Brown, fellow populists try to put their mark on US Senate


There’s a slightly different look to the US Senate this year. Part of it is the election of nine freshman who are either Democrats or caucus with the Democrats. That flipped control of the chamber. But “who’s” in that class is what gives the Senate a different feel, like Democratic Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont and populist Jim Webb of Virginia.

Brown and his colleagues could have a unique impact on what is usually a staid institution.

It’s more than just the different names during a roll call vote. And it’s not just the different “look” of the freshman senators: like Sherrod Brown’s, sometimes rumpled khaki slacks…or the runway carpet-length tie..sported by Montana’s Jon Tester. It’s the “politics” of freshman senators…like Brown..which could contort the Senate.

“I think it’s unusual to have so many new senators that bill themselves as populists.” said Miami University political science department chairman Ryan Barilleaux. He says that could spell some interesting confrontations in the Senate..between Brown and his classmates…and the Senate’s old guard.

“Populists have been thought of people who tend to put a premium on trying to shake things up. The Senate is not a body that likes to be shaken up.”

Brown doesn’t intend to quote..”shake” things up. He views his role…as looking after the plight of average, working people.

“I’m going to use the offices of a United States Senator and the stature that brings to try make life better whether that means helping someone with a Social Security check or helping AK workers, AK Steelworkers get back to work or whether it’s passing trade legislation that means real jobs to people,” said Brown.

Fighting trade pacts was Brown’s hallmark in the House of Representatives. That went over well among the working-class, manufacturing constituents he represented in Elyria and suburban Cleveland…stripped of jobs after trade deals like NAFTA. Brown his fellow freshman progressives intend to continue that work in the Senate.

“I think you’re seeing already the impact we’re having on trade agreements. More and more members of the senate and house in both parties are beginning to say no to more of the same in terms of more fast track authority for the president, more trade agreements,” said Brown.

But Republican Columbus-area Congressman Pat Tiberi cautions against Brown sticking to the same script he used in the House.

Tiberi said, “Sherrod represents an urban, blue collar district…or did and now represents all parts of the state.”

Ohio’s “senior” Senator, Republican George Voinovich…says Brown will have to branch out to be effective.

“What may be really very popular in one’s house district if you look at it statewide may not be something that’s in the best interest of all of Ohio, so I think that’s something as you move along that he’s gonna have to sift out,” observed Voinovich.

Democratic Washington Senator Maria Cantwell first met Sherrod Brown in the 1980s when she was a student at Miami University. She believes Ohio voters elected Brown…because he talked about “their” issues. And that resonates anywhere.

“You did see in this last election in 2006, quite a focus on the populist issues given the fact that the middle class seems to be getting squeezed. They’re getting squeezed with high energy costs, high education costs and high health care costs,” said Cantwell.

Still, there’s evidence Brown is making efforts to learn how to represent the “entire” state in the Senate..says Northeast Ohio Republican Congressman Steven LaTourette.

“Senator Brown came over to my office which is unusual. Usually we have to go over to the Senate side and we can’t get the senators to come over and visit us, said LaTourette, “And he sat down and he wanted to know what was important to my corner of the state and how we could work collaboratively to things important to Northeastern Ohio.”

But LaTourette says being an effective senator is more than just knowing the state. The Senate’s coin of the realm is collegiality. And LaTourette suggests Brown will have to take a different approach in the Senate..than he did in the House.

“Maybe you can’t be as strident on some issues and more statesmanlike is the challenge.”

And there’s the rub. That goes against the grain of populist, progressives like Sherrod Brown…says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “They’re very independent, and inclined to go their own way and not listen to their party leaders. In other words they don’t take direction well. It’s one of the things that makes them popular at home.”

That could spell problems for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Especially if the rookie progressives try to push their agenda too far. But that doesn’t seem to bother Reid.

“Every time I’m reminded that we have nine, new Democratic senators puts a smile on my face. And they are just the most knowledgable, pleasant people I have ever dealt with. I mean I can’t say enough things about them,” said Reid.

It was the election of Democrats like Sherrod Brown which crowned Reid Senate Majority Leader. And after years in the minority, that may be enough to placate Reid, regardless of the politics or methods of freshmen like Sherrod Brown.