Sherrod Brown Beats Back Big Money

On a hot July Sunday afternoon, more than 100 people show up for a canvas kickoff event at the Montgomery County Democratic Party headquarters in Dayton, Ohio. There is a definite buzz in the air since the arrival of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

After saying the Pledge of Allegiance, a multiracial crowd of burly union men in Teamster shirts, grandmothers with strollers, young women with pixie haircuts in T-shirts saying “Women Matter,” middle-aged folks dressed in their Sunday best, and veterans of old wars and newer ones, wait in the air conditioning for their Senator to speak.

“Thanks for coming out on a Sunday afternoon like this. It’s a nice day and there’s other stuff you could be doing,” Brown says. “Thanks for your activism. Thanks for standing up. Thanks for your willingness to go door to door, and for all the things you are doing to fight back against the forces, well, I won’t say the forces of evil”—the crowd laughs—“but whatever those $10 million represent.”

The $10 million figure Brown refers to is the massive amount of out-of-state cash that conservative groups are pouring into the Ohio Senate race, in support of his opponent, thirty-five-year-old Josh Mandel. The fifty-nine-year-old Brown is one of the most liberal Senators in Congress—and in a swing state, no less. Picking him off would be quite the trophy on Karl Rove’s mantle.

Rove’s nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, flooded the airwaves this summer with attack ads against Brown, and the group plans to spend an additional $6.7 million in ads for the final five weeks of the race.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is gunning for Brown, too. It aired ads criticizing the Senator for supposed anti-business votes. “We are being outspent five to one. I can live with that as long as we do work at the grassroots,” Brown tells his supporters.

Both Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are nonprofit groups that can raise unlimited amounts of cash and do not have to reveal who their donors are. They are not allowed to coordinate their activities with candidates or official campaign committees but they do talk amongst themselves. Crossroads and the Chamber air the negative ads while groups such as the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity handle polling and on-the-ground work.

By August, conservative groups had spent more than $15 million against Brown, dwarfing the amount of money Mandel’s campaign has spent. “The only reason this is even worth your time to come out here and cover it is because of the money,” Brown tells me. “If they weren’t spending this money, this wouldn’t be a race.”

The negative ads paid off early: Brown’s lead dwindled from double digits in January to within the polls’ margins of error by early summer. Yet as autumn approached, Brown was on an upswing.

Brown and Mandel are stark contrasts. Brown graduated from Yale and first ran for office at the tender age of twenty-one, winning a seat as a state rep from Mansfield, outside of Cleveland. He served as Ohio’s secretary of state and logged six terms in Congress before winning the Senate seat from Mike DeWine in 2006.

Brown may be best known for his longstanding fight against free trade agreements. “Our nation lost more than five million manufacturing jobs, a third of our manufacturing workforce. Sixty thousand plants closed” in the last decade, he says. “It’s not entirely because of trade law and tax law, but a big part of it is.”

He wrote a book about it, Myths of Free Trade, and made waves this summer for pushing U.S.A. Olympic uniforms to be made in the United States. “The Olympics thing was a symbol, but it was more than symbolism,” he says. “Many large corporations in the last twenty years have decided that their business plan is to shut down manufacturing in Dayton and Toledo, and move it to Wuhan and Shenzhen. And then they sell products back into the United States. It’s a betrayal of this country and a betrayal of the middle class.”

Brown also makes arguments that government can improve people’s lives at a time when most pols shy away from such rhetoric. When I told him that, he points to the canary in a cage pin on his lapel.

The pin, given to him a dozen years ago by steelworkers at a workers’ memorial service near Lorain, symbolizes mineworkers taking a canary down to the mines. If the canary dies, the miners have to get out.

“It symbolizes the role of government in our living longer, healthier lives: Social Security, Medicare, safe drinking water, clean air, workers’ compensation, collective bargaining, minimum wage, civil rights, all of those things,” Brown says. “More and more people in our party understand that we’ve got to have a defense of what government does well, from never missing a check on Social Security to the very reliable Medicare, to the air we breathe and the water we drink, and helping send kids to college with Pell Grants. We should not be backing off.”

Brown allows himself time for nonpolitical pursuits. For instance, he is a big baseball fan, rooting for his home team, the Cleveland Indians. And he chats about baseball with people before press conferences start. He and his wife Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, visited Wrigley Field on their honeymoon eight years ago, he tells me.

Josh Mandel is a brash conservative from Lyndhurst, Ohio. He’s a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq, has a law degree from Case Western Reserve University, and is a successful campaigner. He ran for state treasurer in 2010 and won, after serving two terms as the state rep from the 17th District.

Despite a great back-story, Mandel has stumbled. In his campaign for treasurer, he ran a controversial ad insinuating the incumbent was cozy with Muslims. He claimed to be a hardworking state treasurer, even though during his first year in office he hadn’t gone to any Board of Deposit meetings. He decried the cronyism of his predecessor but then stacked his office with friends.

Mandel also lacks the name recognition of Brown, so he has called for backup from high-profile Republicans. Senator John McCain went to Ohio to deliver his endorsement. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie headlined a VIP fund-raising reception for him, telling the crowd, “You have to get rid of this guy Brown. You just have to.”

And then there’s all the out-of-state money from rightwing groups keeping him afloat.

“The outside spending on the conservative side has been very effective and has helped tighten the race,” Mandel told Politico in a June interview. “They see he can be beaten.”

Kriss Gang, fifty-two, was a neighborhood team leader for the 2008 Obama campaign, organizing get-out-the-vote efforts on the west side of Dayton, though he lives outside the city, in Centerville.

He says he’s shifted some of his work away from the Presidential campaign this year to concentrate on the Brown campaign. “Barack Obama can win without Ohio. I mean, I hope he doesn’t lose Ohio. But he can afford to lose the state,” Gang says. “The state can’t afford to lose Sherrod Brown.”

He has been a fan of the Senator for a long time. Brown was Gang’s parents’ Congressional rep. “My dad did extensive work with him when he was fighting for senior drug care,” he says. “Sherrod had put together the bus trips to Canada,” referring to the trips across the border Brown sponsored for seniors to buy medications from cheaper Canadian pharmacies. “My dad was on about eight or nine of them.”

He has backed progressive Dems for a long time. “I worked on the Paul Wellstone campaign. And he was so inspirational,” says Gang. “I thought we’d never see another Senator like him in my lifetime. Then along comes Sherrod.”

Brian Schwartz is in the jewelry business and hails from Mason, Ohio. He introduced Brown at the canvass kickoff and was well dressed for the occasion. He wore a sharp pinstripe suit and looked dapper, even though he has a long scar on the side of his face from bouts of brain cancer.

Schwartz used to be a registered Republican. But a few years ago, that changed. His brain cancer returned, and he needed a stent put in during a cranium bypass—a $100,000 procedure.

His insurance did not want to cover the cost of the procedure and canceled the stent the day before the scheduled surgery.

His neurosurgeon told Schwartz that he needed political help in order to get the insurance company to approve the procedure.

Schwartz’s wife is standing nearby while he tells me this story. She tears up during some parts.

Schwartz first called Representative Jean Schmidt’s office. “I told them I voted for her, that I’m a Republican, that I’m a constituent,” he says. “Can you call the insurance company?”

Schmidt’s office got back to him and said they would not call the insurance company but would recommend two attorneys.

Schwartz’s in-laws are family friends with House Speaker John Boehner. “We grew up with him,” says Schwartz’s wife.

“We know John Boehner through our cousin Jerry. So we called Jerry on his cell phone. And he happened to be playing golf with John Boeh­ner,” Schwartz recalls. “We thought, this is going to be a slam dunk: The top Republican in office is going to call the insurance company and we will be done.”

A day later, Boehner’s chief of staff called the Schwartzes and said he couldn’t do anything.

“So with that, my wife starts bawling,” he says. “She just breaks down. She’s a mess. And that’s when I thought, you know, all I hear about is how Obama and the Democrats are for health care. So I got on the Internet and googled our Democratic representative. Came by the name Sherrod Brown.”

He called Brown’s Cleveland office even though he was concerned they wouldn’t help him since he was a Republican. But Brown’s office didn’t care about that and referred him to the staffer who dealt with insurance companies.

“This woman was so compassionate,” he says. He called her late on a Friday afternoon, and she called him back the next day.

“This wonderful woman took the time out of her weekend to call me and say we’ll be on it first thing Monday morning,” he says.

By 10:30 a.m. on Monday, the procedure was already approved. “So this woman literally worked through the weekend to make this happen,” he says, still amazed. “And here I am today. I’m making a living. I’m selling jewelry across the United States. Instead of being a burden to society, we are paying taxes. We are living the American dream and thanks to Sherrod, we can continue living it.”

Mary Johnson, sixty-seven, is a trustee of Jefferson Township in Montgomery County. Johnson, who is black, is supporting Brown because “when there’s an issue in our community that needs to be addressed, he has never turned his back,” she says. “He has never not called or responded to our contact.”

One issue important to Johnson is the postal service.

“They wanted to remove three or four post offices from our area. And he worked with us on that,” she says. “That meant a lot to us. We have a lot of people who are employees of the post office.”

Johnson says the post office is a public good that keeps communities vibrant and growing.

“They are talking about taking away the distribution center on East Fifth Street—that’s our main post office. If they take that away, what’s going to happen?” she asks. “How do we bring in companies for economic development? You have to have that infrastructure.”

Johnson says Brown understands the importance of the post office, railways, airports, highways, and bridges as tools for economic well-being. “We need all those things in order for us to be attractive to companies and bring them in to provide jobs for our people,” she says.

Jobs are the number one issue for most Americans these days, and things are no different in Ohio.

But the economy in this rust belt state is improving—unemployment was at 7.2 percent in July, down from 10.6 percent in 2009.

One facet of the recovery was the auto bailout, which Brown championed but Mandel didn’t take a stand on. Auto plants are still big in Ohio and in 2010, General Motors began producing the Chevy Cruze at its Lordstown plant, adding 1,200 new jobs to that facility. Production of the Cruze has had ripple effects in other manufacturing plants in Ohio.

Brown explains all this at his Dayton talk. “Its engine was made in Defiance, Ohio,” he tells the crowd. “The transmission comes from Toledo, Ohio. The steel comes from Middletown, Ohio. The seats come from Warren, Ohio. The aluminum comes from Cleveland, Ohio. The brackets come from Brunswick, Ohio. The stamping is done in Parma, Ohio.”

A day after the Dayton canvassing event, a dozen or so law enforcement officers from across the state gather inside the cramped conference room of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio headquarters, a few blocks down from the Columbus statehouse. It’s drizzling a bit, so the event is held indoors, which prevents the motorcycle cops from doing a drive-by, as originally planned.

For the first time in nearly twenty-five years, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio is endorsing a Democratic candidate for Senator. Not even astronaut John Glenn got its endorsement.

The group’s president, Jay McDonald, acknowledges it’s quite a shift for his conservative membership of 25,000 active and retired law enforcement officers.

“But times are changing, and the candidate who truly represents the best interests of the Ohio FOP is Senator Sherrod Brown,” McDonald says. “He stood shoulder to shoulder with us on Senate Bill 5.”

That bill, passed in March of 2011, reduced collective bargaining rights for all public workers, including firefighters and police officers. The legislation severely limited, or outright prohibited, the terms and conditions subject to collective bargaining. For example, police and fire could no longer negotiate for safety equipment; teachers could no longer negotiate class sizes; some public employees, such as professors at state universities, lost collective bargaining rights altogether.

Despite the heavy union opposition and huge protests at the statehouse, Governor John Kasich and the Republican majorities rammed the bill through the legislature. Organized labor, Democrats, and grassroots activists fought back and got a referendum on the ballot last November. Voters resoundingly repealed the law, by a 22 percent margin. Thirty percent of Republicans voted to undo the bill.

“Our endorsement of Sherrod Brown is about a lot more than collective bargaining,” McDonald adds. “We were in the fight of our lives, fighting for our communities, our safety, our jobs, and our livelihood. Now he’s in a fight of his own. Senator Brown had our back. And now we’ll have his.”

When asked about the level of support among the rank-and-file, McDonald explains that the endorsement was not the work of union brass. Instead of the board making the decision, delegates representing members from all over the state vote on it. “Our endorsement was made at our annual conference by delegates by an extremely wide margin—310 to 5.”

“Endorsements like this—this is the way to answer big money,” Brown says.

When the question of outside money comes up, Republicans counter that the Democrats get union money. I ask Brown about this.

“That’s what they’ve been told,” Brown says. “And the media has done this sort of false equivalency: The Democrats have the union money, the Republicans have their special interest money.”

But the Republicans, with their support from wealthy donors and corporations, outraise Democrats “by a factor of four or five to one,” Brown says.

Brown points to casino owner Sheldon Adelson as an example of how one billionaire can skew a race.

“Karl Rove picks up the phone and calls Sheldon Adelson and says we need another $2 million for Ohio. I can’t do that,” Brown says.

Brown mentions the millions of dollars in Republican Super PAC money, and notes that only seventeen people have contributed half of it. “Contrast that to our campaign, which has 55,000 individual contributors, and many of them have contributed more than once,” he says.

I ask Brown whether he is worried at all about losing the race.

“I’m just concerned about the money,” he says. “I’m working hard. It doesn’t do much good to worry.”

Elizabeth DiNovella is culture editor of The Progressive.

Follow Elizabeth DiNovella @lizdinovella on Twitter