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“Nothing’s changed for me,” Brown said in an interview Tuesday. “What’s changed is the White House. Nothing’s changed the way I do things. I don’t think you can find any examples — maybe you can find one or two that are outliers — that I move to the right or to the left based on the winds of my party or based on the winds of the country.”
He not only wants to aggressively cooperate with Trump on a tougher approach to international trade partners, he also is willing to accommodate the president on ways to build roads and bridges, moves which resonate with the blue collar middle class families in eastern Ohio who flocked to Trump and have long supported Brown.
Yet simultaneously, he is reminding discouraged progressives in Ohio that he is on their side with his vigorous opposition to the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin as treasury secretary, grumbling that people in eastern Ohio “didn’t vote for the White House to be a Goldman Sachs executive retreat.”
That style – to cooperate here and pick a fight there — has elevated Brown, 64, into the upper ranks of the giants of Ohio politics, such as former Republican Governors James A. Rhodes and George V. Voinovich, and Democratic Sens. Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn.
If Brown wins re-election next year, it will be his fifth statewide victory in a career tarnished by one solitary defeat when he lost the secretary of state’s race in 1990 to Republican Bob Taft.
It is a record that has frustrated Republicans because they grumble he is well to the left of the typical Ohio voter with former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges saying Brown “has been able to dupe people into believing he has this populist bent to him when really he always has been extremely liberal.”
Other Republicans see Brown as adapting to a perilous new political world. Jessica Towhey, a onetime spokeswoman for former House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said Brown and other Senate Democrats facing re-election “are trying to tap into very real anger” among progressives.
“I’m sure the Democratic base who opposed Trump is pretty demoralized right now,” Towhey said. “He needs to show they have a champion,” but said Brown will have to show more moderate voters and Trump supporters “he wants to get things done.”
“That’s the point people have reached,” Towhey said. “They are tired of nothing happening except these huge political fights … Brown is going to have to show he can say yes to something and if he doesn’t, he’s going to lose.”
Playing the game
Brown has long displayed an ability to reconcile his staunch progressive convictions with a practical side to the gritty work of governing. As a member of the U.S. Senate he has worked on a variety of issues ranging from trade to opioid addiction with Republicans such as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.
“Every bill he introduced had to have a Republican sponsor,” said Meghan Dubyak, a former Brown adviser.
During Portman’s easy re-election campaign last year against former Gov. Ted Strickland, some Democrats in Ohio were irritated because Brown flatly refused to sharply criticize Portman.
He also understands the game of politics. Last year at a memorial service in Cleveland for former Republican congressman Steve LaTourette of Bainbridge Township, Borges shook Brown’s hand and joked, “I just want to apologize to you for all the terrible things I will be saying about you in the next couple of years,” prompting Brown to laugh.
But he also has emerged along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as one of the best known Senate progressives willing to confront Trump. Within minutes of Trump’s announcement last month he would nominate federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown announced his opposition.
Saying that was a “pretty easy call,” Brown said his staff had meticulously researched Gorsuch and the two other judges Trump was considering and concluded there was no reason to wait, adding “frankly Ohioans I think appreciate that I am straight forward about this.”
Yet unlike Hillary Clinton and perhaps Warren, Brown connects with middle-class union workers. Just last week in a speech at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, Brown outlined a plan to boost middle-class income through an increase in the minimum wage and tax incentives to companies choosing to remain in the United States.
“I think the Democrats need to speak more plainly about what we want to do for the middle class and for people who aspire for the middle class,” Brown said.
Should Brown win re-election, his name will inevitably emerge as a potential presidential candidate. Last year Clinton personally interviewed him for vice president before tapping Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. But Brown acknowledged he “would have taken” the post if she offered it to him, saying “you don’t go through that and say no.”
Yet he is has displayed no interest in running for president, with its demands for spending months in the early presidential states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
He flatly said if he “were running for president, I would have made that speech I made last week in Des Moines instead of Columbus.” Or as Dubyak joked, “He would rather be at the Gallipolis Marriott rather than the Des Moines Marriott.”
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