Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is exploring a presidential bid that would frame his progressive-populist politics around a “Dignity of Work” message that seeks to unite working-class voters of all backgrounds in the sort of coalition that he had maintained in Republican-leaning Ohio. There’s appeal in the Midwestern Democrat’s overt challenge to President Trump’s claim to the mantle of populism, especially when Brown complains that
Trump has used his phony populism to divide Americans demonize immigrants. He uses his phony populism to distract from the fact that he has used the White House to enrich billionaires like himself. Real populism is not racist. Real populism is not anti-Semitic. Real populists don’t engage in hate speech and don’t rip babies from families at the border. Real populists don’t insult people’s intelligence by lying.
There’s skepticism about whether Brown has the name recognition and the base, outside of his native Ohio and perhaps a few other states, to compete in a Democratic race that is likely to be packed with higher-profile contenders, including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. There’s also at least some skepticism about whether provoking a wrestling match between progressive populism and right-wing populism makes sense as a 2020 strategy. Brown will explore these questions in visits to caucus and primary states in coming weeks, and pundits will ponder his potential bid.
There is more to Sherrod Brown than the shorthand profile of a Democratic senator who swept to reelection in 2018 in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
As a member of the House in the 1990s and 2000s, he was an essential opponent of the North American Trade Agreement and a host of other trade deals that he argued would be disastrous for American manufacturing and the communities it has sustained. With Elizabeth Warren, Brown has for many years been at the forefront of legislative and popular crusades to address the abuses of the big banks and Wall Street. Brown was an early and energetic foe of the Iraq War, and for decades has been an outspoken advocate for diplomacy and enlightened internationalism. He voted in the fall of 2001 against the USA Patriot Act, joining Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, Sanders, and a handful of others in courageous defense of civil liberties. And he was the first member of the Senate to announce opposition to Donald Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general—speaking up because, Brown said, “The U.S. Attorney General’s job is to enforce laws that protect the rights of every American. I have serious concerns that Senator Sessions’ record on civil rights is at direct odds with the task of promoting justice and equality for all, and I cannot support his nomination.”
The Ohioan focused his objection on concerns that Sessions, who had a record of threatening voting rights in Alabama, could not be counted on to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was not a new issue for Brown.
The senator has been one of the country’s most consistent champions of voting rights since he served as Ohio’s elected secretary of state from 1983 to 1991. In that position he earned national headlines for his aggressive efforts to promote high-turnout elections. Still in his late 20s when he was elected, Brown crisscrossed the state as an evangelist for voter registration. He and his team set up voter-registration sites in high schools, food banks, and Bureau of Motor Vehicles facilities.
Brown even convinced McDonald’s to print voter registration forms on the liners of the trays Ohioans used to carry their food from the counter to the table, so that “you could order a Big Mac and fill out a voter registration form.”
“You could see voter registration cards with ketchup and mustard on them,” Brown recalled years later, “and we accepted them.”
As a member of the US House and now as a senator, Brown has regularly used his elections expertise to shred Republican lies about rampant “voter fraud.” When Trump started making claims about “millions of people who voted illegally” in the 2016 election, Brown demanded that the president-elect “retract your false statements.”
In a November, 2016, letter to Trump, Brown wrote:
As Secretary of State of Ohio for eight years, I know there are few things more important than the integrity of our electoral system. Your choice to spread false conspiracy theories and to claim millions of fraudulent votes is not only unbecoming of a gracious winner, it is downright dangerous to our democracy.
There is no evidence—zero—of any large-scale voter fraud in the United States. Not in this election and not in any presidential election in recent memory.
Peddling this nonsense and stoking these fears undermine our system of government—and your own election, damaging the public’s faith in our democracy. You won the Electoral College. That is a fact, and you are the President-elect. It is also a fact, however, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.
Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory margin is larger than John Kennedy’s over Richard Nixon, it’s larger than Richard Nixon’s over Hubert Humphrey, and it’s larger than Jimmy Carter’s over Gerald Ford. This was far from a landslide victory, and the only way to bring the country together and move forward is to reach across the aisle and work together.
Two years later, as Georgia’s mangled 2018 election stirred a national outcry, the senator pointed to problems with the counting of votes in the closely contested gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and the Republican who oversaw the election (as Georgia’s secretary of state) and eventually prevailed, Brian Kemp. “If Stacey Abrams doesn’t win in Georgia,” Brown declared, “they stole it.”
Speaking of Republican efforts to restrict voting rights, Brown employs the confident language of a former top election official in one of the key battleground states in the country. “They can’t win elections fairly; they win elections by redistricting and reapportionment and voter suppression,” he told a recent National Action Network meeting, where he complained about “all the ways that they try to scare people, particularly people of color, how they make it hard for people on college campuses [to vote], especially community colleges where there are more low-income people and more people of color.”
“We know those despicable laws are often aimed that way,” he concluded.
Brown brings a populist commitment to the fight for voting rights. He is not cautious about speaking up, or about stirring things up. The senator’s “bottom line,” which he has stated for a very long time, speaks to that commitment: “We should be making it easier—not harder—to vote.”