BRUNSWICK, Ohio – As Sherrod Brown mulls a 2020 presidential bid, the Ohio senator wants to be clear: his brand of populism doesn’t look like President Donald Trump’s.
“Donald Trump has used his phony populism to divide Americans and to demonize immigrants,” said Brown, sounding like a potential Democratic challenger Wednesday.
“Real populism is not racist. Real populism is not anti-Semitic. Real populists don’t engage in hate speech and don’t rip babies from families at the border,” Brown told a crowd of about 300 hundred people at Supply Side USA, a packing and storage business outside of Cleveland.
Brown is one of more than a dozen Democrats considering a 2020 presidential run. On Wednesday, he launched a tour of early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. During this week’s two-day swing through Iowa, he’ll visit union workers, farmers and small business owners.
But he and wife Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, haven’t made a final decision yet.
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“Connie and I will make a decision in March,” Brown told Ohio reporters Wednesday afternoon. “If I don’t run for president or if I do, I want dignity of work to be the centerpiece of every Democratic campaign in the country.”
If he runs, one of Brown’s strengths as a candidate could be as a foil to Trump, especially in the Midwest.
“Donald Trump simply doesn’t respect the dignity of work, pure and simple,” Brown said.
Brown’s evidence: Trump promised workers in the Youngstown area that jobs would return. Now, General Motors’ plant in Lordstown is threatening to close without a new product. And Trump has done little to help, Brown said.
“Now that jobs are on the line, now he’s not lifting a finger,” Brown said.
Brown’s supporters say the Ohio senator’s message about living wages, affordable college and accessible health care goes beyond the white, working-class voters who flocked to Trump in 2016 and helped the Republican win Ohio by eight percentage points. It could appeal to the nurse or postal worker or businesswoman, too.
That doesn’t mean Brown wants to ignore those factory workers in towns like Lordstown and the state’s coal miners – just ask Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton how that went.
“The dignity of work means hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do. It’s a value that unites all of us,” Brown said.
Plenty of focus will be on the Republican incumbent, but Brown said Democrats need to talk more about their plans than about Trump’s flaws.
“The anti-Trump fervor and energy and fervor is out there. It doesn’t need to be mentioned by candidates,” Brown said. “You don’t have to mention Donald Trump by name, but you make the contrast between what he’s done, how he’s betrayed those workers in Lordstown, and what we will fight for when we fight for those workers and the contrasts are very, very clear.”
Martha Glauber, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, said she wants Brown to run for president. “It’s preaching to the choir. I’m a Sherrod Brown fan.”
Her husband George isn’t sold yet. He wants to see some charisma and leadership from the Ohio senator. George, a registered Democrat, said Trump brought that energy and woke America up.
“I grew up in America when America was great,” George Glauber said. “I want that again.”
Brown is coming off a nearly 7-percentage point victory over Republican Rep. Jim Renacci in the November election. He was one of just three Democrats to win statewide office.
Republicans criticized Brown’s upcoming trip.
“As Sherrod Brown takes his phony pro-workers’ agenda to the early primary states, he risks abandoning his own Ohio constituents,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said. “Brown’s ‘dignity of work’ tour has nothing to do with fighting for hard-working families, and everything to do with Brown’s own political ambitions.”
But people like Kim Lewis, of Strongsville, are fine with Brown’s political ambitions. Lewis said he likes Brown’s style: a progressive liberal with a good grasp on common sense.
“I think we need a rumpled look in the White House,” Lewis said.
Brown left the stage with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blazing and plenty to think about in Iowa.
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