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Issue Date: April 2007 Issue


Stand and Deliver

What's the secret to winning in swing-state Ohio as a Democrat? Ask Sherrod Brown, the first U.S. senator from his party in 12 years, and he'll tell you: "Stand for something." Now he's off to Washington to fight for fair trade, cheaper prescription drugs, a strategy for withdrawal in Iraq and to make some powerful new friends.
Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com
Sherrod Brown is hiding out, anonymous, in a crowd. Ten days after Ohioans chose him as their first Democratic U.S. senator in 12 years, he's sitting alone, several rows of folding chairs away from a lectern, relaxing at a Boston journalism conference. Brown laughs loudly at a speaker's joke, but only his wife, Connie, waiting her turn to speak, recognizes his voice and looks up.

 

For once, Brown is not the center of attention. Here, he's Mr. Connie Schultz, not one of the Democrats who helped his party retake Congress. 

Brown's Pulitzer Prize-winning spouse is writing a book, titled "... And His Lovely Wife," about campaigning with him. "She was kind enough to bring her lovely husband with her," a conference director tells the crowd which laughs at the reversal "so they're both here today."

"Sure helps to write that book when you win, doesn't it, honey?" Schultz says at the mic. Her normally crisp speech has a little gravel in it, an echo of her husband's rough, rumbling voice. She reads two of her Plain Dealer columns, one about a kid who died from sniffing inhalants, one about sending her daughter off to college. Brown, who married Schultz in 2004, may be her biggest fan. They met after he sent her a gushing e-mail about her writing. He admits to tearing up sometimes when he reads her column, and as he listens today, he lets out little exclamations of surprise at her poignant lines. 

Brown heads to the front row when the readings end to introduce himself to Daniel Okrent, the New York Times' former public editor and an ex-baseball writer. An obsessive baseball fan, Brown chats him up about the game. "My e-mail address is 'damnyankees,' I hate 'em so much," Brown growls. "I told my kids, just don't grow up a Yankees fan or a Republican."Another reporter approaches. "So, are you the guy " 

"I'm Connie's husband, yeah." 

She congratulates him on his election. 

"Thank you. So what are you doing for the Wall Street Journal?" he asks, reading her name tag. Feature writing, she says.

"It's a great newspaper," Brown says, "except for the bastards on the editorial page."

I leave him alone to enjoy the small talk. It's his last chance for a long time to be a minor figure in a room, a fact even Brown needs to get used to.

In early December, Brown is off to Washington for his big introduction to the Senate's elite: dinner at Sen. Edward Kennedy's home with the other Democratic members of Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Brown's recent appointment gives him a chance to work on some of his signature issues, from improving health-care coverage to raising the minimum wage. It also puts him in the dining room where Hillary Clinton is sitting to one side of Kennedy, Barack Obama on the other. 

Turning to a friend, Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator-elect from Vermont who's moving up with him from the House of Representatives, Brown jokes, "Bernie, what are we doing here?"

The next day, a Washington Post reporter calls Brown on it. Did you say that? he asks. The quote runs in an article about Clinton and Obama's presidential-campaign rivalry.

"I guess I learned my lesson," Brown says. "In the Senate, you've got to be a little more careful what you say, because if I'd said something like that in the House, nobody would care!"Plenty of people care what Brown says now. It's not just that he's left the House's lonely minority to become one of only 100 senators. Or that instead of speaking for his House district, which stretched from Lorain to west Akron, he speaks for all of Ohio now. His November victory helped create the new Democratic Senate majority that's challenging President George W. Bush on crucial issues from the Iraq war to international trade, but even that's not the only reason for his new fame. In November, he did what no Democrat had done in a decade: He won Ohio, the ultimate swing state, both parties' key to nationwide victory.

As soon as Brown surged ahead of Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in polls last year, national Democrats started buzzing about him. "If Brown, an antiwar economic populist who supports abortion rights and gay rights, can defeat a Republican incumbent," wrote John Nichols in the left-leaning Nation, "then the lesson for Democrats is a dramatic one. Instead of pulling punches, they can throw them." 

That scares many moderate Democrats, who say Democrats win when they appeal to independent, middle-of-the-road voters. They don't like Brown's style. Neither do Republicans, who seethe at Brown's left-wing populist rhetoric that defines them as tools of the greedy rich.

The feeling's mutual. "Few things that reporters write, or corporate PR flacks and Republicans say, are more grating than accusing liberal or populist Democrats which I obviously am of class warfare," Brown wrote in the 2004 edition of his memoir, "Congress From the Inside." "Many Democrats retreat when accused of such bestiality, but some of us turn up the volume, repeat our words, and continue."

But with all the added attention Brown's sure to attract as a senator, will he still crank up the partisan dial? And what will happen if he does? Remember, people are watching.

O O O O O

The week before Christmas, Brown meets me for breakfast. He orders tea, not coffee. A quick walker and energetic talker even at 8 a.m., he doesn't need much caffeine. At 54, his once-boyish face has turned craggy, rugged. Even his famously wild brown curls are more trimmed and tamed.

What can swing-state Democrats learn from your victory? I ask. 

"First of all, stand for something," Brown says. The government has "betrayed" the public by siding with oil companies, drug companies, HMOs and the very rich, he adds, repeating a favorite campaign argument. 

"I sharpened the difference between Mike DeWine and me." DeWine abetted that economic "betrayal" and supported Bush Administration mistakes in Iraq, Brown argued in the campaign. He even associated DeWine (who did not return calls for this article) with Republican scandals in Columbus and Washington that the senator had nothing to do with. 

Brown says he hopes his 12-point margin of victory showed presidential candidates and others that being boldly different from Republicans "really works in a state that people consider a conservative, slightly Republican state."

Brown also campaigned heavily in rural counties that most Democratic candidates rarely visit. Often, he'd tour with gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland, a friend from Congress who represented Appalachian country in southern Ohio the sort of place where cautious Democrats say candidates need to sound conservative to do well. 

Brown "can be a jarring presence to small-town and rural voters," wrote John Judis in the centrist New Republic in September after following the campaign through Ohio. "It's partly his views on abortion, guns, and gays, but it is equally his hard-edged oratory and quick wit. He is not one of them."

Ever the defender of the working class, Brown jumps on Judis' line when I read it to him in December. "Is he implying small-town people are dim-witted?" 

The election proved Judis wrong, Brown says: He gained ground in rural Ohio. Brown won 46 of the state's 88 counties, compared to John Kerry's 16 in 2004. "We won places we had no business winning," he says. Strickland's support helped, but Brown also says his economic message resonated with small-town voters. "[When I talked about] everything from the minimum wage to middle-class tax cuts for college students to fixing the Medicare law to trade issues, people responded to that."

Brown also did better than starchy candidates such as Kerry or Al Gore at the "is he one of us?" question. Though he's the son of a doctor and a Yale graduate, he's not the urban-elite candidate Judis portrayed. "I grew up in those towns, grew up in  Mansfield, a town of 50,000," he says. "I've always done well among people like that."

Supporters like Brown because he's personable, normal. At a December political gathering with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and several state representatives, Brown was unabashed to hit the buffet, taking a bacon-heavy plate to a table and wolfing it down before the end of the first speech. 

Before the last day of the Cleveland Indians' 2005 season, Brown walked up Carnegie Avenue toward Jacobs Field dressed in a Tribe replica jersey, with an Indians ball cap to top it off. Most politicians four days away from announcing they're running for the U.S. Senate would have gone the safe cap-and-golf-shirt route, yet Brown let his crazy-fan flag fly, as if it were his first day at fantasy-baseball camp. 

"He's a real down-to-earth person, a great people person," says New Jersey U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, who sat next to Brown for years in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "He's always happy, always smiling, and has a very positive attitude which is a little unusual in Congress, to be honest. A lot of times, people take themselves too seriously in Congress. He's not that way."

Moving to the Senate won't change that, Connie Schultz says. When she and Brown went to Washington after the election, "One of the senators at one of the many dinners said, 'Welcome to the club,' " she says. Brown whispered to her, "Will you please shoot me if I ever call this 'the club?' " 

O O O O O

After breakfast, Brown heads across Euclid Avenue to WCPN's studios to spend an hour on the radio. Walking down a long hallway, he passes a bunch of rooms named after donors to the station: the Henry L. Meyer III projection room, the Dominic Visconsi announcer suite, the Fred A. Lennon Charitable Trust edit suite. "Every one of these rooms is named after a rich Republican!" Brown exclaims in mock horror. (He must have missed the Peter B. Lewis stairwell, namesake of the pot-smoking Progressive Insurance chairman, in the lobby.)

Settling into the studio, Brown jokes about the combative calls he'll get from "all these right-wing people listening to NPR." Most of the callers are actually big Sherrod fans. "Senator Brown and it's so nice to say Senator Brown!" one enthuses. Brown fields softball questions until a listener e-mails from University Circle to ask how he balances his altruistic impulses with market forces. 

"I wear a pin that's a depiction of a canary in a birdcage," he says, and though listeners can't see him, he gestures toward his sport coat, draped over a chair. The yellow and gold lapel pin sparkles under the track lighting. Brown says it's a reminder of the canaries in coal mines whose deaths warned miners of toxic gases, and a symbol that, since then, "we have put rules on our market economy," from workers' safety laws to minimum wage to environmental laws. 

"We should do trade the same way," he says. For years, Brown has focused his passion for social justice and his sympathy for unions inherited from his mother, a staunch Democrat on the issue of international trade. Free trade will produce wealth, Brown says, but "it will cause more and more exploitation of the poorest in the world" unless trade deals include "the kinds of rules we have in this country." 

Host Dan Molthrop politely challenges him: Haven't free-trade deals increased living standards abroad? 

Brown disagrees. "What these trade agreements do is provide incentives for investors to chase the cheapest labor, weakest environmental standards and food-safety laws."That upsets another caller, Skip from Chesterland. "I think your comments continue to display ignorance in terms of how the world works [and] how business works," Skip tells Brown. U.S. companies follow the same standards abroad as at home, Skip insists, "because their global reputations are at stake."

This gets Brown worked up. He fights with angry conservatives like it's a sport. His Congress memoir is peppered with gleeful stories about his hate mail. 

"Why do they move overseas," Brown asks Skip, "if it's not for weaker labor laws, weaker environmental laws and cheaper labor?" 

"This again demonstrates your ignorance of the world economy," Skip says, "because the Chinese market is a billion-people market."

 

"Oh, that's it," Brown says, and his voice rises, its grit stirring as if inside an angry cement truck. "Almost all our movement to China is to sell goods back into the United States!""No need to yell," says Molthrop.

"China's not a billion-people market for the United States to sell goods to!" Brown shouts, so loud he overloads the station's sound filters, which cut the volume from his mic. "China is a billion-people labor force that U.S. business wants to use to make goods to sell back into the United States. Nice try!"

Soon the hour ends, and the WCPN crew, grinning, tell Brown that Skip is their token conservative caller, ringing up every day. 

Brown seems a bit chagrined. "My wife's listening," he says. "She will say I was a little bit sarcastic, and she'll say, 'Never be that way.' But guys like him, business guys, they'll always say, 'You don't understand business.' It's never like my argument might have merit. It's 'You don't understand business. You're a moron.' " 

O O O O O

Brown has a knack for infuriating conservatives. "I am the least favorite Democrat among state Republicans and within the Ohio delegation in Washington," Brown wrote in the 2004 edition of "Congress From the Inside" "a mantle I wear rather proudly."

Why does he think Ohio Republicans disliked him so much? I ask Brown in February. "Maybe because I didn't back down when they went after me," he says.

Some of the GOP's distaste may well up from fear. Consider the chess game Brown and Republicans in Columbus played in 2002, during congressional redistricting. Everyone expected Republicans to try to end Brown's congressional career by carving his district into tiny pieces. So Brown dropped hints that if they did, he would run against Taft for governor. 

No one knows if Brown was bluffing, but it was a shrewd threat. Brown had won two races for Ohio Secretary of State in the 1980s before Taft ousted him in 1990 and Taft didn't want a rematch. At a meeting of Republican legislators, Brown boasts in his memoir, one state senator grumbled, "The governor has only one request: Leave Sherrod Brown alone." They drew him a friendly Democratic district.

Is Brown still so unpopular with state Republicans, especially now that he's unseated their 12-year Senate incumbent? "No," he says. Since his election, he's been visiting the Ohio Republicans in the House. "I'm going to have relationships with all of them."

U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette says he was impressed that Brown stopped by his office. Senators, LaTourette says, usually think they're too important to visit mere House members. But the two of them talked about several issues they expect to work on together, from The Cleveland Foundation's plan for a wind-energy farm in Lake Erie to making sure Defense Department jobs move to Cleveland.

"I've always liked Sherrod," LaTourette says. Brown isn't really unpopular among Ohio's Republicans, he says; it's just "cool" to say the other team fears you.

State Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett, though, says Brown is one of his least-favorite Ohio Democrats, along with Dennis Kucinich. They're both on the far left, he says, both too beholden to unions, whom Bennett blames for chasing jobs out of Ohio. "They kind of take an all-or-nothing approach, both Dennis and Sherrod, instead of working to compromise."

 For instance, Brown is so passionate about giving senior citizens better prescription-drug coverage, he used to take busloads of them to Canada for cheaper medicine. But when the Republican Congress added prescription coverage to Medicare, Brown voted no, saying their plan didn't cover enough and was too deferential to drug companies. "He opposed that because he didn't get it all," Bennett says.

LaTourette agrees Brown is unusually partisan. He remembers sitting in his office one day, watching C-SPAN and seeing Brown "taking a two-by-four to President Bush." What about? "Everything. If the president gets up in the morning, he's taking a two-by-four to him."

Bennett thinks Democrats can't learn anything about winning in swing states from Brown. He says Brown rode a Democratic "tsunami" to victory because voters were so upset with the Iraq war and Republican scandals in 2006. "I don't think a lot of people were saying, 'I like Sherrod Brown's program.' They were just saying, 'I'm unhappy with what's happening. I'm going to vote for a Democrat.' " 

Now that Brown represents a swing state, not a liberal district, Bennett says, "I think you'll see him scurry more to the center rather than staying on the far left, because all politicians are ambitious to get re-elected. He's no different."

Brown says he's reaching out to Republicans not to get re-elected in 2012, but so he can be effective on issues from Iraq to prescription drugs to trade. He met with Ohio's Republican senator, George Voinovich, immediately after the election, he often tells audiences. Because the Senate is not as hierarchical as the House, Brown says, "There are all kinds of opportunities to do more in a bipartisan way." 

O O O O O

One reason Brown infuriates free-trade businessmen, Republicans, and even some Democrats is that he's spent his whole congressional career fighting international trade agreements. Supporters of worldwide open trade used to dismiss Brown and fair-trade advocates like him as nuisances. They can't afford to anymore. 

For the first time in decades, fair-traders may command a majority in Congress. Like Brown, almost all of the Senate's other freshman Democrats are fair-traders, as are plenty of new House members. Their victories terrified the other side. "At one extreme is Sherrod Brown," warned the pro-free-trade Economist, "one of the most militant foes of free trade on Capitol Hill."

Brown doubts Congress will renew President Bush's trade promotion authority his power to negotiate trade deals Congress can't amend when it expires in June. Political observers agree. That means a stalled round of world trade talks may struggle further, and trade deals with countries from Peru to South Korea to Malaysia are in doubt. To fair-traders, though, it's a golden moment, a chance to rewrite the rules of globalization.

Brown has only voted for one trade deal in his 14 years in Congress: the 2000 agreement with Jordan, which included the sort of environmental and labor standards he supports. He made his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement the central issue of his first run for Congress in 1992, and he marched in the 1999 protests at the World Trade Organization in Seattle. He visited free-trade zones in Mexico and Nicaragua to see their working and living conditions, then described them in his 2004 book "Myths of Free Trade." Like most Ohio House members, he belonged to the Congressional Steel Caucus, which has argued for tariffs and quotas on steel imports to protect the U.S. steel industry.

In 2005, Brown was the lead whip, drumming up votes, against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. His effort failed, just barely, one late night that July. 

The memory still angers him a year and a half later as he, an aide and I walk through the Russell Senate Office Building, getting lost. "You can see we don't quite know where we're going around this building!" Brown jokes, realizing we've just done a complete circle around the fourth floor.

"They bent the rules," he says of the former House Republican leadership, recalling how they beat him on CAFTA. "They did it in the middle of night. They held the roll call open. They twisted arms. They got people to change their votes, all to jam it through by one vote." 

Brown's disappointment ran so deep, it's one reason he's here now, navigating the maze of Senate buildings rather than starting another term in the House. "I want to be in a body where I can play by the rules and make an impact," he says. Democrats control both houses now, but Brown is still glad he moved. "I'm in a better position to do more here now, obviously." Now he can argue about his signature issue with the country's most powerful leaders.

The next day, Feb. 14, Brown faces down Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing. Bernanke is the country's top economist; stock markets rise and fall based on his economic reports and forecasts to Congress. Brown hopes challenging the Fed chair will help get more people in Washington to see trade his way.

When it's Brown's turn for questions, he tells Bernanke about his canary pin. "As a nation, our values say that we shouldn't buy products manufactured by slave labor in China. Do you agree with that?"

"Absolutely," Bernanke says. "And would you say, then, that we shouldn't import products made by child labor?"

"Yes, I agree that we should not," Bernanke says uncomfortably.

But when Brown asks if the U.S. should ban imports from sweatshops, Bernanke stops him. 

"I think it's probably not a good idea to try to enforce Western-level standards of worker benefits in emerging-market countries," the Fed chair says. "Those workers [have] such low productivity that if we were to insist on the same standards we have in the United States in terms of benefits and the like, the workers would either have very low wages or no job at all." Most economists say trade critics such as Brown downplay free trade's benefits: economic growth for poor countries, lower prices and more choices for American consumers, new markets for U.S. exports. Brown doesn't buy it. 

"In developing countries, foreign investors pay workers so little that the workers share in almost none of the wealth they create," he writes in "Myths of Free Trade." He often points out that the U.S. trade deficit, the difference between the value of our imports and exports, has grown to $763 billion in 2006. He won't even concede that free trade lowers prices much. "When Nike moved all of its production overseas, the price of its shoes did not decrease," he writes. 

Free-traders often call politicians like Brown protectionists, economic nationalists, neopopulists and worse. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, recently called them "masters of vilification" who blame corporations and foreign countries for American job losses really caused by changing technology. Brooks didn't mention Brown by name, but he didn't have to. "Neopopulists are good at describing the suffering in towns like Mansfield, Ohio, and Flint, Mich.," Brooks wrote, slipping in a reference to Brown's hometown. "But they act as if they've never been to Charlotte or Phoenix, where office parks are shooting up." 

Brown may have sounded like a 1980s-style protectionist last year when he blasted DeWine for supporting "job-killing trade agreements," but he sounds more like a humanitarian when he argues that trade deals should enforce International Labor Organization standards, from the right to organize a union to bans on child labor, forced labor and discrimination. Though free-traders and fair-traders usually talk past each other, the agreement with Jordan, with its labor and environmental rules, suggests a possible compromise. And no matter how much free-traders may hate it, they may have to make a deal with the likes of Sherrod Brown.

O O O O O

Brown is chatting in a Senate hallway with 10 Geauga County teenagers dressed in suits, ties and awkward earnestness. They're here with the Close Up program, which brings high school students to Washington for a week to see how government works. 

Brown asks if any of them want to run for office someday. One kid does. Brown asks which issues excite him. The war in Iraq, the death penalty and abortion, the kid says.

Most politicians would nod and smile. But Brown, sensing the kid is conservative, can't help jousting with him. "What do you think about the war?"

"I support our president," the kid says.

"Want to go?"

"If I were called, I would enlist," he says, growing uncomfortable. 

"Will you enlist when you're 18?"

"No, no, no." He'd only go if drafted.

"So it's OK for other people," Brown says. "You support the war, but you don't want to go." 

The teens listen, stone-faced and nervous, surprised that a senator is arguing with one of them. Brown tells them he voted against the war in 2002. "Most people who dress like this," he says, pointing at the kids' suits and his own, "people in this place, their kids aren't there." Working-class people end up doing the fighting, he complains.

One kid seems unimpressed. "Do you think we should just pull out, though?" 

"We're doing exactly the opposite of what we ought to be doing," Brown says. "There's no plan to really turn it over to the Iraqis."

Brown does want the U.S. to pull out of Iraq gradually, over the next 12 to 18 months. "As long as we are there with an open-ended commitment," he tells me later, "there's no incentive for Iraqis to build their police force and military force" or "to do what they need to do with political compromise among the Shiites and Sunnis."

But Democrats in Congress are struggling to figure out how to force Bush to pull U.S. troops out of combat. While they strategize, the president is carrying out his "surge" sending more troops. 

Brown won't vote to cut off funds for the war. "I don't think that takes care of the troops the way we need to," he said on WCPN. "I don't know how the president would react to it. I don't know if he would say, 'This means we're going to have to cut certain things in Iraq that make the soldiers less safe.' " 

Instead, Brown supported the House's nonbinding resolution opposing the surge. What's the point of a nonbinding resolution? I ask. "The goal is to get more and more Republicans with stature in both houses to break with the president on Iraq," he says in mid-February. That will put enormous pressure on Bush to end U.S. involvement in the war, he predicts. He's talked with Republican senators such as John Warner of Virginia, trying to get their support.

The anti-surge resolution died in the Senate a few days later attracting a 56-vote majority, including seven Republicans, but not the 60 votes needed to break a minority filibuster. The Senate Democrats' next idea is to pass a resolution telling Bush to pull U.S. troops out of combat within a year and switch their Iraq mission to training Iraqi troops and hunting al-Qaida. Brown has co-sponsored the bill, but it faces even longer odds.

And what if the Democrats get their way in the end, but withdrawing makes the situation in Iraq even worse? It's maddeningly difficult to get Brown to answer this directly. "Then we figure something else out," he says. He'd rather talk about how horrible the situation already is and how Bush's approach has failed.

Most politicians are skilled at pivoting changing the subject slightly from the exact question they're asked to the points they'd rather make. Brown is more skilled at it than most. "Do you believe that the Patriot Act has made us safer?" a young woman asked him at October's City Club debate with DeWine.

"I opposed the Patriot Act, as you know," Brown replied. He said he thought the act had "some very good points," but "went too far" and "fell short in preserving privacy protections for people using libraries and for medical records and financial records." Then he changed the subject, complaining that the government wasn't inspecting cargo at ports and attacking DeWine's work on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

That seemed evasive. So I asked Brown in December which parts of the complex Patriot Act he thought had made the country safer.

"I don't know the answer to that," Brown said at first a shocking response from a senator-elect. He quickly corrected himself. "I think where it has worked is, it has allowed better coordination among agencies." (A Republican would say that's only part of the right answer. The Patriot Act makes it easier for federal law-enforcement agencies to share information and conduct several types of searches in terror cases.) 

"We could have passed a Patriot Act that protected the public's right to privacy and protected the public's safety," Brown says. Yet he upset civil-liberties groups last year when he voted for the Military Commissions Act, which establishes rules for trying terror suspects that give them few rights as defendants. It also revokes their right to habeas corpus the ability to challenge their detention in federal court. Brown says he voted for the act so that terror suspects imprisoned for years could finally be tried. But the Bush administration plans to try only some suspects, and claims the power to keep the rest imprisoned indefinitely. Brown says he'll vote to restore habeas corpus to the prisoners this year a bill Bush would surely veto.

O O O O O

Brown is sitting in the Senate's near-empty chamber, preparing a speech, when Hillary Clinton sits right behind him. She's wearing a bright red suit with a sparkly red heart lapel pin for Valentine's Day. They both look up from their speech scripts, smile and exchange a quick joke. He asks her a question, and from the press gallery I can read the answer on her lips: Iran. 

In her speech, Clinton warns President Bush not to attack Iran without Congress' approval and to resolve tensions with it diplomatically. She's resolute, yet choosing her words with careful precision. Caution isn't Brown's thing. His speech takes some heavy lumber to President Bush, accusing him of ignoring the suffering middle class, sounding the same populist notes as in his campaign until this surprise ending: He says Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working together to deal with the problem. 

That's a big step for Brown. Read all of "Congress From the Inside," and his opinions of Republicans such as Newt Gingrich will never surprise you. 

His relationship with the Clintons, however, is complex. The book's Bill Clinton references are entertainingly strained and ambivalent: Brown skips a rally with Clinton in Cleveland to campaign in Elyria; Brown makes fun of Clinton for making deals with congressmen to get NAFTA passed; Brown gets so angry at Clinton for endorsing Medicare cuts, he jokes someone should remove the concrete barriers erected around the White House after the Oklahoma City bombing; Clinton calls Brown to ask for support on a budget battle and the conversation seems awkward; Brown debates whether to join House Democrats' supportive trip to the White House after Clinton is impeached (he does, grudgingly). 

Political differences drive the tension: Brown's an anti-free-trade congressman with populist rhetoric, Clinton a free-trade president whose campaigns courted centrists. Yet Brown and Clinton have similar populist styles they're both down-to-earth, good-looking, glad-handing, gravelly-voiced guys' guys.

Brown calls his relationship with Bill Clinton "cordial." He pauses a while. "I don't know him very well. I know his wife better. My relationship with her is very good.

"I appreciate his campaigning for me last year. I think he was a good president. I think he was wrong on trade."

Hillary Clinton also campaigned for Brown this fall, and the two senators have clearly hit it off. In December, before he tapes a WVIZ talk show, a woman on the TV crew tells Brown she doesn't like Hillary.

"Why, because you only like wallflower women?" he asks.

"She's strident," the crew member replies.

"Strident's a word men use about women. Do women use that about women?"

"I do!"

The conversation turns to another nonwallflower, Brown's wife. Brown clearly enjoys being married to a woman as prominent, outspoken and political as he is. "When Connie and I started dating," he tells the WVIZ crew, "we'd compare hate mail at the end of the week. A lot of the same people were writing both of us!"

So it's no surprise that Brown has befriended the ultimate opinionated career woman with a prominent husband or that his wife has too. "Hillary and Connie kind of hit it off," he says."I got to know her a little in the campaign, when she came in a few times," says Schultz, whose book about the campaign comes out in June. "Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to Hillary, we're not at a loss for words." 

On Election Night, when Clinton called to congratulate Brown, Schultz says, "She said to him, 'Tell Connie not to let anyone tell her she can't do her job.' " Clinton was aware, she says, that some critics of Schultz's column have attacked her for expressing political views similar to her husband's. "She also went through it." 

None of that necessarily means Brown will endorse Clinton for president. "I'll support the Democratic nominee," he says, impatient at even being asked so early. 

But when the 2008 campaign reaches Ohio, a lot of political players will be watching Brown from the corners of their eyes. As soon as he won his Senate race, reporters asked him whether he'd like to run for vice president. (No, he says.) 

Still, Hillary Clinton surely knows that it's good to know Sherrod Brown. And surely the other Democrats running for president, from John Edwards to Barack Obama (who also campaigned for Brown), know it too. 

They all know that winning Ohio is almost essential to winning the presidency. And as they re-ask that key political question of the 2000s how can a Democrat win Ohio? they'll have a new answer: Ask Sherrod Brown. He knows how. 

 


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