CLEVELAND  — In an exclusive interview outside his home in Cleveland, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) discussed the state of the presidential race in Ohio, why he once thought Joe Biden wouldn’t be the Democratic nominee, and whether Brown sees his political career ending in the U.S. Senate.

You can watch the full conversation above or read the complete transcript here:

Taylor Popielarz: So I want to start off with a broad question, and I know it may sound silly, but I want your genuine answer. This election cycle —

Sen. Sherrod Brown: As opposed to my less genuine answers?

Taylor Popielarz: [laughs] As opposed to a political answer. This election cycle, how do you think your party, the Democratic Party has been doing?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Well, I think it's made the contrast, you look at Joe Biden, you look at House and Senate Democratic candidates, and it's all about, it's all about the dignity of work. I think that Biden is the most pro-worker candidate for president in either party for a generation. And I think you contrast that with the betrayal of workers from Trump, whether its opposition to the minimum wage, whether it's his secretary of labor that was a corporate lawyer that made millions of dollars attacking workers and attacking worker safety laws, whether it's the overtime rule where Trump took overtime away from 100,000 Ohio workers and millions across the country. And I think the contrast is clear. I think Biden is the right sort of fit in Ohio because he talks about the dignity of work. And he talks about how important it is to see a campaign, and more importantly, to govern through the eyes of workers.

Taylor Popielarz: As the only Democrat in Ohio elected statewide, who's not a judge, describe the state of the Biden campaign in Ohio right now. Is it good? Is it bad? Encouraging? Discouraging?

Sen. Sherrod Brown:
The enthusiasm is high. I think the Trump people are feeling in many ways like they're going to lose. I mean, I just think that the Republican officeholders are discouraged because their candidate is so uneven, is so uncaring about the people around him in the way he handled the coronavirus. I have heard stories, with names attached, of people who were going to vote for Trump that aren't now because he was so, he just didn't care about the people around him contracting the virus. And that tells you a lot about his attitude towards workers overall. But I think Democrats are engaged and excited, partly because there are so many good Democratic local candidates for Congress, for the legislature, for county commissioner, for judges. We’ve run slates of candidates — just, this year was an easier year to recruit more younger people, more women, more excitement in communities about taking the country back, essentially, changing the direction of this country and unifying the country instead of this always divisive rhetoric.

Taylor Popielarz: The last time we talked at length about the campaign, you expressed a lot of confidence in how the Biden team was listening to you and listening to other Democrats in the state and applying what you thought was a successful strategy here. Has there been anything the Biden campaign has done that's disappointed you in the state or where they’ve fallen short?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Well, I wanted them to come into Ohio with a full blown campaign earlier. But I also understood they don't need Ohio to win. They can win by winning Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. They have a good chance in Arizona and North Carolina and maybe Georgia and maybe Texas and maybe Iowa. But I think they understand the importance of a decisive win, in part because they know Trump is going to try to call the election into question, even though he has no basis to do that; there is no evidence of any fraud at all. And I think that next year — I feel increasingly certain that Biden will win, including in Ohio, that the Democrats will win the Senate, and we have an obligation to govern and to govern through the eyes of workers in a big way. And I think we'll be ready to do that. And winning Ohio helps us.

Taylor Popielarz: I want to talk about the Senate in a bit. One more question about Biden. You had told The New York Times two summers ago, so July 2019, that you “never thought Biden would be the Democratic nominee.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Well, I was wrong. Start with that. [laughs] I thought Biden saw his job too much, as let's return — to win — and then let's return back to normalcy before Trump. Because Trump has done things that, you know — essentially wanting to pull out of NATO, out of the climate accord, out of the World Health Organization, attacking so many people personally, including his own staff — all the things that happened, that Biden was going to restore normalcy. But I think Biden realized in the middle of this campaign, because of the pandemic, that people just didn't want to go back to pre-pandemic, to the way it was before the pandemic. People understand, because this pandemic has been the great revealer, people understand income inequality better, they understand racial disparities better, they understand we have work to do in housing. I mean, we were sitting right now in a zip code in Cleveland, Ohio, across the street from my house in a park, where the zip code had more foreclosures than any zip code in the United States in 2007. We’ve got a housing problem in this country. A quarter of renters in this country, before the pandemic, spend more than half their income on rent. One thing goes wrong, their car breaks down, their kid gets sick, they have a minor injury that causes a few days missing work, they can lose their apartments, they can be evicted. And that's not right. And it's in large part because wages have been flat and because unions have been essentially pushed out of so many workplaces — and the middle class wage that the union provides, and the employer provides. And we're not building enough housing. If you’re right on the edge in your housing, everything goes wrong. Your kid ends up in a different school district in the middle of the year —all the things that happen if you're evicted.

Taylor Popielarz: Was there a point before you formally endorsed Biden that you questioned whether you were going to support him?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: No, no, It's never been anything negative. It's just been — I thought that he would not be the nominee. I thought that a year ago, and I think if he had continued just thinking back to normal, he wouldn't have been the nominee. But clearly, he was moved by what was happening in this country. He's always been a pro-worker candidate, which I like. He's always seen the world through the eyes of Scranton, where he grew up, as opposed to Manhattan, where Donald Trump spent his daddy's inheritance. So none of that surprises me, but I think he just saw the job differently. So he will be a consequential president that does big things. I mean, I think he will raise the minimum wage dramatically. I think he'll restore overtime pay to the four million plus Americans that lost it. He will work on housing issues. He will do the child tax credit for low income workers that just can't get ahead but are working every day and putting their kids in daycare and trying to figure out how to manage their lives that way. I think he will do something on student debt, climate change. All the things that this country cares about, he will move on — he will move on decisively. And he will have an impact for decades, as Lyndon Johnson did, as Franklin Roosevelt did.

Taylor Popielarz: Who did you think would’ve been the nominee?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: I don't know. I didn’t — I never said that. I just don't know. Different week, different person. I mean, it's so — and there was 20 people in the race. And it's easy to say this when there's 20 people in the race. It's like, are the Indians going to win the World Series? Well, probably not because there's 30 teams. Plus they never win.

Taylor Popielarz: This is true. [laughs] If the Democrats are successful with the Senate in the fall, you'll become the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. You just talked a lot about housing. Is that what would be the first thing in terms of, beyond just hearings, the first like meaty thing you would want to take on if you took over the committee?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: The first thing the banking, housing committee should do is provide emergency rental assistance. Because Trump and McConnell, the leader of the Senate, took away the $600/week unemployment benefit that had kept — one study showed kept 12 million Americans out of poverty. 600,000 people in this state can't find a job and the government took away the $600 unemployment. What are they to do? And provided nothing to help them stay in their homes. There’s going to be a massive wave of evictions if McConnell and Trump don't allow the Senate to do its job and vote that $600 a week and do something with emergency rental assistance. There will be increased numbers of evictions. And to think about evicting people in the middle of the pandemic, you either go into an overcrowded homeless shelter or you stay in your cousin's basement. And either way, it's terrible for families, it’s terrible for public health, it’s terrible for the future of our economy.

Taylor Popielarz: If Democrats take the Senate, do you want Schumer to remain the leader?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Yeah, Schumer will remain the leader, I'm sure.

Taylor Popielarz: Let's talk now about some of the House races in Ohio, which I've been spending all week covering. I want to start with the 10th District because Desiree Tims is a former staffer of yours. Every Democrat that I've interviewed who's running, they’ve talked about how they've sought your counsel at various points. How do you think she's doing and I guess what do you think about her jumping in this way?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: She's been a very good candidate. She's out and about a lot, she’s raised money, she’s developed a real persona. I mean, graduate of Dayton Dunbar High School. First in her family to go to college, went off to work in my office for a while, worked in Washington for a while, came back to the city she grew up in and she knows and loves. She has made a real contrast that she'll fight for health care. The Republican incumbent in that district voted a number of times, more than three dozen times, one time after another, to take away the consumer protections for pre-existing conditions. So if voters this year, if voters care about the consumer protections that you get if you have a pre-existing condition, if voters care about stopping insurance companies from canceling your insurance if you're diabetic or high blood pressure or some kind of mental illness, or you've had COVID, if voters care about protecting those people's insurance, they've got to vote for Desiree Tims, they’ve got to vote for Kate Schroder, they’ve got to vote for Democratic candidates this year.

Taylor Popielarz: Are there any other candidates who have caught your eye this cycle? New candidates?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Yes, several. We have a program called our Canary Candidates Program, which you know about. We're involved in about 130 races, we've never done anything like that. We do a Zoom every week to just talk through to candidates and campaign managers. We are seeing a change in this state. We're seeing so much more local energy. People realize that our country's in trouble. And it's a dark time for our country. And all kinds of good people have gotten involved in wanting to run for office. And fundamentally, the message of all of us is the culture of corruption at the White House, in the statehouse, in the courthouse means you’ve you got to vote them out of office. And, you know, whether these candidates that you're interviewing, whether these Republican candidates are taking money from, you know, some of these lobbyists that have been pretty corrupt or not, Republicans are all benefiting from the Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Larry Householder machine. And it’s as bad as it's been for the country.

Taylor Popielarz: There are many Democrats across the state who are running in more rural areas. You've been more successful than other Democrats in those parts of the state. I spoke with Shannon Freshour, who's running against Jim Jordan, specifically about what she's learned from you and how she's trying to apply it in her district. Do you think Democrats are starting to do better in terms of outreach to the traditionally non-blue areas of this state?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Yeah, I think Democrats understand increasingly that you talk to workers about their lives. What can we do to help your kid go to community college? How do we help your daughter if she wants to join the Marines? How do we provide decent wages in your community. You want to stay in a place like Mansfield, where I grew up, or Zanesville or Chillicothe or Lima or Portsmouth. But there have got to be job opportunities. And I've seen, President Trump has betrayed workers in those communities. He's done nothing to help them. In fact, in Youngstown, he said, when the Lordstown plant closed, don't sell your homes, these jobs are coming back, then he didn't lift a finger. I think Democrats understand — Republicans want to change the subject. They don't want to talk about COVID and the fact that 4% of the world's population are Americans, but 22% of the world's deaths are Americans. That's a failure of leadership. They don't want to talk about that. And they don't want to talk about Trump's failure in the economy, the highest unemployment we've seen in our lifetime. And it’s clearly on the backs of the president and the politicians who continue to unquestionably do the president's bidding. But the president's shown little interest in a national plan to combat COVID. And he has no idea what to do about the economy, except to give rich people another tax cut. And that clearly doesn't work.

Taylor Popielarz: When you and I spoke about two weeks ago, before the debate, you told me, speaking about Republicans, that they “know workers in this country don't have high expectations of politicians.” And, in your words, you felt that they capitalized on that. Do you think your party overall, not just in Ohio but in general — are Democrats doing a better job, not only reaching out to voters, but convincing them that the expectations don't have to be as low as you say they are?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Democrats need to show people that government can be a positive force in their lives. We've done that during COVID. For six months, the unemployment benefit, the help for local governments, the help for hospitals and doctors and patients and schools. But then, government turned its back on people. So I think people clearly understand that unemployment insurance, that Medicare, that Social Security, that building broadband, all the things that government can do, people want us to do, and that really separates the political parties. The Republicans are saying we don't want anymore help. Trump said it, McConnell said it, Republican senators have said it — no more help for unemployed workers, no more help for schools, no more help for local governments. And that just doesn't make sense. And I think voters see that the Democrats are the party that's going to — not just the party that wants government to help, but the party that makes government help, makes it work for people the way that it did with the unemployment, the way that it does when we invest in public education.

Taylor Popielarz: What happens to the Democratic Party if Joe Biden doesn't win?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Well, Joe Biden's going win. So you're not going to get an answer.

Taylor Popielarz: But if he [doesn’t], I mean, a lot of people thought Hillary was going to win. I guess, because you've been a member — and an active member — of the party for decades, what do you think will happen to it? Will, the party have to be —  

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Well, I think if Joe Biden doesn't win, the country's in trouble. I mean, Trump will continue to divide. He'll continue to betray workers. He'll continue to try to turn city against suburb and Black against White. He'll continue to attack his own employees. He’ll continue to pull out of the World Health Organization and NATO and all the things that made us the leading country in the world. I mean, this president — he has defunded the police by refusing to provide dollars for local governments to hire police and fire, to invest money so they don't have to layoff workers. So I'm very concerned what happens if Trump wins, because I think our cities are less safe. I think our families are less secure. I think wages will continue to stagnate. He won't raise the minimum wage, he'll continue to take money away from people for overtime, all those things that he's shown what he stands for in the last four years.

Taylor Popielarz: I know it's a hypothetical, but would the Democratic Party have to do like a hard reset in your mind, completely reshape itself if it loses to Donald Trump twice?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: No, anytime a presidential candidate loses, the party always does a reassessment. After Romney lost in ’12, the party said we've got to reach out to people of color more, we got to reach out to immigrants more. Obviously, they didn't. They went the other way. After ’16, after Hillary, people said we've got to pay more attention to working class voters in the Industrial Midwest. Some of us were already saying and doing that, but presidential campaigns are what they are. I would say whoever loses this year, there will be a reassessment. I think the more interesting question, not to tell you what questions to ask, but I think the more interesting question is when the Republicans lose this year, all these senators that were spineless and silent and wouldn't even criticize the president when he criticized our soldiers who gave their lives, wouldn't criticize the president when he turned his back on — the way he handled the coronavirus: 4% of the world's population, 22% of the world's deaths — they wouldn't criticize him or go in a different direction then. Who are they? What are they going to be in the future after Trump loses? That's the million dollar question.

Taylor Popielarz: I have a couple more questions. Throughout the span of the last year, has there been any point where you've sat there and said, I wish I did run for president?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: No, I made a decision. You just can't look back when you do that. I didn't want the job enough to do what you have to do, to put your family through it. I have seven grandchildren, Connie and I have four children — all married, luckily, and doing okay during this terrible time. They would have to go through all of this, they would be too much in the center of it. I didn't have the desire of putting everything aside and do it. I mean, I couldn't have been much of a senator during that period, you really can't do both very well. And I love this job. And I love representing this community in this state.

Taylor Popielarz: With that in mind, not that I'm trying to map out the end of your career. But right now, do you see your political career ending in the Senate?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: I do. I do. And I hope it’s — probably not this term. I hope to do it at least once more, I think, at this point. God willing and health willing. But I love this job. I want to be chairman of the Banking and Housing Committee. I want to devote the rest of my career to helping people have affordable, decent, clean, safe housing. And what better legacy for any person, any public official, to have played a major role in the foundation of people's lives. I mean, your health, your children's education, your life expectancy, all of that, just your safety is all grounded in housing. And we frankly haven't done it very well in this country in the last 50 years.

Taylor Popielarz: Is there ever a reality in your mind where let's say Biden gets elected, and let's say he serves for two terms and DeWine doesn't stay governor, and maybe a Democrat becomes governor, would you ever agree to be HUD secretary or labor secretary?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: That is a lot of ifs. [laughs] First off —

Taylor Popielarz: [laughs] It is a lot of ifs.

Sen. Sherrod Brown: I really don't want to — I mean, people said, ‘You want to be labor secretary? You want to do —?’ No. I'm in a position in the Senate where I can have outsized influence, if I'm chairman of this committee as I expect will happen next year because I think we win the Senate, I think there's no better place to put an imprint on public policy for safe, affordable, accessible housing.

Taylor Popielarz:
On the pandemic, you talked about it a bit before, I’ve been asking all the House members who are running for reelection if they feel that the federal government's failure to properly respond is reason enough for constituents to feel like they don't deserve another term. For you, you’re not running for reelection right now, but do you feel like you personally have been able to do enough that you could walk around this neighborhood and say to your constituents, trust me, I've done all I could for this?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: I think that the whole country, except for the, well, two thirds of the country — the third that essentially worships Donald Trump — but two thirds of the country understand the failures on the coronavirus were not the governor of Ohio, were not even the House or Senate members from Ohio, it was the president of the United States. But those who continued to aid and abet this president, didn't push him at all on masks, didn’t push him at all on coming up with a national plan to provide protective equipment, that didn't push him at all and made excuses for him on any kind of a national plan of testing and contact tracing, they’re all part of this. That's why I say the corruption, the culture of corruption at the White House, the statehouse and the courthouse says that those people that are with the president, which is pretty much an entire political party now, are with the president blindly and unquestionably, and unquestioning themselves, they deserve to lose.

Taylor Popielarz:
And then lastly, there's a lot of talk surrounding Amy Coney Barrett's nomination about the future of the Affordable Care Act. I've heard a lot of the comments you've made about it. Do you genuinely think, and I listened to an interesting podcast a couple days ago where the New York Times, one of their big health care reporters, kind of mapped out a potential path of how difficult it may be, even if Coney Barrett gets on the court, for the Affordable Care Act to be completely wiped out immediately. Do you view that as a legitimate threat?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: I'm very concerned. The Republicans for 10 years, including every single Republican House member in Ohio and senator, have voted to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. They voted to throw 25-year-olds off their parents’ plan. They voted to, in essence, take away the prescription drug benefit. They voted against the 900,000 expanded number of people in Ohio on Medicaid and a health care plan. And they voted to take away protections for the five million people with pre-existing conditions. They've tried to do it through the democratic process, small d, through Congress. They’ve lost consistently, but they've kept trying. Now Trump's trying to do it and he's trying to do it by putting another special interest, pro-insurance company lawyer on the Supreme Court. And that's their goal. I hope if they do it, that possibly Congress, next year, a Democratic Congress, can find a way at least to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but I don't know. I think it's a terrible situation that Trump and McConnell and every Republican House and Senate member, with the exception of three, one of who's passed away, all of them are trying to take away protections for pre-existing conditions. They'll tell you they're not. But you know, cause you know the facts. And you know that's what they're trying to do.

Taylor Popielarz: One more question, I'll sneak in.

Sen. Sherrod Brown: This is like your third ‘one last question.’ [laughs] Since you've driven 1,300 miles or whatever you said.

Taylor Popielarz: I appreciate it [laughs]…Because you've been in Congress for so long, you’ve served in both chambers, another maybe cliche question, but is the division that we on the outside see of Washington right now, is it the worst you've ever seen it?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: It is the worst I've ever seen it. It's not been good for years, but it's the worst because the president, more than Obama did, more than Bush did, more than Clinton did, the president is always trying to divide. He believes his way to reelection is to appeal to white supremacists, he believes his way is to divide White and Black and Latino. He attacks people by name all the time — that I've never seen a president do. I've seen very few responsible adults attack people by name the way he does. Racial problems are more at the fore, I mean, all of this is more divisive than I think it's ever been. It's fixable, but it's going to take both parties doing better next year.

Taylor Popielarz: Anything else you want to add?

Sen. Sherrod Brown: That's it. All right.

Taylor Popielarz: Thank you.

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Cool. Good to see ya.