In 2006, Sherrod Brown ran on an anti-war populist economic message and won in towns across Ohio long written-off by Democrats. On March 4, the Democratic primary will be held in the state, with Obama possibly looking to continue a streak of victories, while Clinton faces as close to a must-win situation as we are likely to see in the fight for the nomination.
While Senator Brown has said he won't endorse either candidate before the Ohio primary, he's in close contact with both candidates, and in an interview with me he spoke candidly about trade, globalization, and lessons on how to win in his state. To paraphrase, it's about economic populism, stupid. And as Obama battles to make inroads with the white and Latino working-class, and Clinton distances herself from the trade policies of her husband's administration, Ohio is there for the taking.
Here then is the transcript of my conversation with Senator Brown:
Q: How are you approaching any endorsement decision?
I will not endorse before the Ohio primary. I'm weighing what my state does, that's certainly part of it. Also, my conversations with both Barack and Hillary, and with Governor Sebelius calling for Barack, and with Bill Clinton calling for Hillary, and Dick Durbin – all the people who have called for them, in addition to talking directly with the candidates… [we] talk about trade, talk about a populist, progressive message in Ohio, talk about privatization and anti-privatization, and all the things they need to do around tax and trade policy.
Both of them are obviously significantly better than Bush Republicans, McCain. They're close. I've talked to Barack a lot about his Patriot Corporation Act, which is not trade per se, but it's certainly part of the economic package around globalization. The Patriot Corporation Act has not gotten the attention that I would hope it would. But, basically it says that if you play by the rules, if you pay decent wages, health benefits, pension; do your production here; don't resist unionization on neutral card check, then you will be designated a "Patriot Corporation" and you will get tax advantages and some [preference] on government contracts. Jan Schakowsky first came to me… I co-sponsored and worked on it with her in 2005 or 2006. And Barack has been a sponsor of it in the Senate. Hillary is not on it as of now, but those are the kinds of things I want to see them talk about and do and I am hopeful – and pretty much expect – that they will talk about those issues in Ohio.
Q: Have you had a chance to talk to Sen. Clinton about the Patriot Corporation Act?
Yes, I did some time, back – early, like October or November. I've talked to her since about other things, more specifically, trade. And Barack I've talked to within the last week both on trade and on the Patriot Corporation Act. It does two things, the Patriot Corporation Act and better trade policy: it helps win Ohio and helps them govern in the right way. I think you can really take the country in a very different direction building a progressive message around that kind of economic issue – the Patriot Corporation Act and trade. We won 32 or 33 more counties than John Kerry did mostly in small towns in rural Ohio where they were very responsive to a populist progressive message. One town in particular – this is something that just happened – there's a company called American Standard, they make toilets, plumbing fixtures, you'll see them in near any public restroom anywhere. They're in Tiffin, Ohio, town of 20,000. They've just announced back around 3 months ago, the closing of the plant. It was bought by some investors, they're moving offshore, they're honoring the union contract as far as they have to, which is those who already have their 30 years. If you have less than 30 you're pretty screwed--they give you something, but you can't get to the 30 years because they close the plant. And the company that came in and bought it was Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's firm…. These investors come in, take millions of dollars out of the company, and you know, it's pension and healthcare. And those are going on all over the country. And this is a town of 20,000. I carried that county, Kerry didn't. They had already laid off some people…. It's those kinds of situations that cause small town Ohio to vote for somebody like me regardless of the social issues.
Whenever Hillary says the right thing about trade, the Washington Post just slams her. It's unbelievable. I met with the Post editorial board back in about November or December, and I said, kind of joking with them, "Do you have a full-time person, every time Hillary says anything that you don't like on trade, you like automatically write an editorial within 24 hours?" They kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, we have a full-time person on it." But the newspapers – I got one newspaper endorsement in the state of the big nine papers. It was the only paper that's been a bit more even-handed on trade…. They're gonna get slapped around by the newspapers for this. Particularly Hillary… Hillary's clearly moved way away from the old Clinton [administration] position, but the newspapers want to slap her every time she speaks out about that. Because they think it's all for political reasons. I really don't. I think that both of them genuinely see the problems of globalization. I think they understand that, I don't think their solutions are quite strong enough yet – either of them. But I think they're on the way and they're getting close, and I think we'll see more of that kind of growth as they focus on these kinds of issues in the Midwest now.
Q: So it sounds like you think the candidates are doing a decent job but there's definitely room for improvement?
Yeah, I wish they'd go a little further but they're getting there. And I wish they would emphasize it more. You know, again, they emphasize it, the media will attack them on it, I understand that. Most of the mainstream media, that's what they do. You know, they attacked me, and so what? I won by well into double-digits, in a slightly Republican state, against an incumbent with this message. Granted, it was a good year, and the Republican Party's in trouble, but that was big part of the reason. My numbers compared to Kerry were not a whole lot better in the big Metropolitan counties… but in the small counties I ran ahead of him by 10-15 points. Just looking at that, there has to be a reason, and the reason was a populist economic message.
Q: What are some of the specifics you would like to see them speaking more openly about, being more aggressive about?
They should certainly talk about the Patriot Corporation Act. I think they should strongly speak out against the Columbian Trade Deal. And they should call for a time out – as Hillary has, perhaps Barack has, I haven't heard – call for a time-out on trade agreements. I have a bill I'm about to introduce to set up a Commission – both parties, both Houses – to look back at what we've done in trade, and decide which ones we renegotiate. And work to renegotiate. And what we learn from that, and what we move forward on. I know what I think we should do, but I think we need to build a better consensus in Congress to get there. It's labor and environmental standards, that's a start. It's also stopping the shift of power from governments to corporations. Part of the privatization effort that we have in these trade agreements… we're giving away our sovereignty to corporations in terms of environmental law, food safety law, labor law, allowing these companies to overturn democratically arrived at, democratically determined, health and safety rules and laws. That's where I wish [Barack and Hillary] would go when they start to get more specific.
Q: How much are we able to reopen and renegotiate?
That's unclear. I mean, the first thing we do is stop. But we are such a huge, lucrative market. If you make the analogy to a business. If you have a customer that's 40 percent of your sales you're gonna pay a lot of attention to that customer. We are 35 percent still of China's sales, China's exports, that's the most recent number I've seen…. With Mexico, we're maybe 80, I don't know what percent exactly. But we're important enough to these countries that we can use our market – not to exploit them – but, in fact, to lift their standards up and to lift their standard of living up. And to make those countries more open towards unionization, and more environmentally responsible. And that's what we've never done, of course.