He’s an unabashed progressive with just enough blue-collar appeal to win a swing state such as Ohio.
He’s the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, with a megaphone to go after Wall Street and four decades of public service under his belt.
He’s an affable guy, appealing but not too slick, with smiling eyes and a good head of hair and a media-friendly feminist wife.
And he was preaching economic mobility years before it became the central tenet of the nascent 2016 campaign.
By almost any standard, Sen. Sherrod Brown, 62, a former Eagle Scout with a voice like Tom Waits, is the kind of pol who should at this very moment be making the rounds of the Sunday shows, growling to packed audiences in Iowa and all the while insisting to major media outlets that he is not considering running for president at this time. Or at least you’d expect a bunch of liberal activists to be mounting a Draft Sherrod campaign. No?
“Huh, I really had not thought about it until this phone call,” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
That, of course, is because all the attention has been heaped onto another, fresher-faced member of the Senate: the progressive rock star from Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Just last week, Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo hosted a party at the house of Al Pacino’s daughter, urging New York artists to urge Warren to run. Brown may have been Elizabeth Warren before Elizabeth Warren was cool, but there’s scant evidence that the Ruffalos of this world even know who he is.
“I don’t see it as a competition,” Brown said in an interview at his Senate office. “I’m always looking for allies, so was thrilled when she ran and am thrilled to have her in the Senate.”
But why, Senator, why do you think people are so into Warren when you have been around saying the same stuff for years? Does it not sting a little?
“I don’t play games about it,” he said. “I don’t say, ‘I’m not running now.’ I don’t know what it is. I know you don’t believe this, but I don’t really think about it all that much.”
Truth of the matter is, everyone does believe him. That’s why some progressives feel like Brown may be forfeiting a chance to have a bigger impact this election cycle.
“Yeah, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a group that pledged $250,000 to the movement to draft Warren. “We need more progressives running and building power. To an extent, taking himself out of the running and off of the national stage is a missed opportunity.”
As it stands, progressives may find themselves more than a little bummed out by the upcoming primary campaign. Warren keeps saying no, and neither Martin O’Malley, the banjo-playing former governor of Maryland, nor Bernard Sanders, the Brooklynite-turned-Socialist mayor-turned- independent senator from Vermont, seems to be gaining much traction. And yet the timing could not be better for a candidate with a populist economic agenda to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton and her close ties to Wall Street: Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have decided that this election will focus primarily on the plight of the middle class.
“Yeah, and the Republicans really mean it,” Brown said sarcastically.
“You know you’re on the record,” warned his communications director sitting beside him.
“That’s fine,” he said. “He can’t print: ‘ “They really mean it,” Brown said sarcastically.’ ”
But instead of offering himself up, Brown, who has campaigned on that very issue for years, said he has “zero interest” in running for higher office.
“I don’t think you can do your job well in the Senate if you’re looking over your shoulder wanting to be president,” he said. He may be a fan of Warren and Sanders, but he isn’t above taking minor potshots at their headline-grabbing ways — pointing out, for example, that it’s much easier to be a progressive in Massachusetts and Vermont than in his home state of Ohio.
Asked whether Brown should run for president, Warren would not take the bait.
“Sherrod really has been a great leader for years,” she said. “He has been true on core issues that matter to hard-working families.”
During Obama’s first term, Brown was an advocate for a bigger stimulus package, a proponent of reenacting the Glass-Steagall Act, and a critic of free trade and its impact on manufacturing jobs back home. Recently, he was one of the first Democrats to go on offense to fight for more Social Security benefits. When Sen. Al Franken decided to run for Senate, he sought advice from Brown on how to run as a progressive in a purple state.
Brown said he understands that the media attention that comes with a presidential run can be good for getting a message out, but it can also have a negative effect on building credibility with his colleagues.
Former staffers of his note that he lacks both an ability to make sound bites and the desire to climb the ladder of success necessary to be an enthralling national candidate.
Most descriptions of him include the adjective “rumpled” to describe the attire that accompanies his unruly hair. His wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Connie Schultz, has gotten so fed up with his habit of digging raggedy old socks out of the garbage that she tweeted a picture of him wearing them for the world to see.
Which brings us to the Connie factor. Since they wed in 2004, the writer has mined their marriage for material and doesn’t hesitate to draw punchlines from their pillow talk. When she attended a 2008 speech he gave in Denver, a stranger beside her snarked about Brown’s raspy voice sounding like nails on chalkboard. “Well, I love his voice,” she remembered telling him, without revealing her connection. “I especially love it when he rolls over in the middle of the night and says, I love you, baby.” The man scurried off.
But while he may go home to a journalist, Brown is not one for sucking up to the media: He spent the first chunk of an interview trashing the Boston Red Sox (even though his e-mail address begins with “DamnYankees”) and the second chunk deriding the “corporate masters” of The Washington Post editorial board.
Then, there’s the fact that — how to put this? — he’s an older white guy. Post columnist George Will wrote that if the senator’s name were “Sharon” Brown, he would be a grass-roots favorite, and there is something to that.
“People are not clamoring partly because there are a lot of positive overlaps with Warren,” said Chamberlain of DFA. “But she has something which he doesn’t, which is the ability to break the glass ceiling.”
As far as a life story, it’s not the stuff of inspirational biopics. Brown grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, the son of a family doctor. He joined the Boy Scouts. He went to Yale. He got elected to the state legislature the year he graduated.
“That he didn’t grow up poor is something of a chip on his shoulder,” said one of his former staffers. On his first date with Schultz, Brown wore a community college sweatshirt and gave her two pages of his favorite quotations. The one she says should be on his gravestone is from George Bernard Shaw: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.”
After stints as Ohio’s secretary of state and more than a decade in the House of Representatives, Brown became the first Ohio Democrat in 14 years to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2006. By 2012, he had become one of the biggest targets for Republicans — but despite $40 million being spent against him, he won. And did so maintaining his progressive message.
“There’s a part of Sherrod that worries, always worries, that he isn’t measuring up,” Schultz said in a phone interview. “If there’s anything that keeps him going, that’s probably it.”
And if there’s a path to the history books for Brown, he sees it through the Senate, more Ted Kennedy than Barack Obama. He will spend the next couple of years bucking the administration on trade deals. If Democrats win back the Senate in 2016, expect fireworks from him as the chair of the Banking Committee.
But, perhaps there’s hope for progressives. If Clinton gets the nomination and wants to allay the Warren wing of the party, maybe she can pick the progressive senator from a state she will need to win?
“I have zero interest in being vice president,” Brown said.
At least he knows how to speak like a potential VP pick.