Sen. Sherrod Brown: The Dignity of Work and Hope in Politics
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio talks about the dignity of work, his Senate desk 88, and the role of both fear and hope in politics.
A lifelong champion for working families, Senator Brown began his political career as the youngest member of the Ohio House of Representatives. He has served as a US Representative, as Ohio’s Secretary of State, and, since 2007, as a US Senator and one of the only Democrats in Ohio elected to statewide office.
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Senator Sherrod Brown: My job every day is to fight for workers and fight for jobs and fight for better pay, and fight for people's right to join a union, so they can join the middle class. It's what I do every day in this job, but it's a message that works in every corner of every state in the country.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today, Sherrod Brown, has been a lifelong champion for working families and began his political career as the youngest member of the Ohio State House of Representatives. He has since served as a US Representative and as Ohio Secretary of State, and since 2007, as a US Senator, and one of the only Democrats in Ohio elected to statewide office. Senator Brown, it's an honor to have you on Burn the Boats.
SB: Ken, it’s good to be back with you. Cool.
KH: I want to share with you a text that I got on election night, actually about 3:00 AM the following morning, from a former staffer of mine. Ohio, for a few hours there, was on the bubble. And I got this text from Mike. He said, "I'm unsure what will happen. But if Sherrod had run, I'd be asleep." You have achieved the political impossibility of splitting a ticket in Ohio and being elected by a state that supports Donald Trump, has voted for him twice. I've got my own theories on how you pulled that off, but give me your short version.
SB: Well, it's really, to me, about the dignity of work. And I think this President has betrayed workers at every turn, but he talked like he was on people's side. He expressed an anger about the condition that Ohio workers and American workers face and the obstacles they face. He did nothing about it. He appointed as the Secretary of Labor, probably the most anti-labor, anti-worker secretary we've seen, a guy that made millions representing corporations against workers in his private law practice over the years. But to me, it's about the dignity of work. And whether you punch a clock or swipe a badge or work for tips, as Dr. King said, “work is never menial if it's paid adequately”. And my job every day is to fight for workers and fight for jobs and fight for better pay, and fight for people's right to join a union, so they can join the middle class. And I think that's a message. It's what I do every day in this job, but it's a message that works in every corner of every state in the country.
KH: So you touch on this in your answer, but I'm going to just call it out. It is one part about the dignity of work. It's two parts about Sherrod Brown and your uncanny ability to connect, to connect across partisan divides, to talk about working families in a way that just about everyone can relate to. I want to get a sense of how you do that, where you draw that inspiration. Often when I talk to political leaders and military leaders, I ask them what they're reading, and you get the rehearsed answer. It's usually some biography, often Winston Churchill. I've heard you talk about the fiction that you read, and maybe it was just an offhand comment, but I doubt it because of the way you tell stories, and I've seen you do it on the campaign trail. And you're, of course, married to one of Ohio's most beloved storytellers. Talk to me about the importance of storytelling in politics.
SB: That really is the secret. It really is no secret, but is the path in many ways, that voters, elected officials too, for that matter, our eyes glaze over when we start hearing numbers and statistics. It doesn't mean you never talk about it, but you tell human stories. And one of the ways we passed the Affordable Care Act and we kept it on the books - and I know your efforts, Ken, to fight for that - was to tell stories about people or someone who might've lost her pension, like Rita Lewis, or hearing stories of real people facing real problems. I talk a lot about what happens if Congress doesn't act right now, what happens January 1st, when a whole lot of families will be evicted from their homes in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a pandemic, and what that means to a family, losing their things, having to move in at a homeless shelter or move to their cousin's basement, with all the problems with a virus that can spread there. People will respond to stories. My wife is the best storyteller in the family. She is a columnist and a Pulitzer winner. But I've learned from that. I've learned from mostly listening. If politicians listen and treat people... I won't answer with a book, but I'll answer with my favorite New Testament passage. Matthew 25, when Jesus said, "When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was in prison, you visited me. What you did for the least of these, you did for me." And I've always thought, since I grew up in Mansfield, in the Lutheran church there, I've always thought Jesus wouldn't have said “the least of these”. Muhammad or Moses or Maimonides or Buddha would not have said some people are worth more than others.
So I came across, from a pastor friend, a different translation of the Bible called the Poverty Justice Bible. And Matthew 25 goes like this. "When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. What you did for those who seemed less important, you did for me." Not “what you did for the least of these”, “what you did for those who seem less important”. And elected officials tend to win, candidates tend to win elections when voters understand that they don't look down, these politicians don't look down on me. These politicians treat me as an adult and treat me equally. I think one of the reasons Trump lost is because he wasn't willing to be straight with the American people and the coronavirus to say, "Okay, I know you're grown up. I know you can take the truth. Here's the truth. Here's what medical science says." Instead, he lied to us, and instead he basically said, "I'm not going to follow the medical advice."
KH: You've got your own collection of stories out there now, Desk 88, about the storied history of your workstation, as it were, in the US Senate. I'm not going to ask you to recap the careers of the progressive politicians you profile, but I would love to get your retelling of the story of selecting that desk. And then how you actually carve your name into it. Does security let you bring in a knife these days? How does that work?
SB: Not exactly, but thank you. When you're a freshman member of the Senate, much is determined by seniority and the office you occupy, the committees you get on, mostly, and where you sit on the Senate floor. And so there were 10 of us left, and I figured it doesn't really matter where you sit, you're in the Senate. So I heard that Senators carved their names in their desk drawers. So I pulled out a number of desk drawers, and I came upon one that said, "McGovern, South Dakota. Hugo Black, Alabama. Lima, New York." And it just said Kennedy with no first name or no state. So I asked Ted Kennedy, who was sitting across the room, I said, "Come here, would you walk over?" And he looked. I said, "Which brother is this?" He said, "Well, it's Bobby's desk because I have Jack's." So I took that desk.
I wrote about eight progressive senators who I think made a great... Particularly on worker rights, on unemployment, on social security, on minimum wage, on eight hour workday, on collective bargaining, several of these senators played a significant role in that. And so after 12 years, my first day of my third term, with my grandchildren in tow, six of the seven of them, I carved my name. You go back to the cloakroom, they give you a pencil and an awl, an A-W-L carving tool that they do allow in the building. And they gave me a black felt tip pen. And I penciled in "Brown, Ohio." Then I carved it, and then I blackened it with my grandchildren. My grandchildren were actually more interested - they were pretty little - more interested in the subway ride over underneath the Capitol than they were in their grandfather carving something in an old piece of furniture. But it was - it's something that we have pictures of, so they'll someday appreciate it, even though they don't yet.
KH: I've heard you bring your grandkids into your stories on the campaign trail, and they're a heck of an asset. You talk about the importance of listening, as a politician, as a political leader. And I'm wondering with the state of politics in Washington today, are there people you just stop listening to? Are there some just irreconcilable differences, or do you try to always empathize?
SB: Let's just say I more acutely listen to my constituents at a town hall or at a union hall, when you and I hung out at union halls together, Ken, or on a street corner, than I do some of my colleagues who say the same thing over and over. And I know them well enough to know that they're not all that serious, or they're so rigid in their thinking that I'm not going to learn a lot. I listen to everybody on the Senate floor and committee, but some, let's just say, are rather predictable. The value I get from listening is especially those people in Ohio that are facing problems from COVID or problems with unemployment or problems in their small business that was successful until the COVID. That's where the art of listening is so important. And it goes with my favorite Lincoln quote, when Lincoln told his staff, "I got to go out and get my public opinion bath," meaning I've got to go out and listen to the public. And I wish that my colleagues would do a little bit- but all of us, including me, need to do more of that, listening to what the public has to say about the situation and tell the stories that they have in their lives.
KH: Well, you are certainly not shy about calling out your colleagues, your conservative colleagues in particular, when they make fools of themselves. But you also have, I think, an incisive diagnosis of what underlies that foolishness. And perhaps it's a disservice to call it foolishness because it's bordering on dangerous these days. I'm drawn to a passage in Desk 88 about fear and the use of fear in politics. And this is a quote, "the fear of change has the upper hand in politics." And that's really... Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but you seem to be saying that fear is at the root of conservatism. If conservatism is indeed about either preserving a status quo or returning to some mythic status quo that empowers a privileged few, then changing that is fear-inducing. Progressives, on the other hand, believe in progress and the goodness of progress, and it is a political philosophy rooted in hope and is forward-looking. Are those two political philosophies at a point where they can't really align on much?
SB: That's a really, really thoughtful, incisive question. I think it’s that... History surely is a collision between, as Emerson said, between the innovators and the conservators, the progressives and the conservatives. And conservatism has evolved in the last few years in this country. To me, it's based in holding onto your wealth and privilege. Conservatives typically are resistant to change, in part because they want to hold onto what they have, the wealth and privilege that this society has helped produce for them. Not that many didn't earn it, of course. But I think that that where they miss now is that then they use fear of change to win elections. But they also are victims of the fear of change, the fear that... I know every member of the Senate, to some degree or another. I've watched, particularly, conservative senators who I thought had a little more guts than they do be in such fear, live in such fear of this President that they are unwilling to use the term President-Elect Biden. They're unwilling to acknowledge that there will be a new President. They're unwilling to call President Trump out. Even his Attorney General did who has been a total loyalist to Trump, more than any attorney general in history, I think, to the President who appointed him. And it's bothersome because it means that senators walk upright around here without having... it's a medical miracle, they walk upright around here without having a spine because they live in such fear of Trump, of Trump voters, of being themselves. So conservatism is unrecognizable from what it was as a very legitimate political philosophy. Where again, innovators and conservatories clash, but they come up with enough compromise, if not common ground, at least compromise to move the country forward.
KH: Well, Senator Brown, I know you've got to go vote, and God forbid we keep you from that. So I want to end with the question we finish every Burn the Boats episode with. What is the bravest decision you have ever been a part of?
SB: First of all, I love the “burn the boat” and Alexander the Great - I love the historical allusion you make there, and that you base it on that. Probably, I was going to take the easy way out and talk about the courage of some of my constituents that have dropped everything to fight for people. Perhaps - and I don't think I saw it as courageous at the time, but I was one of few that did it when I voted for marriage equality, 25 years ago. It's so clearly the right thing to do, was pretty clear to me then, it's more clearly the right thing to do now. And doesn't look so courageous now. I don't like to say I was courageous because courage is a janitor, a female janitor who stands up against her boss for sexual harassment. That's real courage. Casting a vote is not really courage. It's just our job. So I don't like to pat my- my best friend who passed away said, "It's not an attractive thing to dislocate your arm as a US Senator, patting yourself on the back." So I'll just leave it at that.
KH: Well, watching your example, I do believe, I have to believe, that hope and faith in progress can beat back the fear. Thank you so much for joining us, Senator. It's been an honor.
In the next episode of Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Mike Howard, a veteran in the security and protection field. He joins me to talk about his 22 year career with the CIA and then the years he spent as Chief Security Officer at Microsoft.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.