Mention the Democrats in Congress, and the emotional response of most left-leaning Americans will veer from moderate disappointment to frothing cynicism. Some pols fail to live up to their own hype as zealous reformers, while others seem mainly concerned with boosting their own power by pleasing the wealthy and avoiding taking any stand that might lose them votes at the next election. I have no idea how many representatives and senators fit either description, but I do know that Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio does not.
Brown has served in Congress for almost two decades—first in the House and, since 2006, in the Senate. But, whatever the prevailing ideological mood of his country or his state, he consistently hews to positions that any progressive should cheer. In the House, he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, opposed going to war in Iraq, and took the lead in opposing the younger Bush’s Central American Free Trade Agreement because of its threat to manufacturing jobs in the United States and to small farmers in nations like El Salvador and Guatemala. In the Senate, he has been a consistent vote for gay rights, to support unions and the National Labor Relations Board, and to put the brakes on an unregulated global economy.
In his stump speech, Brown talks about the canary pin he wears on his lapel. It honors “the workers’ rights movement” whose victories “cost many of them dearly” and “gave us all food safety laws, civil rights, rights for the disabled, pensions, and the minimum wage.” Like the canaries coal miners used to take with them into the pits to warn of toxic gas, the pin symbolizes the need to be on guard against the big corporations and conservative politicians who threaten those gains and stand in the way of future progress toward a more decent society.
Brown has stayed true to his principles while representing Ohio, that most iconic of swing states. As of this writing, he is favored for reelection—and by a larger margin than Barack Obama would win in the state against Mitt Romney. And perhaps it’s not surprising that Brown is married to someone whose talent for articulating progressive principles matches his own. Connie Schultz is a syndicated columnist, formerly based at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2005. To my knowledge, she is the only regular op-ed pundit who writes eloquently about what, in one column, she called the superiority of immigrants and their children who know two languages over native-born Americans who speak only one.
I spoke with her husband in April at his office in Washington, D.C.
Michael Kazin: You are one of the few Democratic senators who seem able to combine a politics of economic populism on labor and trade with support for culturally progressive issues like marriage equality, pro-choice, and civil liberties. So, how do you do it?
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