WASHINGTON — As close friends and family members gathered in the living room of Sen. Sherrod Brown’s Cleveland home in November, they all were confident Democrat Hillary Clinton would be the next president.
But as it became obvious to the stunned guests that Republican Donald Trump would win, Brown rapidly adjusted to the new reality.
So after taking the next day off to celebrate his birthday and browse through a book that his wife, Connie, had given him, Brown telephoned a Trump adviser dealing with international trade, wrote a letter to the president-elect and received a response, with Trump scrawling, “Great letter. I will never let our workers down.”
For those who do not know him well, it was the quintessential Sherrod Brown. While admitting he was “heartbroken” that Clinton lost, he quickly turned the page. For all of his arm-waving, down-with-Wall Street speeches, Brown can be a practical politician.
“Nothing’s changed for me,” Brown said. “What’s changed is the White House. Nothing’s changed the way I do things. I don’t think you can find any examples — maybe you can find one or two that are outliers — that I move to the right or to the left based on the winds of my party or based on the winds of the country.”
He not only wants to aggressively cooperate with Trump on a tougher approach to international trade, he also is willing to accommodate the president on ways to build roads and bridges, moves that resonate with the blue-collar, middle-class families in eastern Ohio who flocked to Trump and have long supported Brown.
Yet he is reminding discouraged progressives in Ohio that he is on their side, as evidenced by his vigorous opposition to the confirmations of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and former Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin as treasury secretary. He said people in eastern Ohio “didn’t vote for the White House to be a Goldman Sachs executive retreat.”
That style — to cooperate here and pick a fight there — has elevated Brown, 64, into the giants of Ohio politics, such as former Republican Govs. James A. Rhodes and George V. Voinovich and Democratic Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum and John Glenn. If Brown wins re-election next year, it will be his fifth statewide victory in a political career that began in 1974.
Ohio’s senior senator has emerged, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as one of the best-known Senate progressives willing to confront Trump. For example, within minutes of Trump’s announcement last month that he would nominate federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Brown announced his opposition.
Describing that as a “pretty easy call,” Brown said his staff had researched Gorsuch and the two other judges Trump was considering and concluded there was no reason to wait.
“Frankly, Ohioans I think appreciate that I am straightforward about this.”
Yet unlike Hillary Clinton and perhaps Warren, Brown connects with middle-class union workers. Last week in a speech at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, Brown outlined a plan to boost middle-class income through an increase in the minimum wage and tax incentives to companies choosing to remain in the U.S.
“I think the Democrats need to speak more plainly about what we want to do for the middle class and for people who aspire for the middle class,” he said.
Republicans say Brown is well to the left of the typical Ohio voter. Former Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges said Brown “has been able to dupe people into believing he has this populist bent to him when really he always has been extremely liberal.”
Jessica Towhey, once a spokeswoman for then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said Brown and other Senate Democrats facing re-election “are trying to tap into very real anger” among progressives.
“I’m sure the Democratic base who opposed Trump is pretty demoralized right now,” Towhey said. “He needs to show they have a champion,” but added that Brown will have to show more moderate voters and Trump supporters “he wants to get things done.”
“They are tired of nothing happening except these huge political fights,” Towhey said. “Brown is going to have to show he can say yes to something and if he doesn’t, he’s going to lose.”
Should Brown win re-election, his name will inevitably emerge as a potential presidential candidate for 2020. Last year Clinton interviewed him for her running mate before tapping Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. Brown acknowledged he would have accepted the role had she offered it.
Yet he has displayed no interest in running for president, with its demands for spending months in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He flatly said if he “were running for president, I would have made that speech I made last week in Des Moines instead of Columbus.”
Or as former adviser Meghan Dubyak joked, “He would rather be at the Gallipolis Marriott than the Des Moines Marriott.”