City Council Member Elizabeth Brown's ideas were nurtured by watching her father, Sen. Sherrod Brown. But it was her experience as an expectant mother that kicked off her first run for elected office.
When Elizabeth Brown received an invitation to an October 2015 Columbus City Council candidates' forum, she accepted with little hesitation. Though she was in her third trimester of pregnancy, the event was scheduled to take place 11 days after her due date. With the oblivious self-confidence of a first-time parent, she assumed she'd be ready for public appearances by then.
But first babies often miss their due dates, and Brown's was no exception. Little Carolyn came into the world more than a week late—just three days before the debate. Brown, still recovering from a 36-hour labor, decided to tough it out. “I felt like I really needed to honor that commitment,” says Brown, a self-described perfectionist who doesn't like letting people down. Her husband, Patrick Katzenmeyer, would watch the baby.
Wrenching herself away from her newborn for the first time was unexpectedly hard. Brown kept her phone on the table during the event. Fifty minutes into the debate, it lit up—a text from Katzenmeyer. The baby was crying, and he couldn't get her to stop. “I hate to do this to you, but I think she needs you,” Katzenmeyer texted. Brown excused herself and went home to her baby.
The moment was a made-to-order example of one of Brown's key platforms: the need for new parents to have time off from work to be with their children. Nine months earlier, a newly pregnant Brown had been surprised to discover that her job as a development manager at the city of Columbus would not offer her paid family leave. “I was kicking myself. How did I not check for this benefit?”
That disappointing epiphany provided motivation to help inspire change later that year when Brown decided to run for an unexpected opening on Columbus City Council. She won, and brought her newborn with her to the victory party. Eighteen months later, Council Member Brown announced that Columbus would be offering four weeks of paid family leave for mothers, fathers and adopting couples, and two weeks of caretaker leave for those with a sick spouse, child or parent. The policy will apply to all 8,500 city employees when it takes effect in August.
A rising star
Since taking office in January 2016, Elizabeth Brown has been an outspoken leader on a surprisingly broad range of social and economic issues. Like her father, Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, she is an unabashed liberal. But the causes she champions may be particularly resonant for her own generation of Trump-era progressives. Brown proposed and helped pass an ordinance creating a harassment-free zone around women's health clinics. She's developing a legal defense fund to assist immigrants and refugees who face possible deportation. She's working on a program to increase job opportunities for restored citizens (those convicted of a felony who have served their time).
Brown is not alone on the council in her embrace of progressive causes. Alongside their daily work overseeing budgetary and legislative priorities for this city of 850,000, this young (five of its seven members are under 40) and progressive, all-Democratic City Council has tackled such hot-button issues as banning conversion therapy for homosexuals and whether to make Columbus a sanctuary city (the city has not yet embraced the designation, but Mayor Andy Ginther has ordered police not to arrest or detain undocumented immigrants).
But even among a Council filled with millennial progressives, Liz Brown stands out. Those who worked with her on the paid family leave policy credit the eventual passage of this complex initiative, involving five collective bargaining agreements and many stakeholders, to her leadership, dogged focus and attention to details. “She really led the charge,” says Shannon Ginther, the mayor's wife and chair of the Columbus Women's Commission, who worked with Brown on the plans.
“She's not afraid to get dirty with the necessary policy research to back up her proposals,” says City Council President Zach Klein. “When she has a policy issue that she's passionate about, she has the data to support that conclusion.”
For someone just 33 years old and new to public office, Brown has many admirers. Words like “rock star” and “dynamite” creep into the conversation. She's described as both passionate and strategic, but also earnest. “There's an authenticity about her that I really like,” says Terri Williams Ifeduba, vice president of engagement and development at the YWCA, where Brown served on the board until her election. “I recognize that she is a politician, but I actually don't think of her in that vein. She's a city council member, and with that goes a responsibility to be a caretaker, a nurturer of the community that we live in and that she represents.”
The person at the other end of the policy
It's a Wednesday morning, and Brown is a featured speaker at the New American Forum, a gathering of Franklin County agencies that work with immigrants and refugees. The annual event has a new urgency in the wake of President Donald Trump's stepped-up immigration enforcement, and the Columbus Athenaeum is packed. Brown follows Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce to the stage to deliver opening remarks. She says that immigration is an economic issue for Columbus, noting that immigrants pay $258 million a year in local taxes.
But the heat in her voice rises when she begins recounting individual stories of families divided by immigration laws while seeking a better life in the U.S., like Maribel Trujillo Diaz, the Butler County mother of four American-born children who was deported to Mexico in April. Diaz, who is represented by Brown's sister Emily, a public interest lawyer, was earmarked for deportation during a routine check-in with the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. “The only thing she did to get deported,” says Brown, “was follow the rules that ICE set up for her.”
“The way that we're treating our refugees,” she continues, leaning into the microphone, “it's been tough for me to deal with personally.” Later, when I ask her why this issue is so important to her, Brown says it's because she is a mother. She hasn't met Maribel Diaz, but she did accompany another Mexican woman to her ICE check-in, hoping that her presence would decrease the woman's chances of deportation. The woman had three children. “I cannot imagine being ripped away from my children. It's unfathomable to me. The only way I can explain it is that policymakers or administrators in control of immigration policy right now do not understand that public policy has individual impact,” Brown says. “It's the only explanation—I don't want to think of them as villains or malevolent people. They must not understand the humans at the other end of the decisions they are making.”
It's a point Brown makes in almost every speech: that there is a person at the other end of every public policy enacted. “The personal is political” has been a feminist rallying cry since the 1960s, but for Brown, the message applies to all who are oppressed or left behind. It's a message she traces back to watching people seek out her father and thank him for a particular vote or stance. She recalls an incident in the mid-1990s when she was 11 or 12 years old. Brown was leaving church a little early with her father, then a U. S. congressman, to get to another event. A parishioner stood up and raced after the Browns. “‘Congressman, Congressman, I want to thank you,' he said. The gratitude was just pouring from his eyes.”
Afterward, she asked her dad what the man was thanking him for. “He explained to me that he'd taken a vote [against] something that not very many Congress people had taken, and the country was pretty angry about it, but some people were really grateful.” The bill was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the gay marriage ban that passed with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate and was later ruled unconstitutional. “So my Dad voted against DOMA, and he was one of maybe 60 in a body of 465 to take that vote,” says Brown. “It was a really tough vote for him, but he won re-election.”
The constituent whose gratitude so impressed 11-year-old Liz Brown taught her that real people's lives are affected by the acts of politicians. The outcome for her father taught her something else. “You can stand for justice and you can have people's backs in a real way,” she says, “and also get people to vote for you. It's not an either/or.”
That idealism, and optimism, is evident in the close of Brown's speech at the New American Forum, where she quotes, from memory, a poem by Langston Hughes. “He described,” she says, “in words like no other had before him, the experience of being told he was an American but being treated like he was not like other Americans.”
“‘America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!'”
Chief cook and bottle washer
Liz Brown was born in Berwick, on Columbus' east side, to Sherrod and Larke Brown. Her parents split when she was 2 and divorced the following year; Brown and her older sister Emily moved with their mother to Granville. Their mother remarried a year later, bringing them two step-siblings and, later, a half-sister; Sherrod remained single until 2004, when he married Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz. Elizabeth was 20 by then.
“A big part of my life was that my sister Emily and I were always going back and forth between our parents,” says Brown. As a result, she says, she developed separate, strong relationships with each. “They are deeply my friends in an individual way.”
An excellent student, Brown was accepted to Columbia University but deferred for a year. She wanted to “spend a year doing something other than learning in a classroom.” She moved to Philadelphia and joined City Year, a full-time, yearlong community service program. Living on the program's $700 a month stipend, she shared a house with seven other corps members from diverse backgrounds, cooking “family” dinners together and splitting the bills. She worked as a classroom aide in an overcrowded public middle school, providing needed attention to students at risk of falling through the cracks.
Brown often says that her City Year experience gave her a firsthand look at how public policies, such as school funding, affect individuals. She recently told a gathering of service program staff that she'd like to see former AmeriCorps members be the next generation of elected officeholders. “There should never be an elected official who has not been on the front lines of public service,” she says.
At Columbia, Brown majored in English and thought she wanted to become a writer. A year working at New York magazine, however, convinced her that she wanted to make policy, not write about it. The 2008 election season was gearing up. Brown quit her magazine job, sublet her New York apartment and came back to Ohio to run Nancy Garland's campaign to unseat Republican Jim McGregor in the Ohio House.
“When you do a state rep race, you do everything,” she says. “You're chief cook and bottle washer. From grunt work to preparing the candidate for debates. I loved it.”
Garland was down 12 points when Brown joined the campaign midstream but ultimately won the seat by 1,652 votes. Brown gave up her apartment in New York and moved back to Ohio full-time.
The next five years were spent in political work, first at the Ohio Statehouse, where she served as political director for the House Democratic Caucus under Speaker Armond Budish. There she met her husband, Patrick Katzenmeyer. Now the development director for the Pizzuti Cos., as well as co-owner of the two Downtown locavore restaurants Market 65 and Veranico, Katzenmeyer, the son of Greater Columbus Arts Council CEO Tom Katzenmeyer, was at the time working as a Legislative Service Commission fellow, a paid internship for recent college grads. (They married in 2014.)
In 2011, Brown went to work for the Ohio Democratic Party as political director and then as deputy director. She ran the coordinated campaigns for the state party during a year when both Barack Obama and her father were up for re-election. “I love organizing people, feeding off volunteers' energy and seeing the way volunteers relate to their own neighbors to make the case for these big, important elections,” she says.
It also was around that time, notes Franklin County Republican Party chair Brad Sinnott, that lobbyist John Raphael made a $20,000 donation to the Ohio Democratic Party on behalf of red-light camera maker and city contractor Redflex, a donation that was allegedly funneled to Andrew Ginther's mayoral campaign. The donation resulted in Raphael's conviction for extortion and a 15-month prison sentence. Brown says that she was not involved in those transactions and that she never heard of Raphael until she read about him in the newspaper in June 2015.
In 2014, Brown left her post with ODP, went to work as the Downtown development manager for the city of Columbus and began to consider a run for office. She applied for an appointment to a vacant City Council seat in December 2014 but was overlooked for Assistant City Attorney Jaiza Page. On August 20, 2015, City Council Member Michelle Mills, an incumbent running for re-election, withdrew from the ballot amid accusations of ethics violations. Rules allow just 24 hours for the naming of a replacement candidate; only 85 days remained until Election Day. With the support of her husband and Mills' nominating committee, Brown, more than seven months pregnant, threw her hat in the ring.
It was a whirlwind 12 weeks. Brown campaigned hard and raised more than $200,000—an extraordinary amount for such a short campaign. Her fundraising success draws criticism from Sinnott. “If there's any suggestion that Elizabeth Brown is a breath of fresh air on Columbus City Council, that's simply a mistake,” Sinnott says. “She received multiple four-figure campaign contributions from Columbus development concerns. She looks to always vote the party line at City Council. So it looks like she's going to be part of that gang of seven on Columbus City Council.”
Among Brown's top donors were developers Doug Borror, Brett Kaufman and Ron Pizzuti's PAC. Another four-figure donor was Sinnott's law firm, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.
“One of the benefits of raising money from a whole lot of different people is that I can do something to piss off a dozen donors and it doesn't matter,” responds Brown, pointing out that she needed a big war chest in part because she had only 85 days to introduce herself to the public. “I work really hard at campaigning because I want to be able to work hard at doing this job.” She garnered the second highest number of votes in the eight-way run for four seats.
Brown quit her $76,000 job with the city to run for Council, a job that pays about $56,000. It's defined in the city charter as part-time, but Brown works at it full-time; Carolyn goes to day care and Brown and Katzenmeyer trade off parenting responsibilities in the evenings and on weekends. She says it doesn't give her and Katzenmeyer enough time together, but in that, she points out, she is not unlike most working mothers.
More than a daughter
No matter how effective Brown was as a candidate, there is no doubt she got a boost from being the daughter of Ohio's senior senator. Given how warmly she speaks of him and his influences on her, it's surprising that a moment of awkwardness ensues when she's asked if she can facilitate an interview with him.
The influence is obvious, perhaps shaped by that one moment outside of church that seemingly had such an impact. She listens quietly, hands folded in front of her, to the many people who want to tell her a story. Her earnestness is evident. She moves smoothly from delivering impromptu comments before a crowd of hundreds to delicately, but firmly, convincing representatives of a solid waste facility she has summoned to the council chambers that even if they're not violating any rules, they need to stop stinking up their neighborhood. What's more, Brown has put women's issues at the center of her agenda and is, herself, a sort of standard-bearer for working mothers.
Turning the conversation toward her father threatens to diminish her accomplishments as the result of privilege.
Yet he's Sherrod Brown. Handsome, gravelly-voiced defender of the working class; perpetually mentioned in presidential conversations. Her political beliefs align with his classically liberal positions. He is essential to her story. Her hesitation is brief. “I can make that happen,” she says.
When reached, Sen. Brown says that while he headlined a fundraiser or two for Liz, he tried to stay out of her campaign. “My involvement was really minimal; she really did it by herself,” he says. “I didn't want her elected to office with, in the back of her mind, ‘Oh, my dad's a senator and that's why I got elected.' And I didn't want it in the back of the minds of the people of Columbus that her dad got her in there. She earned it.”
The senator says he's most proud of his daughter's continued focus on poverty. “She just always cared for people that hurt,” he says. “Some politicians, when they're born to privilege, they come to Washington or state capitals or cities and try to help their social class do even better. Elizabeth always understood that she was born lucky. And she's always looked out for others [less privileged] … which is why I'm proudest of her as an elected official.”
Later, Liz admits to some hesitation about comparisons to her more-famous father. “The fact that my dad is the kind of elected official he is is a big part of why I think it's even possible to do a good job at this work,” she says. But, she adds, “My own personal hopes are that things begin to focus on me as a person and an elected official more than as a daughter.”
Certainly, it could be presumed that she's following in her father's footsteps. And he's right; she does speak passionately about poverty. But the policies Brown has embraced—women's reproductive rights, protection for immigrants and refugees, a paid family leave policy that does not distinguish between fathers and mothers or gay and straight—are those of a 21st-century progressive. It's the course she's charting, and the work she's accomplishing along the way, that's carving a reputation all her own.
And what about her future? “I truly love local government work,” Brown says. “I am so happy about what I get to do every day, honestly, I pinch myself. It's really good, fun work where you get to make a difference.”
She's not interested in discussing other offices that she may, or may not, have in her sights—other than that those future political goals exist. “I am definitely interested in doing this as a career,” she says. “The people I've seen be successful in politics, it's because they love the work they're doing no matter what office they're holding. It's hard work to be an elected official. I know not everybody believes that, but it is. So if you don't love it and if you've got your eye on something else, you're going to be terrible at it. You're also going to lead a miserable life.”
“If that's kind of my due north on my compass, I will hopefully make good decisions in navigating the rest of my career.”