COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, considered a likely 2020 presidential candidate, swept into South Carolina on Friday, advocating for higher wages, calling for better health insurance and emphasizing the importance of unions in a state where organized labor is often disparaged.
The Ohio native followed in the wake of many of his Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Senate who already have joined a jam-packed field of candidates vying to become their party's next presidential nominee.
Brown hasn't announced a campaign for president. He was officially in South Carolina for his "Dignity of Work Tour."
But that didn't stop him from fielding questions about what he would do his first day in the White House — and even from earning his first endorsement.
Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela told The Post and Courier that he is backing Brown after hearing him speak in his Pee Dee city Friday night, praising his focus on economic issues and the working class, which he said could improve the Democratic Party's standing outside of historically liberal states.
"It's not about identity, it's not so much about the social issues, it's about economics," Wukela said. "Sherrod Brown really more than anybody else in the field represents that working class focus. That's a candidate that can win in South Carolina because South Carolina is a poor, working class state."
At stops in Columbia, Brown met with a group of veterans and young people who have struggled to find work even with the country's booming economy. And he was grilled by Democratic voters at the home of Don and Carol Fowler, former national party leaders who have already hosted events for several presidential contenders.
While GOP candidates generally performed well in Ohio with Trump carrying the state in 2016, Brown won re-election by 7 percentage points last year. On Friday, Brown leaned on his brand of economic populism and the Midwestern charm that has allowed him to win three elections in that swing state.
In his gravely voice, he advocated for increasing the federal minimum wage, reducing health insurance premiums and creating a tax system that benefits low-income Americans. He said people shouldn't have to work two jobs to make a living.
"In this society, we don't value work the way we should," Brown said. "One job ought to be enough for every human being."
Like the other Democrats who preceded him in this early primary state, Brown brought up issues that many South Carolinians could relate to, such as the lack of affordable housing and the inability of African-American families to build generational wealth in the United States. He was also quizzed about his stances opposing recreational marijuana nationwide, supporting the U.S. alliance with NATO and reducing penalties for minor federal drug offenses.
But he focused more than other Democratic visitors on the role that labor unions play in negotiating better wages and healthcare for their members. The message stood out in a state where less than 3.6 percent of employees are represented by a union.
One of the Army veterans Brown met with explained that he found a good job several years ago working as a machinist. But he also got a part-time job with UPS because that company provided health insurance with lower premiums.
Brown quickly pointed out that is likely because many workers at UPS are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Many Republican elected officials in South Carolina openly celebrate breaking unionization efforts, including former governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Brown took that reality head on.
He brought up the successful push by the International Association of Machinists to unionize part of Boeing's facility in North Charleston. And he bristled at the corporation's decision not to recognize the union in South Carolina.
"They do that where they have politicians that support them too often," Brown said. "I just know that wages are a problem everywhere in this country. But wages are especially a problem in states like here where a lot of people make $25,000 a year."
Brown also separated himself from many of the Democrats who have already announced their campaigns for president when it came to healthcare. He was asked directly whether he supported what has come to be referred to as "Medicaid for all."
He agreed that universal healthcare is a goal the country should be striving toward. But he believes the smarter path would be to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and pass a law that would allow people to choose a government-managed insurance plan on public exchanges.
South Carolina marked the fourth stop on Brown's tour, along with the other early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. But it's yet to be seen whether he will try to elbow out some room for himself in what is an already crowded field.