Up Close and Personal with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown

Sherrod Brown, NDAA
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) speaking at a press conference on sanctions on North Korea in the National Defense Authorization Act at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on June 27, 2019. Photo credit: © Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Sherrod Brown still dreams of the time when America’s great debates were actually aired on the floor of the United States Senate. Because senators only had to face voters every six years, the founders viewed it as a vessel to cool passions, to try out ideas, and to accomplish big things.

Today’s reality is, as we see every day, entirely different. Still, there are those like Brown, Ohio’s senior senator (D) — and our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast — who rely on history as a springboard for what they hope will be a better future.

Brown’s long prominence as a progressive leader reinforces the old adage that Richard Nixon would repeat at every election: “It always comes down to Ohio.”

Brown uses the history of his own senate desk, once occupied by some of the great liberal lions, to share stories of the triumphs and failures of progressive leaders over the past century, at a time when the phrase “political courage” was not dismissed as an oxymoron.

He talks about how he sees progressivism today, what he imagines as the rightful role of government, and what he thinks it should look like. He explains what he sees as the difference between progressives and populists. While he acknowledges that it’s difficult to make big things happen in the Senate today, he argues that the rewards for doing so are enormous.

Agree with Sherrod Brown or not, he’s a man motivated by a commitment to both the institution of the Senate and a clear vision of what  a “progressive” United States might look like.   

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

The United States Senate was once considered the world’s greatest deliberative body. As we witnessed in the first presidential debate last week, it’s entirely possible that honest debate in America is actually dead. And why should we assume that the US Senate is any different? But rather than coming to mourn what once was, perhaps by summoning up the history of some of those senators who once infused the body with all that made it and the country great, we can almost by sheer force of will create an environment that might let it bloom once again. After all, isn’t that why we study history, why we visit monuments and capitals and museums, so that we might take with us, in some primal and visceral way, the inspiration of the best that came before and integrate it into doing good today?

Jeff Schechtman: In part, this is what our guest, US Senator Sherrod Brown, does in his new book, Desk 88. Sherrod Brown is the Senior United States Senator from Ohio. He was a former member of Congress from 1993 to 2003, Ohio’s former secretary of state, and he began his career as a member of the Ohio House of Representatives. And I would argue at the risk of having the senator disagree with me before we start, that had he been the vice-presidential candidate four years ago, the world would be a very different place today. It is my pleasure to welcome Senator Sherrod Brown to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
Sherrod Brown: Thank you, Jeff. I don’t agree with that, but thank you. In the beginning of your lead-in, I really liked about the way that the Senate once was and could be again. After this election, we can talk about that. But potentially, it can absolutely be a place where we actually enact legislation, not just confirm judges.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about in this history of these eight senators that shared desk 88 is this sense of history. I talked to a very famous newscaster who’s retired the other day, who talked to me about being so dispirited by what he sees today. Talk about how this sense of history that you write about, the history of the Senate in particular, can inspire you from those moments of despair.
Sherrod Brown: Yeah, I just finished. The book came out a year ago in hardback. The paperback came out two weeks ago, and I wrote a new chapter, an afterword that I wrote kind of throughout the year, and the publisher wanted it in August. It was titled And Still, Hope. And I have that, because I think this election very well can start a new progressive era where government deals with the great issues of our time. Government deals with climate change, government raises the minimum wage and the overtime rule, allows buy-in at Medicare at 65, a public option. Government can be on the side of the public again. We can do the earned income tax credit. We can deal with racial disparities with a new president, a new Senate.
Sherrod Brown: And so I come into this partly by a study of history, partly by observing and more than observing this year, participating in this election, that there is a chance. And when progressives win, we do big things that last, and you can look at history of these eight senators that had my desk on the Senate floor, and you can see the big things that we as a country did, led by progressive movements. I was going to say led by these senators, but it’s really the progressive movements that push the Senate into doing the right thing.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about it in terms of movements, because there’s also within this historical context a sense of the cycles of history, that certainly for the past 40, 45 years, we have been moving against government, that somehow government was the enemy, and that we stand arguably at the precipice right now of beginning to change that.
Sherrod Brown: I think that’s a really good insight and good question, Jeff. Since Reagan, who said government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem, that’s not a direct quote, something like that. We are seeing during this pandemic the role of government. If not for the $600 a week unemployment benefit that Trump and McConnell ended in August, but it was there from April until early August, but not for that, some studies show that 12 million families would have fallen into poverty. That $600 not just saved those families, it saved the economy. I mean, the economy went pretty far south, and it really obviously got hit. But imagine how much worse if those millions and millions, in Ohio, 680,000 workers, hadn’t had that unemployment check to spend at the local grocery store, to buy clothes for their kids, to take care of their families. It would have been much worse for all businesses and the economy as a whole.
Sherrod Brown: So clearly we are seeing now during this pandemic the positive role of government and the negative role of the government not stepping up. The government didn’t step up and help us open schools safely. The federal government’s not helping local governments. We’re not doing what we should, because McConnell and Trump have just said, no, we’re done, we’re not going to do any more. And I think this election, it’s going to reconcile that, it’s going to answer that question, what is the role of government? And the role of government is important in our country. It gave us Medicare, Social Security, civil rights, voting rights, Head Start, Pell Grants, go down the list, good environmental laws when they’re enforced, all of those things, workers’ safety laws.
Jeff Schechtman: Are you sensing among your Democratic colleagues, and among your constituents in Ohio that you’re in touch with, that there is this sense that things are changing, that there is this new appreciation or at least a willingness to look at the importance of the role of government?
Sherrod Brown: Yeah, I absolutely sense that. I think that Democrats are pretty much all in one place on a whole host of these issues that every single Democratic Senator and every House member I know, I don’t know every House member well, I know every Democratic Senator fairly well, every one of us understands the importance of climate change and how we have to address it. I mean, differences on solution in part, but not much difference in terms of what we do on racial disparities, what we do in income inequality. And I hear that from voters. I think it’s pretty clear voters want change.
Sherrod Brown: There’s a reason Trump’s numbers have never gotten to 50% favorable. It’s not just his personality and the fact that he lies every day. It’s certainly that, but it’s more that his philosophy doesn’t work for our country, this always help the rich. If you come to a fork in the road and it’s either corporate interests or public interest, he chooses corporate interests every single time. He wants to use government as a grifter only to enrich his family and his friends, as we see, not for the public interest. People are seeing that in, I think, large numbers. That’s why Trump can’t get even close to 50% of the vote.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the eight senators that you look at in Desk 88, and not in terms of the individual history of each one, because we certainly don’t have time for that, but in a sense of how they might view where we are today.
Sherrod Brown: Well, I think that every one of these eight senators, from Hugo Black, the first one I profiled, elected in 1926, later made his name fighting for labor law reform, collective bargaining, minimum wage, eight-hour workday, but then went on the Supreme Court and played a big role in Brown v. Board of Education as a southerner, as an Alabaman, to Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern. What they all did was understand, at least at some point in their careers, they understood that government is a check on private power, that without activist government you have special interests run amok. And that’s what we’ve seen, you suggested it for 40 years. We’ve seen it in different degrees since Reagan.
Sherrod Brown: But being a progressive is looking out for people that don’t have power. It’s being a voice for the voiceless. It’s a check on private power, and it’s involvement of government in improving and lifting up people’s lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about an ongoing historical battle between what he called the innovators and the conservators. The conservators just want to hold close the privilege and the power they have. What he called innovators, we’d call progressives or liberals, want to speak for everyone, want a government for everyone, not just the privileged.
Jeff Schechtman: This whole subject today of populism, how does that relate to what we’re talking about? How do you incorporate that idea into this progressive worldview?
Sherrod Brown: Populism comes in different strains in history, as you know, and sometimes we see the Donald Trump phony populism, where he came to my state and convinced a number of, I mean, he already had the Republican vote, but convinced a number of Independents and a few Democratic workers that he was their champion. And that phony populism clearly never panned out. What his phony populism was, was good language, but not ever coming down on the side of workers.
Sherrod Brown: Populism is, to me, speaking for those without a voice. It’s not much different from progressivism. I call myself a progressive more than a populist, but I think you can conflate the two. But the danger always is that people on the far right, authoritarians, have called themselves populists, as if they’re for the people, the root, obviously, P-O-P. When it’s that appeal, it’s always a phony populism to use to acquire and hold on to power, but it’s really not looking out for the public at all. The word “populism” is really, I don’t think progressives use it very much anymore, because of what the right wing has done with it and what Trump’s done with it.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about how you came to Desk 88 with its remarkable history.
Sherrod Brown: Yeah. The Senate is, as one might expect, much of your early time in the Senate is done by, assigned by seniority. And I came to the Senate with nine freshmen in 2007, so the 10 freshmen get the last choice on committees, essentially on office space in one of the office buildings, and on the Senate floor. Which I really didn’t care much about. I mean, I’m still there, right? But I was there. But anyway, there were 10 desks left, and someone had told me that senators carved their names in the bottom of their desk drawer. So as I was looking around for these last 10 desks, which we were choosing among, I pulled out three or four drawers. I came across one that said, “Hugo Black, Alabama, George McGovern, South Dakota, Herbert Lehman, New York,” and then it just said, “Kennedy,” but not a first name or a state.
Sherrod Brown: So I went over to Ted. Ted Kennedy sat four or five seats away. I said, “Ted, come here a second, would you?” And he walked over. I said, “Which brother’s desk is this?” And he said, “Well, it’s got to be Bobby’s, because I have Jack’s.” So obviously he got first choice. It was his brother, and 30 years in the Senate by then, or 30-plus years. So I just began to kind of look at the people who had carved their names in this desk drawer. My wife, knowing that I think you can do any job better… I mean, you do your job better in a show like this by looking at what your predecessors did, learning from them, sometimes rejecting, sometimes maybe copying a little, always learning from.
Sherrod Brown: And so for this book, I read probably 160 books about the Senate and progressivism. I mean, some were fiction, some were political fiction, some were straight history, some were biographies. I picked these eight. I had no particular reason for eight, but I picked these eight because they had that strain of progressivism running through their careers, sometimes uneven careers, but careers that brought the country forward.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about William Proxmire, who’s one of the eight that you talk about, who has a pretty remarkable career and not really given enough credit for it sometimes.
Sherrod Brown: Yeah, Proxmire was very much a loner. Nobody devoted a higher percentage of their workday to politics and governing than Proxmire did. He came from Wisconsin. He grew up in Chicago, son of a doctor. His dad actually had as a patient Jack Benny. So his dad had the richest, the elite of greater Chicago in his medical practice. Proxmire moved to Wisconsin and started running for office. He lost three times for the Senate. He was going to challenge Joe McCarthy the fourth time. I’m sorry, he lost three times for governor. Sorry. He was going to challenge Joe McCarthy for the Senate, and McCarthy died. He won the special election, a bit of a fluke. And then he won every time after that.
Sherrod Brown: And he really took on the big guys. He was a progressive, but he was uneven in his… he supported the Vietnam war too long. He was not initially great on some progressive issues, but he ended up, he just, by an unrelenting, focused, never-give-up attitude, accomplished a lot of things, especially he was chairman of the Banking Housing Committee, which if we take the Senate, I will likely be chair next year. So I learned from him there. He was a loner in the Senate. He didn’t have friends much. He went back every weekend and shook hands. He would go to Milwaukee County Stadium after a Milwaukee Braves game in the ’50s and early ’60s and stand up there and shake hands night after night after night. He was always doing that and was unbeatable in his elections as a result, because a huge percentage of Wisconsinites actually met him over time.
Jeff Schechtman: There is a sense that all of these people, Proxmire, George McGovern, Bobby Kennedy, all the ones you detail, really appreciated the Senate and appreciated its ability to accomplish things that seems to be lost today.
Sherrod Brown: Well, I think that’s right. First of all, make sure listeners understand that these were all white men. I acknowledge that. That’s pretty much who I had to choose from. There were no women, I don’t think, that sat, at least that carved their names in desk 88. And I assume that if someone were to write about desk 88 50 years from now, they would write about progressive women and progressive people of color. They all believed government could play a part. I mean, you can’t really be a progressive if you don’t believe government can play a positive role. The Senate had a wider range of philosophies in those days. I mean, there were some pretty conservative Democrats. When some of these Senator served, when most of them served, the South was segregationist Democrats, and I’m glad they left the party. They joined the Republican Party, clearly.
Sherrod Brown: But the Senate also had progressive Republicans like Ed Brooke and Jacob Javits and James Pearson of Kansas and people that were for civil rights. You now see the Republican Senate is, everybody’s conservative with the exception of Murkowski, and some are really, really, really conservative. So it goes from conservative to ultra conservative. There are no moderates left in the Senate except Lisa Murkowski, occasionally Susan Collins, so it’s hard to get bipartisan things done with the understanding the role of government can be a positive force. There are a few like Todd Young and Jerry Moran that occasionally come over our way that are decent, honorable people, but in the age of Trump, they’re all spineless. I mean, we know that, and history is going to look very unkindly on these senators that continue to enable this lying thug of a president.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, we’re just about out of time, but talk about the degree to which all of this gives you inspiration and some optimism as to what the future might look like.
Sherrod Brown: It gives me optimism, because I see what government at its best does. You know, progressives don’t win very often, but we win, we do things that are big and they last for a long time. You can look at the progressive eras of Roosevelt. I mentioned Social Security, collective bargaining, minimum wage, eight-hour workday, rural education. You can look at Johnson, voting rights, civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, Equal Opportunity Act, immigration, Higher Ed Act. And you can look at Obama, with the Affordable Care Act. That was such a short-lived, I’m not sure you can call that a progressive era, because it was so short-lived.
Sherrod Brown: But it tells me, and the reason I did the afterword that I wrote this summer and still hope, is that we know that if we win this year, we do big things that Americans will benefit from for decades. This is not a, we’ll pass something, people will get something good for a few months or years. It will be long-lasting, because that’s how progressives have done things historically. That gives me the greatest hope of all.
Jeff Schechtman: Senator Sherrod Brown. Senator, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Sherrod Brown: Thanks. Thanks for the good and great questions. I appreciate that.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Sherrod Brown: Thanks so much, Jeff. All right.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Senate.

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