Don't Mess With Sherrod

Republicans must decide if they want to battle the Boy Wonder.

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Before the 1974 election, Sherrod Brown met with Vern Riffe, the then-powerful state representative from southern Ohio. With his spray of curly brown hair, Brown looked like something out of a Bobby Kennedy handbook for young idealists. He was 21 years old, a Yale senior, and Mansfield's Democratic candidate for the Ohio House.

Riffe, in contrast, was a self-proclaimed country boy who didn't go to college. A cunning pragmatist, Riffe would lord as speaker of the House for two decades. They may have belonged to the same party, but Riffe and Brown inhabited different planets.

The speaker was gentlemanly toward the young hopeful during their meeting. A few hours later, a furious Riffe called Richland County party chair Don Kindt, who had tabbed Brown to run for the Statehouse. "Where the hell did you get that goddamn hippie sonuvabitch?" Riffe barked. "Is this the best we've got?"

The answer was -- and perhaps still is -- yes.

In the '80s, Brown was the Ohio Democratic Party's rising star. He lost that designation when future governor Bob Taft beat him out of the secretary of state's job in 1990. The star dimmed, but it didn't burn out. In 1992, Brown won the 13th District U.S. House seat, and he's thrived in Congress.

Now, after he has been in office almost nine years, the GOP would love to redistrict him into oblivion. His reputation is that of a brash partisan. Liberal groups score his votes at or near 100 percent, and his influence grows with each term. But Republicans' chief concern is this: In a state desperate for Democratic stars, he is one of the few capable of winning statewide office. If Republicans demolish his district, he's threatening to run for governor or auditor.

"He's probably the number-one choice, if you polled Democrats around the state, to run for governor," says Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.

"I think he's a future governor, without question," says Lorain County Democratic chair Tom Smith.

Brown, however, "absolutely" prefers to be a congressman. He enjoys the scrum of Capitol Hill, the give-and-take legislation, the intimacy of district campaigning, and the things he could do if Democrats win back the House in 2002. Given his party's pathetic performance in recent state elections, though, it's understandable lefties would pine for a candidate that even one Republican describes as "the epitome of a great politician."

Brown steps out of a downtown Lorain elevator, looking as though he dressed in a laundry hamper. His hair is untamed. His sensible shoes are road-beaten. His blue Oxford shirt is frayed at the seams and holed at the elbows.

He is still a politician, a point emphasized as he makes his way to WEOL-AM studios. Brown extends a hand to every office worker in his path. "Hi. Sherrod Brown," he says. The beauty of incumbency is not having to say you're running for office.

He's appearing on WEOL's morning show. Host Bill King's easygoing style allows Brown to run through his agenda as if handed a baton. The congressman digs into pharmaceutical companies and the Bush tax cut. He talks about the patients' bill of rights he supports -- and the one he rejects as insurance-company pap. He works the popular name of John McCain into a pitch for greater access to generic drugs. And, yes, thanks for asking, he's almost fully recovered from the car accident a year and a half ago that broke a vertebra. He speaks quickly, with a voice sandy from overuse.

Off the air, he mentions a study of presidential intelligence that's been circulating, the one that determined that Clinton is a genius and the Bushes have two-digit IQs. Brown doesn't cut into the current president in the switchblade style of Crossfire or Hardball; instead, he shakes his head and sighs, as if seated next to a novice blackjack player dealt 21 after 21. "My biggest difficulty with Bush is that he doesn't realize how privileged he is," he says.

Brown's baby spoons were not made of silver, but as the son of a family doctor, he grew up comfortably in Mansfield. He and his brothers inherited a sense of social justice from their mother, a substitute teacher and president of the local YWCA. By no means a radical, she taught them to think about a world beyond the Brown household. Not that their eyes needed much opening. Sherrod graduated from high school the spring students were shot at Kent State.

He caught the eye of Richland County's Democratic Party in the summer of 1972, when he volunteered for George McGovern's presidential campaign. Two years later, Kindt, the party chief, called him at Yale and asked if he was interested in running for state representative. Brown said yes, and Kindt cleared the primary of challengers. "They looked at me as a young guy who was going to work hard, but would probably lose and then run for city council and maybe have a political future," Brown says. "But they absolutely recruited me, the first time."

Brown didn't get a vote of confidence at home. "I wouldn't vote for you," his father told him. "You're too young."

By knocking on virtually every door in the county, Brown beat a one-term incumbent for the House seat. Until last year, he was the youngest person ever to serve in the Ohio legislature. He arrived in Columbus with a handful of other Democrats in their early 20s, like Dennis Eckart and Dennis Wojtanowski, who didn't roll over for Riffe and the old guard. "We fashioned ourselves Watergate babies," says Wojtanowski, now a lobbyist for such powers as Ameritech and Medical Mutual of Ohio.

In 1982, after eight years in the House, Brown ran for secretary of state. The office, responsible for such nonconfrontational matters as voter registration and corporate filings, is typically a grooming chair for politicians on the rise. Brown certainly qualified. "I thought he was high-energy, smart, interesting," Wojtanowski says. "I thought he would move on to higher levels, and part of that had to do with his genuineness. He genuinely cared about the things he worked for."

Brown won the election and attracted a young, motivated staff. "He's an exciting political figure," says Ron Malone, who ran two of Brown's secretary of state campaigns. "He's a hands-on person. He wants to know what's going on. And he believes in what he's doing."

"He was very creative," says Jennifer Brunner, a Franklin County judge who worked in the secretary of state's office for four years. "If you were a self-starter, it was a perfect job."

Wayne West, his last chief deputy at the secretary's office, says Brown was the rare politician who didn't expect an obsequious staff. "One of the things I admired most is that he could take criticism and not personalize it and hold it against them."

Bright and handsome, he cut an impressive figure in Ohio politics. A labor executive once asked Brown how he was able to put so many names to so many faces. Brown told him that if he was at a banquet, he would work the names of the people he had just met into the current conversation, thus performing a memory drill. He also kept index cards, noting interests and family, on those who could be useful. Even people who can't help him politically feel the Brown touch. Wojtanowski says Brown calls his mother periodically. "He doesn't even know her that well, but he knows that a phone call from him is really going to make her day."

He is, nonetheless, a political animal. When U.S. Representative Bob Ney, a St. Clairsville Republican, ran for reelection to the Ohio Senate in 1988, Brown campaigned against him. He told Ney it wasn't personal; he was just helping a fellow Democrat. Ney pointed out that Governor Dick Celeste and other Democrats in state office hadn't meddled in his race. Ney says that he likes Brown, but remains apprehensive about working with him. "You don't know if he's going to turn around and campaign against you."

While secretary, Brown, a Russian studies major at Yale, traveled to the Soviet Union and China. The trips reflected his global outlook; they also indicated a restlessness with the office. While former staffers marvel at his personal skills and appetite for knowledge, they are slower to praise his administrative focus. "To be honest, when he was secretary of state, there were times when the job didn't challenge him enough," says Steve Fought, a former newspaper reporter who worked for Brown in Columbus and Washington.

It seems hard to believe now, when Democratic prospects are so drab that the state party chairman pitched "Jerry Springer for Governor" with a straight face, but in 1990, after two terms, Brown's path to higher office was blocked by a number of prominent Democrats. Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn were entrenched in the Senate. Celeste was governor; below him were Attorney General Tony Celebrezze and Auditor Tom Ferguson. ("That seems like something out of the Pleistocene Era," Fought says.) Brown was left to run for secretary of state a third time, but this time against Bob Taft and a Republican Party determined to take him down. "It's not like we measured the drapes in the governor's mansion," Fought says, but it was assumed that Brown would one day run for Ohio's top job.

It was a nasty campaign. Low-level employees in Brown's office had been suspected of selling marijuana, and while an investigation yielded no indictments, it allowed Taft's campaign to suggest that Brown was running a stoner camp. Taft also tried to depict Brown as a globetrotting busker. He had been offered a two-month fellowship to improve Japanese-American relationships. Brown never went to Japan, but it didn't stop Republicans from running commercials that asked voters to say, "Sayonara, Sherrod."

In a close election, they did.

"That was one of the filthiest, dirtiest campaigns I've ever seen in my life," Kindt says. "It was a disgrace."

On his last day as secretary, Brown's adolescent daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, kissed the office furniture goodbye.

"I love this song," Brown says, turning up the volume on the oldies station. James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend" duels with the wheezing ventilation system of his Thunderbird coupe. Brown is driving on I-480 to a meeting with labor reps in Independence. The car, desperate for soap and a vacuum, is littered with empty water bottles, magazines, and books on tape, including an 11-cassette volume of Richard Wright's Black Boy.

This stretch of highway may or may not be in the barbell-shaped 13th District; it's difficult to say. If you live in Lorain, Medina, Portage, or Geauga counties, Brown is probably your congressman. If you live in Trumbull County, he might be your congressman. If you live in Cuyahoga or Summit counties, he probably isn't your congressman, though the chance exists.

Republicans drew this bit of cubism after Brown announced he would run for Congress in the 1992 election. Veteran Richland County Congressman Don Pease was retiring, and Brown saw a chance to climb back into the ring. Wayne West, his trusty aide, wondered if Congress was the right place for Brown. "What could be worse than running every four years, but running every two years?" he asked.

Ohio Republicans didn't make it easy. They cut Richland County out of the 13th District and gave it to safe incumbent Mike Oxley. If Brown wanted the open seat, he would have to campaign in a bizarrely drawn district that he had never lived in. He would hear the words "carpetbagger" and "career politician."

The GOP's Etch-a-Sketchery actually gave Brown an advantage. Diverse and jagged, the 13th has everything from Oberlin to Amish country, auto factories to bedroom communities. Covering the district was like a game of Twister (Put your right hand in Newton Falls, put your left foot in Medina . . .). Brown had money, a name, and his precious index cards. "Only someone with statewide recognition could win that district," West says.

He was also a tireless campaigner. A typical day began at 4 a.m. outside the Lorain Ford plant and ended in a bowling alley or a movie theater after the last show emptied. North Ridgeville Mayor Deanna Hill, then a schoolteacher, worked on the 1992 campaign. She remembers praying for sleep, while Brown would seem to draw energy from the handshakes. "He believes in politicians and what they can do for people," she says. "He sees it as a public service."

"Nobody outworks Sherrod on the campaign trail," West says.

After winning the primary easily, Brown faced self-financed Republican Margaret Mueller in the general election. Mueller did something Brown's two previous secretary of state opponents had not: She went after his divorce.

When Sherrod and Larke Brown split in 1986, it was a well-known secret in political circles that they parted badly. Statehouse reporters at the time were delivered anonymous brown envelopes containing court documents with claims of neglect and cruelty. Larke had sought a restraining order against her husband. "I am also intimidated by the Defendant," her affidavit said, "and am in fear for the safety and well-being of myself and our children due to the Defendant's physical violence and abusive nature." Brown answered that he had never been abusive toward his wife and daughters. A divorce was granted in 1987; the court found both parties at fault.

While Brown was secretary of state, the accusations remained whispers inside the capitol building. Mueller, however, ran radio and television ads featuring a dramatic reading of Larke's claims of fear and intimidation. It got to the point that Larke, who had remarried and was living in central Ohio, called on Mueller to stop airing the ad. She refused.

Brown beat Mueller anyway, by 46,000 votes. Taking nothing for granted during the campaign, he had pedaled across the district on bicycle. Mueller had clearly been outworked. News crews found her washing dishes on election day.

Today, those who knew the Browns speak of the divorce in the vague language of failed relationships. "It just wasn't one of those smooth ones," says Judge Brunner, a college friend of Larke's.

"It was just ugly," says Sherrod's brother Bob, who lives in Shaker Heights.

Brown has not remarried. "It was not friendly," he says of his divorce, "but to her credit and to my credit, our daughters have been raised in two loving homes, and they've done very well, and they're very close to both of us, and I'm very thankful for that. The divorce was obviously unpleasant."

As chaotic as Brown's love life has been, friends say his relationship with his daughters is to be envied. His oldest, Emily, attends Swarthmore College near Philadelphia; when he is in Washington, they frequently meet by train in Baltimore to catch Orioles games. He was driving on a snow-covered road to a church play with Elizabeth when he had his car accident. She was unharmed; he spent a week in the hospital. Fought has noticed Brown becoming "a little wistful" as his girls become women.

"I've raised my daughters," Brown says. "They're the most important thing in my life. It's not always easy as a single parent, obviously, but lots of people in this country are in that situation."

After the appearance on WEOL, Brown is off to a cheerfully decorated nursing home in Elyria. In the parking lot, he puts on a tie and suit jacket -- instant congressman.

Candidates court senior citizens because they vote, but Brown literally goes the extra mile. His campaign office routinely sponsors bus trips to Canada, where seniors can purchase prescription drugs at state-controlled prices. "You should see these people when they get off the bus," says Beth Thames, who runs Brown's Lorain office. "It's like they just won the lottery."

When Brown enters the home, he is greeted by a man in wide suspenders whom Brown helped obtain belated war medals. It's a nice welcome, one he's used to when he meets an audience that relies on hearing aids. He knows the names of the medicines they take and how much they cost. In addition to pharmaceutical companies, he bangs on the managed-care companies that have pulled out of Lorain County because they weren't making enough money. "Private insurers will take care of you when you're healthy, and taxpayers will take care of you when you are sick." Of Social Security, he says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and he'd like those aged 55-64 to be able to buy into Medicare. It's as if he's reading from an AARP policy paper.

He's found a niche in health care. Liz Schulte of the Northeast Ohio Breast Cancer Coalition says Brown's office helped convince a reluctant Governor Taft to opt into a federal program that gives low-income women Medicaid payments for breast- and cervical-cancer treatments. Brown's staff organized a media tour, during which those touched by cancer told their stories. Eventually, Taft and the state came up with more money than was requested. "It wouldn't have happened if Sherrod hadn't gone on the stump for us," Schulte says. "We would have just been a bunch of pesky ladies trying to get people to listen."

Brown admits he "didn't know squat" about juvenile diabetes and antibiotic resistance until a few years ago. Now, health care and trade are his specialties. He ran against NAFTA in 1992 and pledged to pay for his own health insurance until universal coverage is passed. He's forced himself to become an expert. At his freshman orientation, he was instructed to resist the temptation to noodle around in all matters of governance. Pick two or three issues, he was told, and concentrate on those. Such single-mindedness doesn't come easy to Brown. He is the kind of guy who can lose himself in The Baseball Encyclopedia. Rhod Shaw, his chief of staff until last year, remembers their wide-ranging discussions, from history to great left-handed pitchers. "The spectrum of conversation was so incredibly broad," Shaw says. "He's cerebral in a fun way, not in a dull, academic way."

Brown also fought for a prestigious committee assignment. He telephoned virtually every member of the Democratic Steering Policy Committee, which makes the assignments. Some received personalized attention. He dazzled Congressman Vic Fazio, an avid Boston Red Sox fan, with a Jimmy Piersall baseball card. His efforts paid off with a spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and he is now the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Health.

"How many freshmen figure out how to get on the Commerce Committee?" asks Shaw. "Most people are trying to find out where the bathroom is."

Shaw calls his former boss "a man of the House," and Brown agrees: "I can't believe how much I like it," he says, adding that he was surprised to learn what one person, through hard work and social finesse, could accomplish. "Seniority has its place, but it really is a merit system."

Brown speaks often of fighting for social justice, a somewhat antiquated notion in an age of cynicism. Among his proudest achievements is finding millions of dollars for international tuberculosis control. No one's against curbing deadly diseases, of course, but few lawmakers see reward in driving obscure public-health initiatives. At the same time, crusades for breast-cancer victims and seniors play well at election time.

Being a charming wonk is Brown's gift. In 1999 he wrote a book, Congress From the Inside, that quotes British novelist Anthony Trollope and Midwestern rocker John Mellencamp alike. At times, the book reads like a procedural manual for C-SPAN junkies; in other spots, Brown pokes fun at his gun-loving constituents and admits that the all-American-looking dog in a campaign photo was borrowed. His political opposite would be Al Gore, a candidate who couldn't help but remind voters how smart he is. Fought, who now works as legislative director for U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo), says an energy executive recently took a meal with Brown and came away smitten, even though the congressman is no friend of Big Oil. "People are always impressed by how much of a regular guy he is," Fought says. "You can't fake that."

"He's an outgoing person, gets along with people, has a strong intellectual curiosity," U.S. Representative Ralph Regula of Navarre says. "I think he tries to understand the things that he's working with. He's well informed on the issues." Regula, incidentally, is a Republican.

Muffins and tea are brought out following Brown's nursing-home talk. Richard A. Wolff, a retired minister who hasn't lost any of the command he surely brought to the pulpit, is quick to embrace the congressman with a paternal handshake. "I think he's a statesman before he's a politician," Wolff says, after Brown leaves him to give a Cleveland television station a sound bite.

"I'm not going to say he's a great statesman, but he's a great politician."

So says Bob Rousseau, chairman of the Lorain County Republican Party. He's astonished by Brown's ability to get away with such liberal votes in Congress. Lorain and Elyria may be thick with union households, but the district also encompasses a number of suburbs and conservative small towns. Republican state Representative James Trakas of Independence echoes the point: "He genuinely has paid attention to his district. Do they know what he's up to? No." As for the bus trips to Canada, Trakas calls them downright "shameless."

Indeed, for all his micropolitical skills, Brown is also adept at playing the populist. His constituents went hard for Perot in 1992, and Brown supported 12-year congressional term limits when he first ran. Voters don't hear much of that talk, now that he's in his fifth term.

Brown's closest race was in 1994, the year Gingrich and company stormed the House. Republicans fielded a solid opponent, Lorain County Prosecutor Greg White, yet Brown prevailed -- albeit by less than four percentage points. Voters now think of him as their own. "He does everything right," Rousseau says. "You don't find Sherrod making too many bloopers."

"He's one of the most liberal members of Congress we have," Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett says. Brown is also a party loyalist, quick to share his campaign largesse with Democrats in tight races, which is why the GOP would love to be rid of him.

The census says that Ohio must lose a congressional seat, and Republicans are in charge of the maps. Bennett says it's "common sense" to think a seat will disappear from rusting Northeast Ohio. Congressman Ney says Republicans first wanted to chop Brown's district into pieces and toss them to other legislators, leaving him without a base. That plan was scotched when Brown threatened a run for state office. "He effectively pushed the button on not being evaporated," Ney says.

He guesses that, instead, Brown's district will be combined with another Democrat's, setting up a primary with Dennis Kucinich or Akron's Tom Sawyer. Then again, Brown still may run for governor.

"If they take him out of that district, there's a damn good chance he'll run for governor," says Ron Malone, who is now the director of Ohio AFSCME.

Adds Don Kindt: "I don't think he's joking for one minute."

And if he ran, he could avenge his 1990 loss to Bob Taft, whom Fought calls "a battleship disabled in the ocean."

"It would be like the best thing you could ever imagine in a competitive race," Jimmy Dimora says. "That's like a fairy tale, to have that come true." But Trakas says Brown's gubernatorial aspirations are just that: a fairy tale. "I am absolutely not intimidated by his running for statewide office."

Brown doesn't sound like a man panting for revenge. "Sure, I'd like to beat Taft -- but no more than anyone I would run against." Winning a statewide race would provide vindication, but it would also mean living in Columbus and tussling with mossback legislators over hunting permits and strip-club licenses.

If he could stay in Congress, and the Democrats take the House, Brown would chair the Subcommittee on Health -- a proposition he finds sweet.

"I'll be able to write health-care laws for the whole United States," he says. "I can't think of anything more meaningful than that."

If Speaker Riffe were alive today, he might still view Brown as a radical. But even Riffe would concede that he's a shrewd hippie sonuvabitch.

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