Spousal Support

Connie Schultz steps aside so her husband can step up.

Connie Schultz Sherrod Brown
At first, Connie Schultz wanted no part of being a professional wife. "I was the holdout," she says. - Walter  Novak
At first, Connie Schultz wanted no part of being a professional wife. "I was the holdout," she says.
Connie Schultz is in the St. John's church gym in Lorain, killing time while her husband, Congressman Sherrod Brown, finishes a radio interview.

There are 16 days to go. Sixteen days of listening to her husband explain why he should be Ohio's next U.S. senator. Sixteen days until she can go back to her job at The Plain Dealer, where, as the star columnist, she has a decent knack for explaining things herself.

She munches on flavored popcorn as a woman approaches, clutching a copy of Schultz's book, Life Happens, wondering if the columnist could sign it for a friend.

Schultz's Pacific-blue eyes scan the title page as she considers what to inscribe. "She supports Sherrod, doesn't she?" she asks the woman.

"Yes," the woman says. "But she likes you better."

It's this sort of campaign-trail moment -- and there are plenty of them -- that shows just how ill-suited Schultz is for the job of political wife. It's a job that typically requires a lot of gazing -- lovingly, attentively, thoughtfully -- at one's husband. A lot of being there, making sure everyone knows that, yes, the candidate before you is in fact marriage material.

Occasionally, the job may require taking up a cause -- something soft and safe, like fighting illiteracy or cancer. But that's about it. When Brown's opponent, Senator Mike DeWine, visited a Cleveland church this summer, he worked the room making promises about health coverage and jobs. Wife Fran followed behind, quietly passing out her campaign-season cookbook.

It's safe to assume that no one asked for her autograph.

Schultz, on the other hand, is what qualifies in Ohio as a literary star. Last year, her PD column broke the paper's 50-year Pulitzer drought, winning the prize for commentary. That landed her a book deal and launched her on a nationwide tour that included an appearance on the Today show.

But it's really Schultz's voice that makes her incompatible with her new role: She loves to shoot off her mouth. Before she took a leave from The PD to campaign, her columns, pungently feminist and unabashedly liberal, attracted some of the paper's most virulent responses. Letters that dubbed her a "liberal puke" and "Hilbeast" made the paper. Others -- the ones calling her "bitch," "diesel dyke," and "schizophrenic" -- didn't. But Schultz kept firing away ["Liberal Pukes Like You," September 24, 2003].

Which is why, at first, she wanted no part of being a professional wife. "I was the holdout," she says. Even after it became clear that DeWine was vulnerable, Schultz wouldn't give Brown the green light to run. She worried about her career as well as her marriage, which was less than two years old.

She also knew that she'd have to put the firebrand act on hold and temporarily submit to a life designed by pollsters, focus groups, and consultants -- people journalists know to distrust.

But her husband's party -- her dad's party, her party -- needed Brown. So she quit her column and took to the road, even though it meant regularly being introduced as the congressman's wife.

Of course, Schultz is an attraction herself, an auxiliary weapon not every campaign has in its armory. "She can speak out for Sherrod," says Jeanne Pease, whose late husband, Don, preceded Brown as Lorain's congressman. "I never spoke."

But early on, Schultz found that she wasn't saying much at all. She'd abandoned her time-tested approach -- winging it and cracking jokes -- for talking points about health coverage and manufacturing jobs. "I was boring myself," she says. Then, somewhere in southern Ohio, she put down her notes and told a story about her parents. "People don't want to hear statistics," she says. "They want to be surprised."

Still, it was a new role. At an August stop in Coshocton, Schultz spoke to a group of Democratic women. My husband will raise the minimum wage, she told them. My husband will fight for jobs. My husband will make getting prescription drugs easier.

"It's kind of weird," she says. "I've gone from being paid to give my opinion to giving my husband's opinion all the time."

So her own thoughts fill up notebook after notebook, which will eventually make their appearance in her next book, tentatively titled And His Lovely Wife.

But for now, Schultz spends much of her time standing by, making sure that Brown's shirts are starched, his lunch packed.

At St. John's, she sits on a folding chair as Brown greets a crowd of Democratic loyalists. As Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" blares, he steps onto a chair and waves to the crowd, which erupts in desperate, hopeful applause. He motions to his wife to stand. But she shakes her head. It's his show, she often tells herself.

Brown closes his speech by promising a November trifecta: a Democrat in the governor's office, a Democrat in the Senate, and Schultz's column back in The PD. Schultz met recently with editor Doug Clifton. He wants her back. And she wants to be back -- even if, on the morning of this very event, her own paper endorsed Mike DeWine.

The third leg of Brown's trifecta -- the reappearance of Schultz's byline -- earns the loudest cheer. Maybe it's because they miss her column. Maybe there's just something cool about a guy -- in the biggest fight of his political life -- using the seminal moment of his speech to plug his wife.

Schultz rises briefly at her man's behest, then quickly sits down. She sturdies his chair, then notices his pant leg has bunched up above his shoe. She pulls it down and pats it flat.

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