Senator Sherrod Brown Knows How to Save the Soul of the Democratic Party
Sherrod Brown has always defied easy categorization. A Yale graduate from a well-off family, he became a state representative in Ohio at the age of 21 and spent his free time in local union halls, absorbing the stories of auto and steelworkers. In the 1990s and 2000s, when Bill Clinton and the New Democrats preached the gospel of globalization, Brown, then a congressman, warned about the ugly consequences of free-trade deals like NAFTA — jobs shipped overseas, factories abandoned, towns and cities hollowed out. During the Obama years, Brown, now in the U.S. Senate, pleaded with his party brethren not to abandon their working-class roots, only to watch Donald Trump win in 2016 with the help of the white working class on Brown’s home turf.
Brown, 67, is one of the last true progressive populists. He insists that Democrats should “campaign through the eyes of workers” and honor the dignity of work — a message he used to win a decisive re-election victory in Ohio two years after Trump won the state. The pleas for him to run for president flooded in. “It came on me so sudden,” he recalls. “I looked at who the cast of characters were, and I came from the right place with the right message and the right politics and the right history, perhaps.”
But his heart wasn’t in it.
“I didn’t have the ambition,” he tells Rolling Stone during one of several long conversations this past winter and spring. “One of the things about Ted Kennedy was his joy of life, his joy of service. I bring that to my campaigns; I bring that to this job. I don’t think I could’ve brought it to a presidential race, and fundamentally, that more than anything kept me out.”
You could argue that Brown’s candor and modesty — two qualities you don’t often find in United States senators — might be precisely what the country needs in a president right now. But Brown has found other ways to make himself heard. Last November, he published his third book, Desk 88, a hybrid of memoir and history that traces the lineage of progressive senators (Hugo Black, Bill Proxmire, Bobby Kennedy, and others) who sat at the same desk on the Senate floor now used by Brown. In February, he wrote a scathing op-ed for The New York Times about the power of fear and how it stopped Republicans from holding Trump accountable during his impeachment trial. (The piece also featured a sly reference to Lizzo. More on that later.)
And as the novel coronavirus pandemic swept the country, Brown blasted Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the Senate’s sluggish response and foot-dragging in taking up the first of several major relief bills. A video of Brown tearing into McConnell received more than 1.5 million views and earned him comparisons to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. “Who can say anything but this is a national crisis?” Brown bellowed on the Senate floor. “We’re going to make our unwillingness to do anything contingent on some parliamentary trick? No.”
Brown has a message for his fellow Democrats, too. If they want to win back not only the working-class voters they lost in 2016 but also mobilize the multiracial coalition they need to beat Trump, they’ll need to rethink the American electorate altogether. It’s a message that Brown will soon be sharing on behalf of former Vice President Joe Biden; this week, Brown voted (early) for Biden in Ohio’s primary and plans to help Biden’s campaign later this year. “Voters don’t see politics as left or right,” he says. “This whole idea that independent voters are in the middle — that they’re less liberal than Democrats and less conservative than Republicans — is crap. People don’t see themselves as conservative/liberal; people see themselves. And people see politicians as ‘Whose side are you on?’ ”
What happened in that moment on the Senate floor during the coronavirus debate?
[Democratic Sen. Dick] Durbin was impatiently, for all the right reasons, saying we needed to do this tonight. A Republican stood up and gave some parliamentary sleight-of-hand reason for the delay. And so I just took off on that. Why aren’t we doing this? Three, four, five days of delay when people are scared, when people are angry, when people are anxious about their future? They know they’re about to lose their job or they’ve already lost it. They don’t know if they’re going to be able to pay their rent. They don’t know what’s going to happen to their sister who’s not feeling well but has to choose between going to work or taking a day without pay, or even worse, can’t get a test for what she thinks might be the coronavirus.
More than 600 days ago, you raised the issue of Trump and John Bolton disbanding the pandemic team inside the National Security Council.
I wrote the letter, I think, about a week after he disbanded it. The admiral in charge of this office had worked for [George W.] Bush, managing the international combating of malaria. Then he worked for Obama on a global-health-security office, where the function of the office was to surveil countries around the world for epidemics that might evolve into a pandemic.
One of the greatest things we do in our country, we send health care people around the world to help them with problems. We partly do it for our own interest, to keep it out of the country, but we do it for humanitarian reasons. The White House had nobody doing that. This guy’s job was to do that. If he had been there in November, he maybe sees this before the Chinese acknowledge it. Maybe it would’ve been the 10th of December, he would’ve had the wherewithal and gravitas and position to go to the president and say, “We’ve got to start preparing for this.”
But for the rest of December, all of January, all of February, [Trump] didn’t declare a health care emergency. Until March. All that time lost, more people get sick and more people die.
Should we listen to what the president says in the middle of this pandemic if he’s going to say things that are wrong?
We should listen to the public-health professionals. What Pence and Trump say moves some people, but they’re not reliable spokespeople to combat this pandemic, so I listen to the public-health professionals who have done this before. They’ve never seen something quite like this, but they are the best equipped to do it. What the president says is either misleading or wrong or outright lies or always for his political benefit. I just don’t think any of us have time for that.
Tell me about the New York Times op-ed you published right after impeachment, where you said Republicans acquitted Trump out of fear. There’s a line in it I want to ask you about.
If it’s the Lizzo line, it wasn’t mine. The article was absolutely mine. Lizzo displaced the line “Thou doth protest too much.” When my wife [journalist Connie Schultz] read it, she thought that was too cliché. Katie Mulhall Quintela in our office came up with Lizzo. [Ed. note: The line in question is, “In the words of Lizzo: Truth hurts.”]
Several people, unprompted, noted it in my circles: “Sherrod Brown listens to Lizzo?”
Well, I do now. The article really started when I was just watching Republicans and listening to their fear. I remember going up to [Sen.] Patty Murray and saying, “I’m really struck by the fear on the other side.” I just thought it was a story that needed to be told, because people ask all the time, “How could Republicans not vote, for God’s sakes, for witnesses [to be called in the impeachment trial]? What are they thinking?” And I said it’s really two things. They like what Trump gives them, and they’re scared to death. And fear does the business. And when fear does the business in a legislative body, the decision is almost always wrong for the country long term.
There was a line in the op-ed: “For the stay-in-office-at-all-costs representatives and senators, fear is the motivator.” When did staying in office at all costs become the be-all and end-all of one’s existence here?
I’m not sure the assumption is right, “When did it become?” I mean, look — I don’t have much empathy for that attitude, but we all have it to a point. Everyone has some fear of losing their job. It’s just much more unseemly if it’s a U.S. senator, because we can find something. The SEIU member in Cincinnati, if she gets some supervisor harassing her? She doesn’t have a lot of options. I think politicians have always had that illness. We’ve always voted in ways to keep our jobs that we probably shouldn’t have. I’ve never wanted to let fear do the business. I think I am even stronger in that view today than I was my first term. Partly that it’s OK if I lose, partly it’s the voters want authenticity, and partly because I’ll sleep better.
There is now a trendy observation among the politically savvy that Ohio is a red state. It cannot be won by a Democrat — apart from you, apparently. How do you respond to those who say Democrats should write off Ohio and campaign elsewhere?
You don’t write off a state that’s voted for the winning candidate for president more times in the last 100 years than any state except maybe New Mexico. The state hasn’t dramatically changed in the last 10 years; it’s just the politics of the country has changed.
We knew in my  race we had to get one out of seven Trump voters. We knew it was mostly female Trump voters, and we did. And we did it with progressive populism, not the phony divide populism of Trump. Real populism is never anti-Semitic and never racist and never divisive. It brings people together. You campaign through the eyes of workers, and you govern through the eyes of workers. You do it in an inclusive way.
I’ve had an F from the NRA my whole career. I was for marriage equality for 20, 25 years. I don’t compromise on economic justice or civil-rights issues or women’s issues ever.
There’s a multiracial coalition that your campaigns put together that I feel like is a model for someone running for president. A Democrat probably isn’t going to beat Trump without building that kind of coalition. What are the lessons from your elections that you think have some broader applicability?
I think you can do it — and this isn’t meant at any candidate — you can do it by vilifying, demonizing, and attacking less. And I do plenty of that. I understand that, because you need to make contrasts. But [it should be] more about talking about workers and talking about people’s lives.
Whether you punch a clock or swipe a badge or work for tips or are raising kids or taking care of sick parents — [Martin Luther] King said that no job is menial if it pays an adequate wage. And you illustrate that in part by stories.
I was at an AFL-CIO dinner in Cincinnati some years ago, and there was a table of middle-aged women, probably half white, the other half Latino and black. They were janitors. They had just signed their first union contract, SEIU, with downtown Cincinnati business owners. I sat down at that table next to a woman and said, “What’s it like to have a union?” She said, “For the first time in 51 years, I’ll have a paid, one-week vacation.” You tell stories like that and you show what a union can mean and what issues of justice are all about. People respond to that. That’s a story Donald Trump could never match. For one thing, he’s probably got all kinds of workers that he’s contracted with that he’s stiffed. I guess you do have to make the contrast and demonize from time to time.
Is there a misconception of what the working and middle classes look like? After the 2016 election there was a lot of hand-wringing about how Democrats failed to appeal to the white working class in the Midwest.
Generally, when people say “workers,” maybe they’re thinking construction; they’re thinking maybe more of men than women. They’re thinking not necessarily more white than people of color; I don’t know if that’s the case or not. But we’ve got to always speak expansively.
My wife’s mother was a home-care worker. She died at 62. Her dad died at 69. Connie has said that they wore out their bodies so we didn’t have to wear out ours.
I was at my high school reunion, I think my 40th. They had an easel with the pictures of kids who we know have died of the 400 in the class. And it was a pretty consequential number, and they were mostly low-income white and black kids. The other thing I remember: I sat across from a woman in my class. She worked at JP Morgan Chase as a bank teller for 30 years. She was making $30,000 a year. We ought to be thinking about them as workers.
It’s a broad group of people that do most of the work in the day. It’s the people that you’re allowed to ignore. It’s the food-service -worker; it’s the custodian in this building [the Hart Senate Office Building]. This building is way too white during the day, and it’s a whole lot of Latina and mostly women, not entirely, and black people that come in and clean up. There’s too much of that in society.
Your mom grew up in the segregated South, but ended up being a civil-rights activist, a progressive.
In every way.
Your dad was from Ohio, a doctor, but a conservative, at least for a time.
Till his kids changed him.
You and your two brothers all went to Ivy League schools. You went to Yale. But you go back to Ohio and become the defender of the worker and the dignity of the working class in Congress. How do I connect all those dots in your life?
My dad always took care of people whether they could pay or not. I remember he had a thing of arrowheads in his office, a display of them. A patient had given them to him because they couldn’t pay.
People would say to me in high school, “Your dad spends time with us, he talks to us, he always finds a way to give us a bunch of pills that we don’t have to pay for. He takes care of us.” He had the reputation, and I didn’t really know this growing up, as being the best diagnostician in town. I don’t think it was science-based as much as it was listening-based. If you listen to somebody you can often tell what’s wrong with them if you’re a good doctor, without blood tests. Not that he didn’t do those too.
My dad was a conservative, but only because he really didn’t think about it. His dad was a conservative. That’s probably why. But then he changed. Nixon changed him, Agnew changed him. He changed in the Sixties, because he voted for Goldwater. How many people voted for Goldwater, then McGovern, right? Not very many. It was a small group.
You first got elected to the Ohio Legislature when you were 22?
I was 21 when I got elected, turned 22 right after the election. Because I was young, I didn’t need a lot of money to live on. The Legislature paid $17,500 in 1975; that was a living wage for sure. That was plenty of money to live on in Mansfield, and I didn’t have another job; so when the Legislature wasn’t in session, I would go and just hang out at the steelworkers hall and the UAW hall, and I’d listen to workers talk.
That really did have a socializing effect on me. I heard what they’d say about scabs. I walked picket lines. It was a Republican county overall, but with a strong union presence. I guess that’s where I learned politics more than anything.
How have the conversations in that steelworkers hall or that UAW hall changed in the years that you’ve been going there?
I think there was a certainty in 1978 that “My kid’ll have it better than I will.” There was a certainty among the parents that their kids would have it better off, partly because they carried a union card, partly because there were economic opportunities abounding. They just all thought there was more opportunity than they think now. And that’s because of bad trade agreements. It’s because of terrible tax policy. It’s because of elected officials that have not looked out for them, frankly.
Whose fault is that? Is it Democrats as much as Republicans?
Of course not. But Democrats aren’t blameless. Democrats passing bad trade agreements, Democrats giving in to Republicans on tax issues. Most of us don’t most of the time, but enough of us do enough of the time to get to a bad place.
One of my favorite Lincoln lines is when he was in the White House, his staff said, “Stay in the White House and win the war and free the slaves and preserve the Union.” Lincoln said, “No, I’ve got to go out and get my public-opinion bath.”
Pope Francis said — and my wife hates it when I use this one, but she’s not here, so what the heck? — but Pope Francis exhorted his parish priests to go out and smell like the flock, which has a different connotation, but it really is go out and be among the flock. I think that none of us does that enough. I think I do it more than most, but I don’t do it nearly enough.
Speaking of history, where do you look in history to make sense of the moment we’re in now? [Note: This question was asked in mid-February, before the full-blown coronavirus crisis emerged.]
Well, I start with this isn’t the worst time in our country’s history, not even close. This is not the divisions of 1968, when a large swath of people couldn’t vote because of their skin color. This isn’t McCarthy, where people couldn’t stand on street corners and criticize the government, or at least that part of the government. This isn’t the Depression. It’s not the Civil War. It’s not Jim Crow. It’s not those days, so that’s good.
But Trump is the worst president in our history, and I also think if he has a second term, it could become one of the worst times — it could reach the level of those periods or worse. That to me is what’s at stake in 2020.
Did it surprise you to see Biden have such a good night [on Super Tuesday]? Or were those “Biden is done” narratives wrong?
A little of both. He’s so well known. He’s very well-liked among voters and among party activists. Not necessarily their first choice, maybe. But personally, he’s very well-liked. People all have seen his empathy, borne in part — I’m making too much of this, perhaps — the same way Franklin Roosevelt had such empathy, because of his personal life. Few people have suffered as much as Joe Biden. People know that about him: that you either turn bitter from that tragedy or you grow and have great empathy. That’s the Joe Biden that people like. They know what they’re getting.
Was this the quote-unquote Democratic establishment lining up behind Joe Biden? Or is it Democratic voters finally saying, “OK, we think Joe Biden is going to be our guy”?
I don’t know what the Democratic establishment is. It’s not a bunch of people in a back room that made all those people in South Carolina and made all those people in Texas and Minnesota and Massachusetts and Tennessee and North Carolina and Arkansas and Oklahoma vote for Biden. I know that some are going to characterize the Democratic establishment as pushing him over, but this was huge numbers of voters that made their decision.
What did you think seeing these stories that said you were going to be a white-knight savior of a divided Democratic Party?
I’m flattered, I guess, but the voters will work their will, and we’ll have a nominee, and our nominee is going to beat Trump. I’m confident of that, increasingly confident of that.
What is your theory for how this president won in 2016? And how does that inform the Democratic Party nominee defeating the president in 2020?
First of all, he lied to people about protecting Social Security and Medicare. He sold people a phony populism to make them feel like he was on their side, and then he betrayed them. He uses racism and bigotry to divide people to distract from the fact that he’s used the White House to enrich himself and his family. Populism’s never racist. It doesn’t push some people down to lift others up. We fight his phony populism with real populism that fights for all people. That’s what the whole dignity-of-work message is about. That’s where Trump has just missed it. It may have paid off for him in ’16, but it’s not going to pay off for him again.