When Sherrod Brown settles in for the first Democratic presidential debates this week, the Ohio senator — and those who subscribe to his campaign’s email list — will have at the ready a bingo card with a square reserved for his signature phrase: “dignity of work.”
In an alternate universe, Brown would be plotting his own breakout moment in the debate in Miami. But he was one of the few Democrats to take a hard look at the race and decide against a run.
Instead, Brown has been listening. And what he’s heard so far is familiar.
“Joe Biden said ‘dignity of work’ five times in his announcement,” Brown said of the former vice president and early poll leader during a Tuesday interview with BuzzFeed News.
“I didn’t count them,” Brown quickly added. “Somebody told me that.”
The pro-worker theme, which hearkens back to Martin Luther King’s advocacy for sanitation workers, is one Brown pushed in the months he spent preparing for a possible 2020 bid. When he announced in March that he would not seek the Democratic nomination, Brown said he was encouraged that other candidates — such as Senate colleagues Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — had begun to incorporate it into their messaging.
Biden had not yet declared his candidacy, but since doing so has made “dignity of work” central to his stump speech. He and others have emphasized issues such as a $15 minimum wage, expanded access to health care, and the importance of organized labor.
Several Democratic hopefuls have sought Brown’s advice, especially after he decided not to run. Two have called on him in recent days, ahead of the debates, though Brown declined to share any names. He suspects that some who have called are more interested in his endorsement, something he said he’s not sure he will offer before the first primaries.
“I doubt it,” Brown said. “It’s possible I’d endorse late this calendar year, but I doubt it.”
Brown is pleased his issue has remained prominent despite his absence from the race.
“The ones that are doing it well understand that dignity of work is about honoring work,” he said. “It’s all workers. It’s not one gender. It’s not one race. I think that’s the theme that beats Trump.”
So who does Brown think is doing it well?
“Nobody that I’m going to say,” he replied, before wondering if a Google search of the candidates and the word “union” might yield clues. “I think candidates that are talking about unions are more likely to understand what the dignity of work is all about.”
Brown said no candidate has disappointed him — “They’ve disappointed themselves, maybe,” he said, specifying those polling below 3% — but also believes no one is talking about the dignity of work enough.
“Enough to me means building a whole campaign around it.”
He’s been happy to see candidates travel beyond early-voting and fundraising states to call attention to labor issues. Several candidates joined striking Stop & Shop workers outside their New England stores earlier this year. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont went to bat for Walmart workers at a meeting of the retail giant’s shareholders in Arkansas.
“Now they go places — they go to Indiana or Kentucky or Arkansas or wherever for a message, and that’s good,” Brown said.
Brown said he doesn’t regret his choice to stay out of the race. He sees himself as an influential voice who can make the case for what he believes in, in a less transactional way.
“I don’t want to make too much of this,” he said, “but in many ways I can push this message more effectively as a noncandidate.”
As for his debate bingo card, he hopes candidates onstage in Miami this week will call attention to President Donald Trump’s recent deliberations on Iran. Trump used Twitter last week to announce he had called off airstrikes, but Brown is concerned about “a recklessness of Trump’s on-again, off-again” strategy and cabinet advisers he fears are pushing for military action.
Brown also hopes Biden “learned a lesson” from comments last week at a fundraiser where the former vice president cited as a virtue his ability to compromise in the Senate with segregationists such as James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. Other Democratic candidates, including Booker, were sharply critical of Biden’s remarks. Biden and his allies have said the point was intended to show that he could work even with those with whom he disagreed.
“I’m thinking he’s not going to do it again,” Brown said. “No, I don’t celebrate that.”