Tug of War

Gregarious Brunner, guarded Fisher face off in U.S. Senate Democratic primary race

Despite its impressive name, the “Courage Express” is actually just a 19-year-old retired bus from the Licking County School District. With its worn-out odometer and fresh coat of silvery paint, it’s now a road-weary campaigning machine that supporters of Jennifer Brunner bought online for $2,000.

In some ways, the Express mirrors Brunner’s run for U.S. Senate: It’s a low-budget, bumpy ride that just might be on its last legs, but it’s still rolling along.

Not exactly the wheels you’d associate with one of Ohio’s most powerful Democrats, but for Brunner it’s the reality of running for U.S. Senate on a political pauper’s budget. Brunner, who is Ohio’s Secretary of State, doesn’t seem fazed by the condition of her bus or her campaign, even as she and her staff bounce and shift in their seats as they rumble through Greater Cleveland on a mid-April visit.

After hours of stumping, Brunner, 53, still manages to chat amiably with reporters about family, the woeful state of journalism, politics and her mission to become Ohio’s first female senator. She seems distracted only by her need to keep a Diet Coke upright each time the bus finds one of the countless potholes that polka-dot the early spring streets. There’s no suited staff member hanging over her shoulder, and only one request to go off the record — on a matter unrelated to Lee Fisher, her Democratic opponent in the May 4 primary.

The two candidates seek a sweet prize: a rare vacant Senate seat in a major swing state, made available thanks to Republican George Voinovich’s decision not to seek reelection. For Democrats looking to bolster their numbers in Washington, this is — to quote Joe Biden — a big fucking deal.

While Brunner claws for any attention she can get, relying heavily on the efforts of volunteer groups, Fisher enjoys the backing of Ohio’s Democratic establishment, the state’s major newspapers, former President Clinton and donors with the deepest pockets.

The old-guard liberal from Cleveland’s Shaker Heights suburb seems less concerned with shaking every hand and kissing every baby in the final days of the 14-month race. His handlers could not shake him loose for an interview for this article and didn’t reply to e-mailed questions prior to deadline.

The one key vote of support neither Fisher nor Brunner could secure was that of the Ohio Democratic Party, which declined to endorse either candidate in the wake of pressure from both sides. The move speaks volumes about the contentiousness of the highest-profile race on the ballot.

Whoever wins the primary will face a formidable and well-funded candidate in Cincinnati Republican Rob Portman, a former U.S. Congressman and former Cabinet member of President George W. Bush. He’s a squeaky-clean, free-market Republican beloved by his home base and who doesn’t carry the same kind of baggage typical of other Bush appointees.

The pivotal issue will be jobs, observers say, and Fisher — perhaps looking past Brunner — has taken the offensive. “Congressman Portman is the ultimate Washington insider,” Fisher told the audience at a debate last week at the City Club of Cleveland. “He spent two decades in Washington, D.C. He just didn’t vote for George W. Bush’s crazy economic policies and regulations that got us in the recession … he was holding the shovel as we were digging into this recession.”

Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner are locked in a tug of war in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Republican Rob Portman awaits the winner to fill the seat of retiring Sen. George Voinovich. Illustration by Matthew Hamby.

Outsiders looking in

Despite their differing approaches and the stark contrast in their war chests — Fisher raised an estimated $3.45 million through 2009 to Brunner’s $677,658 — polls show that the seat remains up for grabs. Voters face a choice between the polished, measured, more moderate Fisher and the personable, detail-oriented and staunchly liberal Brunner.

Asked whether there’s room for her kind in Washington today, Brunner offers as evidence her own personal hero: the late Ted Kennedy.

“He took a lot of jeers and negativity, but he never gave up,” she says.

Brunner, like Kennedy, says she’ll hold fast to her progressive principles, while leaving room to be collegial with those who see things differently.

Fisher, meanwhile, has had his eyes on Voinovich’s Senate seat since before Voinovich revealed he would step aside. But despite all the support thrown Fisher’s way, his presumed coronation as the Democratic contender was scrapped in February 2009 when Brunner announced her candidacy on a YouTube clip.

In response, Fisher hastily assembled a press conference to declare his candidacy that same day. Gov. Ted Strickland and House Speaker Armond Budish stood by Fisher’s side, and key Democratic supporters across the state have dutifully fallen in line.

Given the comparative dearth of dollars, Brunner has tried to capitalize on what she calls a “new paradigm” for campaigning: small-dollar online contributions and grassroots support.

“Many of these people will be the next people in office,” she says of her phalanx of mostly young volunteers.

Brunner’s use of the iconographic image of Rosie the Riveter, she believes, helps her connect with women, for whom she views herself as a champion. It may also be a nod to the supporters who helped strip down the old school bus and rebrand it as the Courage Express.

The bus itself is a campaign statement in a race that has caused little fervor among those not wed to Democratic politics. Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University, says Fisher and Brunner have stirred minimal excitement in their campaigns and left many voters knowing little about either candidate.

In the words of Akron Beacon Journal writer Dennis J. Willard: “Reporters who have covered Fisher for more than 20 years are almost hard pressed to define him.”

He is a consummate political insider with almost 30 years of experience. Now 58, Fisher won his first office — in the Ohio House of Representatives — at 29. He served as the state’s attorney general in 1991 before his ouster by Betty Montgomery four years later.

He made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1998 and returned to work in Cleveland as the head of the non-profit Center for Families and Children. But Fisher returned to the state scene when Strickland tapped him as his running mate in 2006.

Throughout this campaign, Fisher has gone out of his way to paint himself as a Washington outsider. In addition to being lieutenant governor, he served as Ohio’s development director until launching his Senate campaign in February 2009. He has deflected criticism about his record in that role — that he resigned without having accomplished much — and blames federal policies for a jobless rate that increased when he and Strickland took office.

“When you have federal policies that undermine what you are doing on the state level, you’ve got an obligation and a responsibility to try to change those policies,” Fisher said during a debate last week at the City Club of Cleveland.

At a campaign event with Brunner two weeks ago in Cleveland, he sauntered into a West Side church — a bit late, judging by some awkward shifting in the event schedule — smiled, shook hands, passed out business cards and left before the festivities wound down. Perhaps to his detriment, his image seems fashioned in part by a press crew eager to screen questions and tell reporters what should or shouldn’t be printed.

Late-race tensions rise

Although the campaign has remained civil, tensions have emerged in recent weeks.

Brunner blames Fisher for her lack of funding, saying that his allies have intimidated potential donors against supporting her. (One Cleveland-area Democratic leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Fisher’s supporters have threatened to make “pariahs” out of those who openly support Brunner with money.)

But the Fisher campaign — incensed that Brunner’s accusations have gone public — insist this is untrue, citing Brunner’s refusal to elaborate on her claims. Indeed, she declined to name names when asked about her accusations at the City Club last week, a fact that Fisher’s handlers pointed out during real-time e-mail blasts to reporters during the debate.

Asher notes that Brunner may be trying to turn a perceived weakness into a weapon — especially given the media’s focus on fundraising.

“It’s a standard campaign tactic that might be going on here,” he says. “It’s the same kind of thing as when a candidate goes negative and accuses the other — and (the accusation) might be true — and then what does the candidate under attack do? He accuses his or her opponent of going negative.”

The Fisher campaign launched a counter-attack, questioning Brunner’s credibility by saying she accepted campaign money from contributors from banks aided by the federal bailout despite an earlier pledge that she wouldn’t. Brunner told The Columbus Dispatch that the combined $500 contributions were “two small donations from bank employees.”

Fisher, on the other hand, has received thousands of dollars from individuals linked to bailed-out banks, according to campaign finance records.

Although Brunner earned widespread acclaim for smoothing out Election Day kinks that made Ohio a national punch line in 2000 and 2004, she recently has been accused of playing partisan politics over election law. The most recent charge centers on her requirement that voters planning to switch parties for the May primary must sign an affidavit to do so.

Brunner says she’s merely following the letter of the law, in part out of concern that the 2008 elections were marred by too much “gaming” — insincere changes in party alliance merely to affect primary outcomes. Critics say she’s selectively asking for the enforcement of a law that she has previously called unenforceable, and doing it at a time when it might work to her advantage.

When asked why she’s running for the Senate, Brunner says only that the time was right to seek higher office. But she believes some within the party wanted her to remain as secretary of state because she sits on the state Apportionment Board, which will redraw legislative district boundaries next year.

She had a well-documented run-in with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Bob Menendez, whom she claims tried to strong-arm her into withdrawing from the race in late 2009. With a hint of relish, she retells that story to reporters on the bus and repeats her answer to Menendez’s supposed threat to squeeze her out: “The women of Ohio will never forgive you.”

Catherine Turcer, director of Money in Politics, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that studies how dollars affect campaigns and policy, says tactics to shut down opponents’ funding happen often, especially when one candidate goes against the party grain. In Brunner’s case, some of the party maneuvering could be interpreted as sexism against a stubborn, powerful female, Turcer says.

“She’s a woman, and she hasn’t been a good little soldier.”

DAMIAN GUEVARA writes for Cleveland Scene, which is partnering with CityBeat on coverage of statewide races and issues in the May 4 election. Check out Kevin Osborne's story about Issue 1 here.

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