So I was asking Sherrod Brown about going back to work in the United States Senate last week, and he gave me the most Sherrod Brown answer you could imagine:
“McConnell summons us back,” he told me. “Think about this. Forget about senators and our safety. And most of us aren’t bringing any staff in, except maybe one person, or zero. There’s the generally well-paid floor staff and some professional people. But most of them are food-service—the Republicans are going ahead with their lunch this week, apparently every day. They’re the food-service workers, mostly middle aged women of color. Then there’s custodial workers, and there’s the police officers. And most of them, if not almost all of them, come to work on buses and subways. They're not having a driver come in and park in the basement of the Capitol.”
This is the man whose mantra is “the dignity of work,” the progressive Democrat in a purple-red state who turned around and won reelection in Ohio—by 7 points, just two years after Donald Trump won it by 8—by talking pretty much nonstop in that sandpaper voice about wages and benefits and other worker protections. As you’d expect, the coronavirus crisis has made him even more passionate on the topic.
The fate of those low-paid Senate employees, he continued, is “endemic to me of what the economy is now”—most of the workers we’ve suddenly dubbed “essential” are people who are often ignored and always underpaid.
Brown gave me about a half-hour of his time last Monday as he was getting ready to leave Cleveland and the company of his wife, Pulitzer-winning columnist Connie Schultz, and their dogs and head back to Washington because McConnell wants to install another right-wing judge. Brown described the things he and the Democrats want to do and talked about what’s happening in his state, with its surprisingly courageous governor; about presidential and senatorial politics (he thinks Joe Biden can win Ohio); and about pushing President Biden to be a lot bolder than anyone expects him to be.
On the Democrats’ immediate priorities, he said there are so many, “I don’t quite know how to rank them.” He mentioned aid to state and local governments first—“to keep us alive, and give us a sense of rebirth.” Next, $175 billion worth of mortgage and rental assistance. Congress has passed a moratorium for some qualified people, but he says it’s not really that many people, and in any case, “You will have a balloon payment at the end of three or four months that will cause all kinds of evictions and foreclosures. So that's why you need the dollar assistance.” Finally, he wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is one of the great poverty alleviation programs in the country’s history, and the child-tax credit.
As for his home state, gingerly reopening over the past week, he had, as he has previously, nothing but praise for Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who’s earned high marks nearly everywhere for putting health first and not caving into right-wing pressure. But it’s interesting coming from Brown because these two have a history.
“DeWine and I were opponents, you know, for the Senate, right?” Brown says, referring to the 2006 election when Brown, then in the House, challenged and defeated incumbent Senator DeWine with 56 percent of the vote in a wave Democratic year. “So we're not longtime political allies. We've never disliked each other. We were kind of friends before I ran [against him]. He was in the Senate, I was in the House. We kind of worked together. But he's been very good on this. I very publicly say this, and it’s not partisan: Because of Mike DeWine's aggressive early efforts, fewer Ohioans will get sick and die. And because of President Trump's continued denial and ineptness and divisiveness, Americans will get sick and die. I mean, I’m as certain of the one as the other: that DeWine has saved lives, and Trump has cost lives.
“I have some concern now, there’s a lot of pressure from the business community in Ohio to open it more quickly,” he continued. “I don't think DeWine cares about, I mean, I'm not speaking for him of course, but I don't think he cares greatly about the demonstrations. I think he does care about [putting] people back to work. Everybody does. I just hope he doesn't move too quickly doing that. I have conversations with him. I talked to both him and Dr. [Amy] Acton yesterday [the state’s health commissioner]. I talk to each of them more or less every week or 10 days. He asked my opinion. I don't know if he takes my opinion, but I think he's done things generally very well. I've only had very minor disagreements on the way he's done it. And those have been private, not public.”
From there, we shifted to politics. Yes, I asked about Tara Reade, and yes, he gave a stock answer and stopped it there (“I think that she should be heard, and I think that Biden should get due process. I think he’s handled that part right. I think it will play out the way it plays out then”).
More interesting was a little Ohio political history sermon he gave me that “tells you everything about the industrial Midwest” and explains how he’s figured out how to keep winning in a state that got a lot redder in 2016—and how he thinks Biden can win the state in November.
When he beat DeWine in 2006, Brown says, he carried 50 of the state’s 88 counties. He basically won the eastern half of the state, and DeWine the western half. Brown won counties urban and rural, large and small. In 2018, by contrast, “I won 16 out of 88 counties”: the three large metros, counties like Mahoning and Lucas with the smaller cities (Youngstown, Toledo), the counties along Lake Erie (tourism-dependent regions have increasingly turned Democratic), and three smaller counties that are home to universities (Bowling Green, Kent State, and Ohio U.).
That’s the divide today: blue cities and university towns versus red everybody else. For Brown in 2018, it meant racking up huge margins in Franklin (Columbus) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland), and then “win the other Metro areas, win the university areas, and duck in all the other counties and hope you get 43 percent instead of 38, or get 36 percent instead of 26.”
That’s exactly what Brown has done, and it’s key to his success both numerically and, if you will, morally. He doesn’t write off the red districts. He talks lunch-pail economics with people. He tells them look, you’re going to disagree with me on guns, or gay marriage, and if you want to vote against me on that basis, so be it. But I’m here for you on economics.
And it works—well enough. In West Virginia-adjacent Washington County, Brown got 40 percent, two years after Hillary Clinton got 27 percent. In Williams County in the far northwest corner, bordering Indiana and Michigan, Brown got 40 percent, Clinton 25. They’re small counties, but add ’em all up, and it’s a lot of the difference between winning the state by 7 points and losing it by 8.
So can Biden be a 40 percenter in those parts of Ohio? Brown says he can be: “Biden has a sort of an emotional and reputational connection with workers. And he’d talk about it every single day—about the moderate-wage, low-wage workers, union or not. Most of them are women. Many of them are people of color. A lot of them are white men, too. And a lot of them are unionized. And those are the people that have, again, been forgotten during this pandemic.”
He hopes one thing that people learn during this pandemic is that “government is really, really important in their lives. The private sector isn't going to cure them. The private sector isn't gonna staff the hospitals, the private sector isn't going to pay out unemployment benefits and get help for people. The private sector can't entirely fund food banks. I mean, there are many, many generous people in this society that are doing a lot of important things, but the role of government is increasingly important.”
That’s apparent to him and to me. But it needs to be apparent to enough voters in November. And not just at the presidential level, because as everyone knows, even if Biden wins, it’s worth little unless the Democrats can retake the Senate.
Another interesting historical nugget: Brown said that the 2016 election was the first in about a century in which all Senate candidates from both parties won their elections only if their presidential candidate won, too. In other words, there was a historic minimum of crossover voting; people voted for Trump and for the Senate candidate who supported him, or for Clinton and the Senate candidate who supported her. Which suggests to Brown that for 2020, if Trump craters and Biden can win states like Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina, the Democratic Senate candidates can win there, too. “If Trump continues this way and voters decide we cannot have four more years of this, I think you're going to see some real change potential,” he says. “You're gonna see major, major change.”
And he was clear that by “major, major change,” he means the one thing that increasing numbers of Senate watchers agree the Democrats just have to do the second they get power: kill the filibuster. It can be done with 51 votes on the first day of the session. I asked how Biden, a Senate traditionalist, might feel about that. “Well, it’s a Senate decision,” Brown said. “I think the energy is to change it. We’ve seen McConnell’s abuse of this system for too many years.”
A lot of people wanted Brown to run for president. He has said that his heart just wasn’t in it. But if all this comes to pass, and the Democrats really do push hard to enact big legislation, and Brown becomes the chairman of the Banking Committee with the massive jurisdictional and oversight waterfront he can cover from that perch, the Senate will be the right place for him to be.