WASHINGTON — Sherrod Brown likes to make phone calls and scribble notes. To longtime friends and one-time foes. While being driven from one event to another. Just about anywhere a phone works.
Like a few years ago, Alex Fischer, president of the Columbus Partnership representing central Ohio’s top business leaders, said his assistant interrupted him to say that Air Force One was calling. “What good friend do I have playing a joke on me?” Fischer wondered.
“Fortunately, I took the call and Sherrod was on the other end,” Fischer said.
The calls and the handwritten notes, which one Republican calls “a lost art” among politicians, are among the many reasons why Sherrod Brown is leading Republican opponent Rep. Jim Renacci to remain in the U.S. Senate. And if victorious, the win would make him one of the most successful Democrats in Ohio political history.
With his seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, Brown, 65, of Cleveland, calls people from both political parties to pepper them with questions about their pet causes. When he makes those calls, he almost never asks for political donations.
“He’s the best at calling people that I've] ever seen in any office,” said former Republican congressman Dave Hobson of Springfield. “I don’t think he has changed philosophically. I think he’s changed how he views his job and it may transcend in how he keeps his job.”
In an interview, Brown said the “calls are really about people who give me ideas. It’s really a way of gathering information.”
“I don’t always do the big town halls where people shout at each other over issues they don’t agree on,” Brown said. “I sit around a table with 15 people and I listen to them. Most of the bills I have introduced have come from these round tables.”
The notes and calls drive home that point: They take by surprise people who have heard him described by opponents as a ruthless partisan and unabashed progressive.
Brown opposed Republican tax cuts in 2001, 2003 and last year. As a member of the U.S. House in 1993, he voted to raise income taxes on the wealthy and increase gasoline taxes as part of a $500 billion package to reduce the deficit.
He resists any effort to restrain federal spending on Medicare and Social Security. In the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, he chaired a Senate hearing that glorified President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its impact on the Great Depression.
He has opposed every major free-trade agreement and blames them for the loss of manufacturing jobs, even when economists argue that automation has led to more job losses than trade pacts.
He can be intensely partisan. Whenever there is a calamity of any sorts, his first instinct is to blame the Republicans, big business or Wall Street.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, he voted for the $700 billion financial rescue package, although he coupled that with a blast at Wall Street bankers, complaining that "if we do not pass this economic-stabilization plan, Ohio's middle class will pay even more for Wall Street’s greed.”
The notes and the phone calls — whether by design or accident — have helped soften his hard-edge image, with Hobson saying, “he’s probably neutralized a lot of the business community and Republicans who might have had philosophical differences with him.”
Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant and former senior adviser to President Donald Trump, said that Brown has “always been a good politician. As Ohio has gotten more red, he’s started to treat many more Republicans as friends.
“Ohio Republicans could never count on him for a vote,” Bennett said. “Birthday cards didn’t pass the tax bill. ... But he’s friendlier to folks. The vim and vigor and the vitriol he once had, he doesn’t have any more.”
Brown showed that side following his victory over Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in the 2006 U.S. Senate. Barbara Mills, who was DeWine’s state director, met Brown at an event and said, “I really wanted to dislike Sherrod Brown after he beat my friend.”
But shortly after they met, Brown sent her a handwritten note saying he was “so glad we had talked.
“It meant a lot to me,” she said. “It made me see the senator as a human being, not as an elected official who put me on the unemployment line. He does something which Mike DeWine does — which is a lost art — in that he hand writes notes.”
Then there was the time he telephoned Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and urged her to “go have lunch every quarter” with former Republican Gov. Bob Taft, now a professor at the University of Dayton.
“Absolutely,” Whaley replied. “But Sherrod, this is a funny request. Bob Taft is the only person who has ever beaten you,” a reference to Taft’s victory over Brown in the 1990 Ohio secretary of state’s race.
“Yeah,” Brown said. “But he’s really a great guy and can do a lot for Dayton.”
Sometimes, Brown does more than call. During a lockout of steel workers in Mansfield in 1999, Brown made a habit of dropping by unannounced at the union hall, prompting Ron Davis, the head of the steel union local to say, “It was always good for people to see somebody was interested in their situations.
When first elected to the Senate in 2006 after more than a decade in the House, some analysts doubted that Brown could thrive in the clubby Senate. Yet Brown has forged harmonious relationships with Republicans, joining with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio to co-sponsor 105 bills since last year.
They have what one consultant calls a non-aggression pact: Brown did not criticize Portman during the latter’s 2016 re-election campaign and Portman has refrained from criticizing Brown this year.
“The Senate does that to people,” said James Manley, a onetime adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “The Senate is not the House. Sometimes it smooths out the rough edges a bit.”
Brown said his attitude about working with ideological opponents began to change during his first term in the Senate following a contentious floor debate with a Republican colleague.
As he made the two-mile walk back to his apartment, he was “feeling kind of bad” because the debate had seemed too personal. He telephoned his wife, Connie, to talk with her. He finally concluded, “It’s who you fight for and what you fight against,” as opposed to making it personal.
In part because he has run so well in Ohio, Brown often is mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2020. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton interviewed him about being her vice presidential running mate before she opted for Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.
But Brown insists he does not want to run for president. “My colleagues who want to run, they really want to be president,” Brown said. “I don’t have that burning desire to be president. You can tell how much I love the Senate.”
Jessica Wehrman of the Dispatch Washington bureau contributed to this story.