A Party with Everyday People: Progressive Senate Candidate from Ohio Encourages Students to Campaign for Social Justice

BY ARIEL WU

Congressman Sherrod Brown of Ohio, social justice advocate and candidate for U.S. Senate, visited Harvard Law School last month for an event hosted by the HLS Democrats. After conversing with him and twenty-five other students about his progressive political agenda, I read the following on an internet blog: “Sherrod Brown campaigns among the elites at Harvard. . . . Party of the people?” For the first time I stopped to consider how we, by virtue of our Harvard affiliation, may be seen as incapable of embodying the populist values at the heart of Sherrod’s campaign. If we know this perception is false, how do we demonstrate that our elite education does not prevent us from effectively advocating for the population at large?

This is in some ways a rhetorical question, but empty rhetoric sung in a Texas accent has not done justice to its honest answer. My home state of Ohio has lost nearly 250,000 manufacturing jobs since January 2001, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Plant closings have devastated entire Ohio communities, and middle-income workers, if not yet unemployed, have slid down the pay scale. Instead of investing in their much-touted plan to create jobs, Republican leaders continue to cut taxes for the wealthy. A successful politician, according to Sherrod, must tread the difficult path of choosing sides upfront. His friend and Republican incumbent, Senator Mike DeWine, has failed to do this. You can’t support tax cuts for the wealthy if you want to improve living conditions for workers, says Sherrod. “People trust you when you explain that you can’t deliver everything.”

People trust Sherrod, who has been the U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 13th District for the past thirteen years. He was my congressman before redistricting in 2002, and I attribute part of his re-election success to the principled manner with which he has targeted popular problems at their source. “I’m a progressive, not a liberal,” he explained. The difference? A progressive works on structural solutions to injustice. Rather than simply giving elderly people money to pay soaring gas bills this winter, a progressive will address the gas companies’ pricing policies. Sherrod has challenged foreign outsourcing and inadequate worker protection as major causes of job insecurity. For example, he led an unprecedented number of Representatives last year in a prominent campaign against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As ranking Democrat on the Health Subcommittee, he has worked against the pharmaceutical industry to increase international access to HIV/AIDS medication. These are just a few examples of Sherrod’s work as a progressive advocate.

Sherrod’s accomplishments show that his time with our rival Bulldogs has not prevented him from standing up to the wealthy few. His early campaign, praised by CBS’ Dotty Lynch as “brilliant,” has made inroads into grassroots networks including the influential sphere of political blogs. In both rhetoric and our daily lives, we can counter the cynical blogger’s assumption that campaigning with Harvard kids runs against a populist message. Like Sherrod, we are in a prime position to speak out against unfortunate abuses of power by graduates of elite universities like ourselves. In a 2002 article published by The Nation, Sherrod questioned elites undermining Yale Divinity School grad, Rev. Dr. W. David Lee’s union-supported candidacy for the Yale Corporation board of trustees. Responding to alumni wary of Rev. Lee’s criticisms of the University, Sherrod wrote: “It is not surprising that a minister of a large church at which many Yale employees worship might at times express substantial differences with a university that pays many of those workers less than a living wage.” Considering how many positions of power are held by elite university graduates in general, we who are already in the club may bear a special responsibility to be vigilantly vocal inside critics.

With honest choices, a progressive platform, and the courage to speak truth to our powerful classmates, we can be effective advocates for everyday people–as long as we also act like everyday people. Those who attended our event found that a political conversation at Harvard need not be the stuffy experience everyone imagines. No fanfare, no podium for Sherrod, who quietly entered Lewis 103 to find students just milling around, eating homemade chocolate chip cookies and drinking fair trade coffee bought on a shoestring budget. I did not struggle with set-up and clean-up, because students willingly pitched in. Even the freshman reporting from the Crimson helped me put up posters. Dan Geldon (1L) drove Sherrod in from Boston, borrowing Lauren Popper’s (2L) car. By the time I was ready to seat the group in a circle, Sherrod had already gotten to know a little about every student in the room. Quick to begin by remembering each of us and the Ohio towns from which we hailed, he was deeply apologetic when midway through our conversation he realized he had forgotten to mention Josh Feasel (1L) from Tiffin. He even remembered my dad whom he had gotten to know ten years ago during discussions with local voters. This event and its political message were convincing because of the respectful, down-to-earth style of Sherrod and the students who attended. Worlds away from million-dollar coins, we talked about things that mattered.

So what next? We who share Sherrod’s progressive vision can take concrete steps to turn it into reality. “Work on a campaign,” urged Sherrod. “Take law firm jobs at home in Ohio so you can volunteer on my campaign. . . . Tell people about the ideas you heard today, but don’t tell them you heard them from me at Harvard. . . . Speak with and for people who are not like us, because we’re going to do just fine.”

HLS Students for Sherrod Brown hopes to organize a fundraiser for Sherrod in early 2006 with the help of Sherrod’s campaign expert, Scott Eckert, and any other interested students. Please contact Angela Wu at awu@law.harvard.edu if you would like to join.

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