BRUNSWICK, Ohio — Sen. Sherrod Brown’s not-quite-presidential campaign debuted Wednesday on a warehouse floor, in front of more than 200 supporters, and in a state where Brown has been winning elections since Richard Nixon was in the White House. This is the easy part.
Now the hard part: Can Brown, virtually unknown to voters outside Ohio, turn the pro-worker message he’s been sharpening for decades into a viable Democratic candidacy?
“Too often, people — Democratic pundits and activists — act like our party has to choose between advocating for strong progressive values that excite our base, which we do, or talking to working-class voters about their lives,” Brown said as he launched the Dignity of Work Tour, an exercise that will take him to early-voting states, beginning Thursday in Iowa.
“For us, it’s not either/or,” Brown said. “We will always do both.”
Brown’s congressional career is rooted in his long-held opposition to foreign trade deals such as NAFTA and a solid reputation with working-class voters. As he tests the waters for a possible campaign, he is eager to distinguish his brand of populism from President Donald Trump’s. Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016. Brown won his third Senate term in the state by 6 points last fall.
“Donald Trump doesn’t respect the dignity of work,” Brown said. Trump, he added, “used his phony populism to divide Americans and demonize immigrants. He uses phony populism to distract from the fact that he has used the White House to enrich billionaires like himself. … Populists don’t engage in hate speech, and they don’t rip babies from their families at the border.”
Wednesday’s event helped flesh out Brown beyond his core identity: a progressive populist and organized labor ally from the big city. Instead of a send-off from one of the many Ohio union halls where Brown is beloved, or even from working-class Mansfield, where he grew up, he chose Brunswick, a predominantly white suburb 25 miles south of Cleveland. (At this early stage, big unions aren’t issuing endorsements, though labor leaders are particularly eager to see what old favorites such as Brown and former vice president Joe Biden decide.)
Coincidentally, Brown also chose a retail packaging company with a name — Supply Side USA — that evokes economic philosophies that Brown has spent a lifetime opposing. Brown joined the parent company for its grand opening in 2016; the CEO has donated to his campaigns. Outside, supporters navigated tight and icy office park parking lots on an evening with subzero temperatures. Inside, volunteers circled the floor with clipboards, a data-collecting effort that will be even more useful when Brown ventures into states where he isn’t a household name.
An Ohio-based spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, which is working hand-in-glove with Trump’s reelection campaign, blasted Brown as the phony. “Brown’s ‘Dignity of Work’ tour has nothing to do with fighting for hard-working families, and everything to do with Brown’s own political ambitions,” Mandi Merritt said in an emailed statement.
For now, Brown is stopping short of a full-blown presidential bid or exploratory group. America Works, his political action committee, is paying for the travel. Brown hopes his dignity of work themes will shape the 2020 race whether he officially becomes a candidate or not.
“We fight for our progressive values,” he said Wednesday. “We fight for the dignity of work. It’s who we are. It’s how we govern. It’s how we won [in 2018]. And it’s how we will win again in 2020.”
Brown has been deliberate and methodical in his 2020 preparations since his reelection last fall. For months he has cultivated a higher national profile, from feature stories to recent appearances on The Rachel Maddow Show — an important venue for a Democrats — and Late Night With Seth Meyers.
Intentional or not, some of these pre-presidential moves — from the national media to the choice of venue Wednesday night — signal how Brown also wants to be seen as a pragmatic, multidimensional candidate. The dignity of work message, like Brown himself, can at times be pigeonholed as a rallying cause for union workers, but Brown includes management and white-collar professions when he pushes his theme. His allies and leaders in Ohio’s business community stress that Brown is respected not just in the union halls, but also in the boardrooms.
Brown “likes to get to know the CEOs, wants their input, their specific examples of how they’re doing in Ohio, how their workers are doing,” Eileen Bradner — a senior director for federal government affairs at Nucor, a steelmaker with operations in Ohio — told BuzzFeed News recently. “He doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and say, ‘What are you thinking of this?’”
Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, and a longtime friend and ally of Brown’s, told BuzzFeed News she is eager to see how Brown’s message “resonates in the early primary states — how he delivers and how people respond.” Whaley, who cochairs of a group raising money to promote Brown’s potential candidacy, wrote a Wednesday guest column for the Des Moines Register — Iowa’s top newspaper — taking issue with any national reporters who might see Brown simply as a vessel for the white working-class voters who gravitated to Trump in 2016.
“Sherrod is different from others in Washington because he possesses a fundamental understanding that an appeal to the interests of working people transcends our identity-based political atmosphere,” Whaley wrote. “His approach to choosing between the progressive base and the white working class is crystal clear: ‘You need to do both.’”