Moment Turned on a Memory

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

It was a marathon day in Congress, marked by historic action and political theatrics.

The House Republican leader dropped a printout of the 1,100-page stimulus bill on the House floor, claiming it was overweight with spending. The Democratic House speaker likened the bill's passage to Abraham Lincoln's preservation of the union. By dusk, after the $787 billion economic recovery package had sailed through the House and 59 senators had voted in favor, the nearly empty Senate chamber fell silent. The proceedings remained open for five painstaking hours as Senate leaders awaited the climactic return of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who flew in from Ohio and cast the decisive 60th aye vote.

Brown strode into the chamber at 10:45 p.m., wearing a dark suit and no smile. He placed his arm around Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), shook the hand of Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and then gave the clerk a thumbs up, ending what had been one of the longest votes in Senate history. Brown's was the critical vote Senate Democrats needed to ensure that the signature legislation of President Obama's young administration passed without a GOP filibuster. Three Republicans broke ranks to support it.

Brown, whose 88-year-old mother died of leukemia last week, had dashed from her memorial viewing in Ohio last night and boarded a government aircraft provided by the White House that landed at Andrews Air Force Base. The journey illustrated the extraordinary steps Democrats took to guarantee a major victory.

For Brown, the moment turned on the memory of his mother, who was raised in a small Georgia town during the Great Depression. A champion of social and racial justice, Emily Campbell Brown read and reread Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and insisted that her boys address African American adults not by their first names but with "Mr." or "Mrs."

She cast her first vote in 1944 for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even as she lay dying she wanted to live long enough to see Barack Obama in the White House. And so it was a poignant moment last night for the son who knew that his vote would make a difference.

"I know she would want him to be there for the vote," said Brown's wife, Connie Schultz. "There was just no question that Sherrod would have to cast his vote."

After Brown voted, an aide whisked him and Schultz through an empty marble hallway in the Capitol, into an elevator and toward a car that would carry them to Andrews for their flight back to rejoin family in Mansfield, Ohio. There his mother, who died Feb. 2, will be buried after a funeral this morning at a Lutheran church.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed its version of the stimulus bill with 61 votes, including that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has a malignant brain tumor. But Kennedy did not return to Washington for last night's vote on the compromise bill worked out with the House, meaning every other Democrat needed to be present.

Reid, who spoke with Brown throughout the week while he tended to his family in Ohio, held the vote at 5:30 p.m. and kept it open until Brown could make it back. When the Ohio senator, who usually flies on commercial airlines to and from Washington, could not find a flight that would accommodate his schedule, the White House arranged government transportation.

As the wait for Brown grew, Reid and Durbin took turns presiding over a chamber so quiet that only Reid's sneezing was audible from the galleries. With nothing much to do, both men thumbed through the Congressional Record and stared out at 100 wooden desks without occupants. At one point, Durbin began reading "Traitor to His Class," a biography of Roosevelt by H.W. Brands.

Earlier in the day, touched by Brown's effort, colleagues lavished praise on him.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called him "very selfless," and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) called Brown "among the finest people I've met in public office," adding, "The time he's spending with his family to pay tribute to his mom, and his effort to get back to cast a vote -- both are consistent with his character."

Brown's mother was found to have leukemia in mid-December but decided to spend her final weeks at home in the small central-Ohio city of Mansfield, halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, in the same house where she raised three sons.

For days at a time, Brown, 56, stayed at his mother's side, sometimes sleeping on a hospital cot. Once his mother returned home, neighbors brought them casseroles and cornbread. Brown used his BlackBerry and laptop to keep in touch with aides and monitor the stimulus bill's progress. When he was needed for critical meetings or votes, Brown flew to Washington in the morning and returned to Ohio that night. His wife joked that the couple spent so much time looking up flights that they memorized Continental Airlines' schedule for the Cleveland-to-Reagan National Airport route.

"I have only one mother, and my mother is dying, and I'm going to be with my mother," Brown told Reid.

"We'll try to make this work," Reid replied.

And Senate leaders did.

"Despite all of the battles, the Senate is a family," said Casey, one of Brown's closest friends in the Senate. "This is one of those instances where the family in the Senate grieves when someone loses a loved one and also tries as best as they can to support a colleague."

Brown and his mother were very close, and she was an energetic presence in his political campaigns. During his 2006 run for Senate, she delighted crowds by marching in parades, even after Democratic officials begged her to ride because of her age.

Emily Brown was a political force in her own right, working during World War II for the Foreign Economic Administration in Washington and later for several Ohio nonprofits. At the local YWCA, Brown led an interracial dialogue for teenagers during the tumultuous 1960s.

While ailing, she shared moments both tender and humorous with her family.

But grief sneaked up on the senator.

"There are definitely times when he cries, and he's allowed to," said Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "One of the hardest things I'd see in Sherrod is the helplessness he'd feel, that his mother would never get better, so then he'd shift to: 'How do I get my mother the kind of death she wants.' "

Then his mother would say, "Sherrod, I'm not afraid, and I don't want you to be afraid," Schultz recalled.

On Feb. 2, when Brown knew the end was near, Schultz said, he hovered close to his mother and gently said, "It's over, Mom. I promise. It's almost over."

She opened her eyes and looked at him. And within a few minutes, she was gone.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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