Last Monday, Sept. 9, Senator Sherrod Brown visited the Case Western Reserve University Law School to share some ideals and answer students’ questions on any of today’s current issues. He started the talk by sharing a favorite quote and several anecdotes with the audience. The quote, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, was about the constant and consistent battle between the innovators and the conservators. This idea proved to be the theme of Brown’s personal mission and his message for the assembled audience.
The first story he told was of a dinner in Cincinnati where he was introduced to a table of African-American and Latina women who had just signed a union contract. When he asked one of them, a fifty-year old woman, what it was like to have a union, she replied, “It’s the first week of paid vacation I’ve ever had.”
This took Brown into a discussion of the bias toward privilege that comes from the government. He again mentioned the conservators and innovators, indicating that conservators have a main goal of protecting wealth. Brown then compared them to the innovators, who he said had a different approach. The innovators (whom he openly and repeatedly commended and emphasized) would work over short periods, in bursts of innovative energy. The examples of worker’s safety acts, civil rights, safe air and water and the inventions of Medicare, Social Security and a minimum wage were used to show how the public had pushed the government forward.
The second anecdote Brown shared was of another Ohio politician, the recently deceased John Gilligan. When Brown was running in his first election he met Gilligan, who said to a colleague (about Brown), “I’ll campaign for or against him, whichever helps him more.” This brought a laugh to the audience as Brown explained that Gilligan was a controversial figure— controversial for being gutsy. When Ohio was in the bottom five states in the country for mental health care, it was Gilligan who brought about the institution of a state income tax.
This brought Brown again to praise for activism in America. In one of his many references to history, Brown spoke of the burst of energy from 1964 through 1966, which brought about Medicaid, emphasis on higher education and the Wilderness Act (to name a few). He told the group that it is important to fight the organizations that want to take rights away, such as women’s rights, collective bargaining, the right to work and voting rights. He made the claim that voting fraud in this country is insignificant, and the supposed fight against it was an effort by some (namely the conservators) to take voting rights away.
When the floor was opened to questions, the first was on if Obamacare will be funded. Brown stated that there are certain parts of it that cannot not be funded. It is a law; Congress passed it and the president signed it. The problem, he continued, is that a lot of people don’t want to recognize that law, and there are thing they can do to block it. He gave the example of politicians, well-dressed and generally well-off, taking their government medicine while stating that they do not support expanding Medicare. Brown called acts like these “morally reprehensible.”
A hot topic on the table lately, potential war with Syria, was brought up next. The question concerned the legitimacy of U.S, international and statutory law in sending a military strike to Syria. The senator’s first comment was that the president could choose to enter Syria without the approval or even vote of Congress. Brown believed that President Obama had some good, but not all good reasons for waiting for Congress to reconvene and vote. Brown stated the possibility that Obama wanted a legitimate reason to delay an airstrike for two weeks. Discussing the chemical weapons use itself, Brown said that we can be as close as possible to 100 percent sure this happened, but the inability to be 100 percent is worrying. In regards to his own vote, Brown claimed to be undecided, both professionally and personally.
A later question on Syria was about the issue of sarin ingredients allegedly being given to Syria initially from Russia, China and North Korea. The senator said that the questions of where and how Syria got sarin, as well as how long they’ve had it and who helped them in the process, are very significant. He called the role of Vladimir Putin in the situation “troubling.”
Several questions were asked regarding citizen displeasure with the government. Brown was asked about frustration in the business, low Congressional approval and the “brokenness” of Washington. He stated that his personal big issue was the lack of communicability between the legislators at the top and the rural, non-union working class individuals that are more and more becoming conservators. He did address some of this with the fact that people don’t see everything going on in government. He said that while Washington is broken, Congress is working under the radar and making improvements all the time.
An issue that Senator Brown has personally made great efforts toward, the public health epidemic concerning drug use, was addressed, with the question: what can we do? He separated the problem into illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse. Regarding illegal drugs, he said flat out that prison doesn’t help, as it just costs money and ruins lives. Brown said that not enough has been done yet to combat the abuse of prescription drugs. He suggested a state registry for drugs, and a Medicaid lock-in, where patients would be restricted to one physician and one pharmacist, so as to end doctor-shopping.
After about an hour of story-sharing and deep issue discussion, Senator Brown ended on a note of the troubling situation in Syria. He amiably thanked the room for being there and for providing discussion questions.