A Midwest Progressive Hero

Young liberals looking for role models with the guts to stand up to conservative intimidation usually think of Russ Feingold or the late Paul Wellstone.

But, back before Feingold and Wellstone, there was Howard Metzenbaum, who died Wednesday at age 90. Metzenbaum was a relentless, in-your-face progressive, as I learned when I covered him in the early 1990s, near the end of the 19 years he spent representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate.

Metzenbaum was an advocate of a single-payer health-care system and a staunch defender of workers' rights, leading the fight for legislation that requires employers to give workers at least 60 days' notice before their plant closes.

By turns a cantankerous colleague -- Ted Stevens once called him "a pain in the ass" -- and a doting grandfather, Metzenbaum was a smiling, self-made millionaire, happy playing tennis or driving his convertible around Capitol Hill. But in his politics, he was unwavering in his commitment to consumers and working Americans.

As Tom Diemer, a longtime Washington reporter for The Plain Dealer, wrote, "Metzenbaum's outlook was forged by the Depression, and his politics by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal."

He wore the liberal label proudly, even as those very New Deal constituents, in his state and the rest of the country, were becoming "Reagan Democrats" -- or plain old Republicans. And somehow, in a state that had long favored Republicans, he and his big progressive personality managed to win elections. Perhaps most remarkably, in his final Senate race, in 1988, he defeated Republican George Voinovich with a wider margin than George H.W. Bush scored in his victory over Michael Dukakis in the state -- to the endless frustration of Republicans who thought that simply branding someone a "liberal" would be the kiss of death.

"He was the conscience of the Senate, who never shied away from the difficult fights, and never apologized for standing up for workers," Sen. Ted Kennedy said Thursday. "He was a master of using every rule of the Senate to advance the cause of working men and women, and he will be greatly missed."

Metzenbaum was born in Cleveland and -- after attending college and law school at Ohio State -- he made an early entry into politics, serving in the state House, and then the state Senate, from 1943 to 1950. But for the following two decades he focused on business, with a parking lot in a field at the Cleveland airport launching what would become a thriving global business.

He ran for the Senate in 1970 -- surprising many by beating John Glenn, the astronaut and native son, in a Democratic primary -- but lost in the general election to Robert Taft Jr. Three years later he was appointed to a Senate seat, becoming Ohio's first Jewish senator. Glenn defeated him in a bitter 1974 primary, but Metzenbaum finally won his own seat in 1976.

Metzenbaum gave up his Senate seat in 1994 and hoped to be succeeded by his son-in-law, lawyer Joel Hyatt. Hyatt lost to Mike DeWine, but the seat now belongs to another unabashed progressive, Sherrod Brown, who called it a privilege to carry on Metzenbaum's fight.

With a commitment to protecting consumers and a fearlessness about standing up to big business, Metzenbaum made his mark quickly in Washington, earning the nickname "Senator No." In 1977, he fought tooth and nail against a bill to eliminate price controls on natural gas. His tool was a "post-cloture filibuster," a tricky twist on the Senate tradition. Usually, a cloture vote ends most debate on a bill. But Metzenbaum brought up 500 amendments and demanded a vote on each, prolonging debate for 12 days -- before ultimately losing.

A staunch defender of abortion rights, Metzenbaum also stood up to Jesse Helms, the North Carolina conservative, who had his own technique with amendments, using them wherever he could to curtail abortion rights.

Indeed, a 1997 New York Times profile of Helms said Metzenbaum "was the only other senator in recent times who was willing to exert power to the maximum extent possible, even at the expense of inconveniencing or thwarting colleagues."

Metzenbaum had another trick up his sleeve in 1986, when he joined with Kennedy, using the filibuster to try to block William Rehnquist's promotion to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He said he was worried that "a Rehnquist-led court could very well deprive the disadvantaged, racial minorities and women of the fundamental rights they now enjoy. A Rehnquist-led court could very well crumble the wall separating church and state." It marked the first time Democrats used the maneuver to try to block a judicial nomination -- a precursor of more recent battles over President George W. Bush's court picks and the threatened "nuclear option" in response.

Metzenbaum had many other passions. When I wrote about him for newspapers in Ohio, he pushed to lift the ban on rehiring former air traffic controllers who were fired by Ronald Reagan in 1981. "This action can help repair the damage done to the PATCO controllers' lives and to the safety and efficiency of the national air traffic control system," he wrote in a letter to President Clinton that was signed by two dozen senators.

Metzenbaum was the chief Senate sponsor of the Brady bill, which established a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, and a ban on 20 types of semi-automatic assault weapons. He championed controversial legislation that prohibits discrimination against transracial adoption when parents of the same race are not available.

I saw another side of his passion for children when I went with him one spring morning in 1993 to tour Children's National Medical Center in Washington, his way to mark National Nurses Week.

It was just the two of us, a nurse as our guide, visiting children with AIDS, victims of child abuse, and parents whose babies were born months premature. The scene was searing, the air felt funny, and I fainted, but Metzenbaum thrived. He played with kids recovering from severe burns, chatted with a 6-year-old girl about her little red wagon, and talked with doctors who pressed him on the possibilities for health-care reform.

"Is the political timing right now?" one doctor asked.

"It is never politically right and it is never politically wrong," Metzenbaum replied. "But if we don't do it, I think the whole health-care system of this country is at risk."

As Washington gears up for another fight over health-care reform, and Senate progressives do their best battling the Bush administration over immunity for telecom companies in the FISA bill and other fronts, I can't help but think how much they would be helped by Metzenbaum, "willing to exert power to the maximum extent possible, even at the expense of inconveniencing or thwarting colleagues."