emphasis on treating people with dignity. That’s probably where his earliest influence was. There are just no airs to him. He is more comfortable, frankly, with people who didn’t have his privilege.” Schultz says that’s one reason the couple moved five years ago to the southeast side of Cleveland, where whites are a racial minority and the foreclosure rate in 2007 was the highest in the country.
In one of those bizarre coincidences of fate, Brown’s mother was from Mansfield, Georgia, and his father was from Mansfield, Ohio. The two met the day after Brown’s father returned from World War II, when both were staying at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Tom Brennan, editor of The Mansfield News Journal for 25 years until his retirement in 2015, recalled Brown’s mother. “She was educated and all that because she was a doctor’s wife,” he says, “but there was nothing snotty about her. She was very active here in the NAACP. I knew her, too, because she was always doing something for the downtrodden and those who needed help. She had a social conscience, and Sherrod got that.”
Besides his mother’s influence, Brown seems imbued with a natural curiosity about people in all walks of life, says his long-time staffer John Ryan. When touring a new factory or hospital or officiating at a ribbon cutting, Brown makes a point of talking not just to the executives but to the assembly line workers, the janitors, the nurses, the receptionists. “Sherrod always wants to meet with the rank-and-file, and they’re always surprised to find out that they aren’t there to listen to him. He wants to listen to them,” Ryan says. “He introduces himself, ‘Hi, I’m Sherrod Brown. Who are you? What is it like working here?’ Quite frankly, I’ve been told by a few executives that they don’t like it because it bites into their time with him.”
Brown is famous for another personal touch, like handwritten notes to just about every person he meets, Ryan says. “He’ll talk to somebody behind the coffee shop counter and then send a note later. He has these little cards with his name on top.” Where does he find the time? “Sherrod has a work ethic and an energy level that is unbelievable,” says Ryan, who ran local chapters of the Communications Workers of America and AFL-CIO unions before Brown hired him away 12 years ago. “He’s always writing notes, always making calls, always reading. He’ll say, ‘I’m going to take a nap now,’ and 10 minutes later he’s doing things again.”
Although he has high expectations for his staffers, Brown has seen little turnover in those positions as state and U.S. representative, Ohio Secretary of State, and now U.S. senator, Ryan says. Asher concurred. “I think everybody acknowledges that his U.S. Senate office and his district offices are superb in their operation. Meaning he really does attract good people to work for him.”
Brown’s work drive, however, shifts into chill whenever he returns home, Schultz says. “We have this rule for ourselves: When we’re out in public, we belong to the public. So, when we’re home, we are really home. In those warm months, Sherrod is often out working in the backyard in his vegetable garden. But we’ll cook together. He’ll catch up on his note writing and his reading, and I’m usually doing the same. We really just hang out. We just want to enjoy each other’s company. And we love being with our dog Franklin.”
Brown and Schultz each brought two children to their second marriage, and together now have seven grandchildren. “We have all these babies right now, and it’s just so much fun,” Schultz says. But Brown has also reserved a special place in his affections for Franklin, a 7-year-old huskie-poodle-kinchau-spaniel mix. (Honest. Schultz said she had a DNA test done.) She says she rescued the dog from a shelter in 2011 “and it’s one of the best things I ever did for us, because I finally know what Sherrod was like at 9 years old.” Franklin more than returns the affection, she says. “You know how dogs sometimes have different barks,” Schultz says. “Franklin has his Sherrod bark. I always know when Sherrod has walked in the door.”
Ryan, who would not reveal his source, says Brown is an avid Scrabble player who can beat a Pulitzer Prize winner at the game. Schultz says she knows the source. “Sherrod is just shameless. He always mentions the Pulitzer, and I always tell him I didn’t win it for spelling.”
Brown’s competitive instincts might land him on the national stage after all, if a leading Democratic candidate—especially one from either coast—is looking to balance his or her presidential ticket with the only Democrat to win a statewide election in Ohio in 2018. Brown, 66, seems open to the idea. “It doesn’t particularly appeal to me now, but I don’t know a year and half from now,” he tells me. “I want President Trump retired. I will do whatever it takes [for Democrats] to win the Senate and win the White House, because I think this president has done such damage.”