Pondering a presidential run, Sherrod Brown stops by for breakfast

Linda Feldmann

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio made his first appearance at a Monitor Breakfast Tuesday, midway through a “listening tour” of early presidential primary states.

Throughout his career in public service, Senator Brown says, he never considered running for the White House. But now he is making a case for himself: He was the only Ohio Democrat to win statewide in 2018 (and it wasn’t close), after President Trump won the critical battleground state comfortably in 2016. That’s a sign, analysts say, that in the 2020 general election, Brown could retake the “blue wall” states – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – that handed Mr. Trump the presidency.

Brown’s campaign would focus on the “dignity of work,” addressing the concerns of working people – wages, retirement, health care, day care.

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Before the senator took questions, he made a point of calling on Trump to rein in supporters who attack the media, in response to video showing a man shoving a BBC cameraman at Trump’s rally in El Paso, Texas, Monday night.

“We all are concerned that there will be something worse happening at some time in the future,” Brown said.  

What follows are excerpts from the breakfast conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity:

Q. How are you feeling about the 2020 race? Is the water warm?

I’m not ready to jump in. This was not a longtime dream of mine to be president of the United States, and I know that many candidates who’ve announced have been thinking about this for months, years, longer than that. I haven’t. 

In November, I began to see more and more Democrats thinking we need to choose between talking to our progressive base and exciting the base as we do, and talking to workers about their lives, as if that’s a choice. We’ve got to do both.

We don’t win swing states like New Hampshire and Nevada and Ohio and Michigan unless Democrats talk to our progressive base, never compromising on progressive values on civil rights and LGBT rights and women’s rights and on gun issues, never compromising on those – but speaking to workers at the same time. And that’s what the “dignity of work” tour is all about. We will make that decision [about a presidential campaign] in March.

Q. What have you learned so far from your tour?

One of the most interesting things is the response on the Patriot Corporation Act [which would reward companies that keep jobs in the US and pay American workers well] and on the Corporate Freeloader Fee [which would require corporations to reimburse taxpayers if their workers receive government assistance, such as food stamps]. In rallies or house parties, they probably get the best response, because voters generally understand the importance of a tax system that actually works for workers and works for families.

Something else that’s been increasingly obvious to me is the importance of making day care a public good. I think that’s increasingly a role for government. I think the public is coming to that conclusion.

Q. Several of your colleagues and would-be opponents have endorsed various forms of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. What’s your view of these two ideas?

I believe in universal [health care] coverage. I want to add to Obamacare, and I want to help people now. That means, if you allow voluntary buy-in [to Medicare] at 50 that’s not just practical and smart, it will help people today.

Eventually we probably get to something like Medicare for All, but we start by expanding it and helping people now.

Q. What about the Green New Deal?

Climate change is one of the most important moral issues of our times. We should be much more aggressive. But I don’t need to co-sponsor every bill that others think they need to co-sponsor to show my progressive politics. I want to get something done for people now.

Q. Will the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), pass Congress? [Brown opposed NAFTA from the start, during his days in the House.]

I don’t see evidence that it’s going to pass. I don’t know what Republicans are going to do. I know that there are few Democrats in the Senate that support it.

[US Special Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer] thinks that he’s done the best he can, and I assume he has, but it just simply isn’t good enough for most Democrats, if not almost all of us. It’s not good enough for organized labor, it doesn’t work for workers. It doesn’t work for Mexican workers, in my mind.

Q. Hillary Clinton faced regular criticism over her voice and appearance. Do you worry that your gravelly voice and shaggy hair would make you unlikable as a presidential candidate?

That shaggy hair, as you say, and gravelly voice will work in union halls in the industrial Midwest, first of all. That was a pretty funny question.

I see what’s behind the question. It’s clear, women are judged differently, and it’s unfortunate that our society still judges women differently. A lot of the criticism of Hillary was unfair in that way, because she was held to a different standard.

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