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Rep. Shontel Brown on leaving the ‘echo chamber’

Newest Ohio Democrat says party should meet people where they are

Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown, chair of the Cuyahoga County Democrats, came to Congress in November after winning a special election to replace Marcia Fudge.
Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown, chair of the Cuyahoga County Democrats, came to Congress in November after winning a special election to replace Marcia Fudge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Most congressional offices double as shrines to the member’s career, with bits of memorabilia crammed all over. Not so for Rep. Shontel Brown, who arrived in Washington last fall.

The blank walls aren’t an aesthetic decision, the Ohio Democrat said, or a way to avoid jinxing her chances in the upcoming primary rematch against Nina Turner, whom she beat in an August 2021 a special primary.

“The funny thing about being a new member who inherits your predecessor’s fantastic office is that you only get to keep it for likely a year,” she said of her choice digs in the Rayburn Building, which belonged to Marcia Fudge before she resigned to become Housing and Urban Development secretary. 

Such pragmatism has been a hallmark of Brown’s political career. If she prevails again in the redrawn 11 District, she won’t have much to pack as she moves to a less swanky office suite. But she’ll have new things worth hanging on the walls, like a recent college degree. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’re finishing up your degree at Wilberforce University. What is it like balancing classes and votes?

A: It has been challenging. But right before I came to Congress, I got licensed in life and health insurance, and serendipitously, those classes are applicable to my degree. So I’ll be graduating May 7. They also asked me to be the keynote [graduation speaker], so it’s a double high honor for me.

Q: Why did you decide to get into politics?

A: The short answer is divine intervention. I tell this story often on the campaign trail. I wanted to help my neighbors — I was the youngest homeowner on my street, and the seniors and retirees treated me like their very own. The question occurred to me during the Japanese tsunami: Where will we go in the event of an emergency, maybe to the elementary school or the senior civic center? I thought the best place to find the answer would be my local city council meeting. And I was right, I got the answer. But I also learned there was some room for improvement. 

So I pounded the pavement and told my neighbors I wanted to be their city councilperson. And they said, “Well, what can you do about this tree branch? What can you do about these sewers that need to be cleaned?” Fast forward, Election Day comes, the polls close, and I’m down by six votes. I actually thought I lost the race, and I was convinced I would never run for public office again. As a child of faith, I said, “OK, God, I trust your infinite wisdom. This must not be for me.” 

But 11 days later, [after they counted the provisional ballots], I got a call from my good friend Mayor Brad Sellers, who said, “You won.” And I said, “Are you serious? By how many?” And he said, “Seven.”

Again as a child of faith, seven represents perfection, completion and God, so I often credit this journey to his divine intervention. And that’s really been the moral compass and the foundation and the guiding force in this work. 

Q: You’re the party chair in Cuyahoga County, so I know you’ve given this some thought: What do Democrats need to do in the coming midterm election to win, or at least not lose too badly?

A: We have to meet people where they are. I find we are constantly talking to what feels like the same folks all the time, like a big echo chamber. So we have to be willing to go outside our comfort zones. 

When I was first elected as party chair, I went to some of the most unconventional places to promote voting, like comedy shows. I knew promoters and I would ask them, “Can I just have two or three minutes with your audience to remind them of the importance of voting?” Rap concerts, R&B concerts — if I’m in the building, then I’m speaking up and speaking out and championing the fact that we need to pay attention to what’s happening in our politics and exercise our right to vote. 

You have to ask people what’s important to them, and then really tap into those issues and make a direct connection to the work we’re doing right now.

Q: A lot of individual Democratic proposals — like letting Medicare negotiate drug prices or raising taxes on large corporations or the wealthy — are very popular in polls, but the party itself is less so. Why is that?

A: Sometimes our message might get lost, but when it comes to the cost of living, we certainly want to improve that. When you talk about corporations paying their fair share, absolutely. When you talk about lowering prescription drug prices, yes, we are for that.

The message might get a little bit muddled because we’ve been very much focused on the details. Instead of talking about how fast the car is, we want to talk about the engine and all the features in the engine. But everybody just wants a fast car. So that might be part of the challenge with us as Democrats, and I might be doing it myself right now.

Q: What has surprised you so far about Congress?

A: How much we actually do get done, and oftentimes in a bipartisan way. Having come in and voted on something like 160 to 175 pieces of legislation, [I can see] getting those across the finish line just doesn’t get enough attention. The other thing that surprised me is how friendly of an environment it can be, even sometimes across the aisle. 

Quick hits

Last book you read? Every day I read “Grace for Today,” a one-minute scripture and word of encouragement. 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? 100 percent, yes.

Least popular opinion? People always say it’s the most important meal of the day, but I rarely have breakfast, and I just go, go, go.

If you could do any other job, what would it be? Considering I’m sleep deprived, a job where you could just sleep. But I also enjoy commentating, so maybe a political commentator. 

Closest friend across the aisle? I came in with my Ohio colleague Mike Carey, [also sworn in Nov. 4]. We’re in regular communication. 

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