cleveland.com Excerpt: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, right, speaks with Keith Puntenney, left, and Vern Johnson after a farmer’s roundtable in Perry, Iowa.
By Seth A. Richardson, cleveland.com, Cleveland, Ohio, February 1, 2019
PERRY, Iowa – Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, has run for decades in his home state on his stances on trade.
Brown won his first congressional election in 1992 largely on a platform of opposing NAFTA. Since then, he’s consistently opposed trade deals, which he’s deemed unfair to average workers, while supporting tariffs on countries like China for gaming the economy.
Brown, who is in Iowa as part of an early-primary state tour as he considers a run for the White House, hopes that message resonates with voters, especially in the Midwest.
At a farmer roundtable Friday in Perry, Iowa, he found out it wasn’t that simple.
Perry, a town of around 7,500 people west of Des Moines, looks like a typical agricultural community that’s seen better days. A faded welcome sign at the entrance of town reads, “Make Yourself at Home,” but the downtown area is littered with vacant buildings. The town has shrunk in the last 10 years, even as Dallas County remains the fastest growing in the state, largely due to urban creep from the Des Moines metropolitan area.
It’s prototypical of the “forgotten America” that politicians have salivated over since Republican President Donald Trump’s victory. He won the county by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016. Republicans have carried the county since 1996.
Perry and places like it are where Brown has argued his message on working class issues will connect with voters. He’s argued that many voters bought into Trump’s economic message during the 2016 campaign, but the president has failed to deliver.
But unlike in Ohio – with its more industrial-based economy – the tariffs aren’t overwhelmingly welcome in rural Iowa.
“The commodity prices are terrible right now,” said Mary Weaver, a family farmer with her husband and son in nearby Rippey. “We harvest soybeans and corn and the tariff has really, really hurt us. I’m eager to hear what he says about trade and how high that’s going to be on his priority list.”
Corn and soybean prices have fallen since Trump imposed tariffs on China. In retaliation, China cut how much of the crops it has purchased from the United States. Trump also put tariffs on Mexico and Canada.
Farmers have received some assistance, but that was for last year alone with no guarantee for help in the future.
“A lot of time and effort went into creating those relationships that have led to the growth in those exports,” said Jim Gannon, a 42-year-old family farmer from about an hour away in Mingo.
Brown has been supportive of Trump’s tariffs against China, as a way to punish bad actors. But he’s been critical of using them as a long-term solution and of those levied on Canada and Mexico, who are American allies.
“Full disclosure, I supported the tariffs originally,” Brown told the group of roughly 10 at Friday’s roundtable. “To me tariffs, if done right, and the reason I supported them is that they are a temporary tool to get to a certain point, not a long term trade policy. Trump has made them a long term trade policy because he’s not doing real good negotiations with China.”
Ardent opposition to trade deals and blanket support for tariffs play well in Ohio, especially in old industrial cities that have lost jobs to outsourcing like Youngstown, Toledo and Cleveland.
Brown was open about his thoughts on the tariffs and his opposition to trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deals of the past have pitted farmers like those in Perry against industrial workers like Brown’s constituents in Ohio, he said.
“You need to do it in a way you don’t play it off industry against agriculture,” Brown said. “You don’t pit steelworker against farmer. (Trump) never really understood the depth of that.”
Brown spoke little during the roundtable, opting to listen and ask questions instead of hogging the air. After the exchange about trade, he quickly switched the subject to ethanol – an important issue to Iowa farmers.
Warren Varley, a 58-year-old fifth-generation farmer who runs a small-town law practice in Stuart, interjected to give the senator some advice as he continues thinking about running for president.
“Senator, excuse me for interrupting. You might win the caucuses talking about tariffs and ethanol, but you’re not going to win rural voters,” Varley said. “Rural voters are upset with China, as they should be. Long before this deal with phone technology, we had Chinese stealing seeds from Pioneer. This goes back a long ways. You’ve got to talk about economic concentration and the effect that’s having on farmers in particular, but rural communities in general. That’s what’s really grinding farmers.”
Varley said in an interview with cleveland.com that his concern wasn’t with Brown’s position, but his focus.
“He’s not going to reach the voter we need to reach,” Varley said. “I have a lot of farmer friends who consistently vote Republican, and they agree with the president that China is treating us unfairly. They’re not going to abandon him over tariffs. We need to talk about what’s really impacting them economically.”