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Brad Ellsworth: Blue dog underdog

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I knew the free alcohol was a bad idea from the moment I entered the park.

I had arrived at Fort Wayne's annual Labor Day picnic, which organizers estimated drew six to seven thousand people throughout the day. For a poor newspaper man on the road, it was a dream come true: a pavilion full of free hot dogs, free water and Cokes, free popsicles for the kids, and more free hot dogs. There was even Burmese food – not exactly what you'd expect in Fort Wayne. And giant trucks served as much free beer as you could drink.

I was there to follow Congressman Brad Ellsworth, Indiana's Democratic candidate for Senate – an ex-sheriff, who, despite his social conservative bona fides, is in an uphill battle this election season. I had been following him around the state all Labor Day weekend, and this was my final stop before a long drive home. There'd be no beer for me.

But there was plenty to go around for everybody else. As the picnic wore down, organizers announced last call. Within minutes, tables were covered with eight, nine, ten cups full of beer – a last-ditch grab at gettin' while the gettin' was good.

While volunteers swept the floors, folded tables and the last stragglers stumbled out, I was just about to ask Ellsworth about his good standing with the National Rifle Association. Suddenly, he burst forth.

"Hey, cool it, man!" Ellsworth shouted. "That's my bike! You kicking my bike?"

Behind me, a couple of drunk kids were kicking the shit out of a bike that was chained to a lamp post. It wasn't Ellsworth's bike, but it didn't matter: Sheriff Ellsworth had taken over.

The kids tried to talk back – but, within seconds, Ellsworth had signaled police, who immediately dashed over and slapped handcuffs on one of the kids.

The other – as yet, un-cuffed – wasn't backing down. Rodney Buchanan, Ellsworth's campaign organizer and right-hand man, who served as a deputy for Ellsworth when he was still Sheriff, tried to shoo him away. "You don't want to do this," Buchanan said. "Turn around and go home."

Instead, the kid got more belligerent. He stuck out his chest and tried to start something with Buchanan. Buchanan tried to firmly nudge him along. After a couple of exchanges, he spit in Buchanan's face. Within moments, the ex-deputy had his knee on the kid's neck.

Ellsworth shook his head. "Stupid's not against the law, but drunk and stupid..." he said. "I really can't stand seeing people destroy property like that."

"It's like keying someone's car," I said. "It's just a real dick move."

He looked me square in the eye and nodded.

"That's exactly what it is."


Helping people in trouble

One key to Ellsworth's social conservatism can be found painted in big block letters across the rolling, pastoral farmland of southwestern Indiana. On two-lane highways connecting Bloomington to Boonville – the latter, one of several campaign stops that weekend – I probably read a dozen roadside billboards about abortion or hell or both. Woe to the pro-choice, socially liberal politician whose message has to vie for billboard space in such a fire-and-brimstone landscape.

Ellsworth, 52, grew up among these hills, having spent his entire life in DuBois and Vanderburgh counties. The youngest in a working-class, Catholic family with two brothers and one sister, he was born in Jasper, though his family soon moved to nearby Huntingburg. When Ellsworth was about 10 years old, his father got a job at the Alcoa aluminum plant in Evansville, and lived in a rooming house on the Ohio River until he had saved up enough money to buy a house and relocate the rest of the family.

Ellsworth bagged groceries and worked on a Sears loading dock, ultimately putting himself through college at Indiana State University of Evansville (now the University of Southern Indiana). There, he met his wife, Beth, at a school dance, marrying her in 1982. The Ellsworths have lived in Evansville ever since.

That same year, Ellsworth got his first job in law enforcement, working at the local jail – a career that eventually led to two terms as Vanderburgh County Sheriff, starting in 1998.

"I knew I wanted a job that wasn't the same thing over and over every day," he said. "But I think most of it is trying to help people in trouble. I've always had that help-the-underdog spirit."

Ellsworth resisted cajoling from area Democrats to run for Congress at first, but eventually decided to go for it as his second term as Sheriff neared expiration, easily defeating John Hostettler in 2006.

His cross-party appeal made him a rising star.

Now, after two terms in Congress, he's trying for Senator, in hopes of filling the seat left empty by fellow Democrat, Evan Bayh. This time, however, Ellsworth is the underdog – a Democrat who, despite his relative conservatism, finds himself awash in a rising tide of national anti-Democratic sentiment, in a state that's still learning his name.

Conservative conscience

Were it not for his position on a few marquee issues like health care reform, the federal stimulus and financial reform, Ellsworth would be difficult to distinguish from moderate Republicans – what few are left these days.

He voted against cap-and-trade. He's pro-life. He's skeptical of Obama's Race to the Top Fund for incentivizing national school standards. He received an "A" grade from the NRA for his position on guns. ("I think the status quo is good," he said. "We've got a good system.")

Amid the immigration debate, Ellsworth received the endorsement of Americans for Legal Immigration, a group that opposes amnesty and guest worker programs for illegal immigrants, for his broad stance against granting amnesty to the undocumented. At the time this was published, he had not taken a specific position on the "Dream Act," which would grant amnesty to young, undocumented immigrants who wish to join the military or go to college.

Ellsworth argued that if there were a common thread among Indiana's diverse constituents, it's their fiscal conservatism and ability to think critically – attributes he says he shares.

"I get in trouble from both sides," he said. "They love to say, 'well, you're too conservative to be a Democrat.' The Right's saying I'm a [U.S. House Majority Leader Nancy] Pelosi lap dog, and 'you toe the party line.' They can't both be right, so it must leave me somewhere in the middle.

"I think we want elected officials that'll at least listen to your point of view. We may agree on 20 other things, we may agree on a lot of things. If we have one or two that we don't, that doesn't mean we can't converse, we can't work together."

Ellsworth doesn't exactly trumpet the label "Blue Dog Democrat" – a term that gained currency during the debate over health care reform, referring to conservative Democrats like Bayh, who held out for a less aggressive bill. But Ellsworth doesn't quite eschew the label either.

For example, as health care reform made its way through the legislative sausage grinder, Ellsworth was instrumental in pushing the Stupak amendment – which ensures that no federal taxpayer money goes toward abortions.

"On my baby's head, I'm convinced that not a single penny of taxpayer's dollars will go to fund an abortion," he said. "And that's why I was able to vote for that at the end of the day."

Then there was the climate control bill that foundered in Congress over the summer, which Ellsworth voted against – a move that's drawn fire from environmentalists, but which could play well with fiscal conservatives.

Ellsworth acknowledged climate change as a man-made reality, but didn't think the climate control bill was right for the state. Asked whether he was afraid that voting against a bill backed by groups like the Sierra Club and Oxfam America might risk alienating portions of his base, he remained firm.

"I think it was flawed for Indiana," he said. "I think Indiana was going to be punished because we're so reliant on coal, and that's why I voted against it. When California gets 115 percent of the credits they need to even out the scale here, and Indiana was only getting 60 percent, that's not fair at all.

"I want to see us incentivized to be as green as we can, but I want to see us do it not with sticks, but with carrots."

'He just needs to get out there.'

One of the first things one notices about Brad Ellsworth is the grade-A, American brilliance of his teeth. I lived in France for a few years, where the teeth aren't always so nice. The father of a French girlfriend I had joked with me once that Americans all had big, perfect, toothy grills because of all the bubble gum we chew.

I prefer to think of Ellsworth as a guy who earned his grin chewing the leather from his own bootstraps. But, in truth, Ellsworth's teeth are probably perfect because of his dental hygienist wife Beth – a lovely, thin, fair-haired woman who also has perfect teeth. Based on family photos from Ellsworth's campaign Web site, their only child, Andrea – a 24-year-old special ed teacher in Indianapolis – has perfect teeth, too.

But the flourish stops there. No big hair, no plastic skin, no thousand-dollar hair cuts. It's not often in politics you see a family at once so handsome, yet so un-tacky.

Ellsworth rejects the idea that his looks play a role in his politics. He'd rather voters focus on his ideas. But shy as he appears in front of the camera, the square jaw, the broad, crime-fighting shoulders, the denim work shirts rolled at the sleeves: it's eye candy for voters who long for the bygone days of a more muscular, more working-class Democratic Party.

Maria Parra, technology manager at the U.S. Census Bureau in Fort Wayne, was among those who came to Ellsworth with serious questions at the city's Labor Day picnic. A Mexican-American woman, she wanted to pin down his position on immigration – a position that, in general, emphasizes better enforcement rather than amnesty.

Parra agreed with his law-and-order position. "Why do we need an immigration policy?" she asked. "There are laws there, just enforce them." Ellsworth agreed.

Parra, herself a conservative Democrat, said she admired Ellsworth's conservatism and saw it as a clear asset, particularly in such a "hardcore Republican area." According to Parra, the 13 counties of her census district in northeast Indiana had recorded the highest incidence of anti-government sentiment in the country during this year's census-gathering efforts.

"He's more conservative than I am on the social issues, but that doesn't really bother me," she said. "I think he needs to focus on the spending, the jobs. That's going to attract a lot of people in this area."

Still, she was convinced he needed to get that face out there more.

"He just needs to get out there," Parra said. "People need to see him because they don't know him. He's got everything going for him, I mean, gosh, he's got the looks. Fifty-two percent of voters are women!"

Name recognition

Along the parade route through downtown Indianapolis, Ellsworth jogged at the head of the line, weaving his way back and forth through the campaigners and sloganeers, who waved signs adorned with his name. I tried my best to stay ahead of him with a borrowed camera, in hopes of catching a few good action shots.

"You're not tired already, are you?" he shouted to me.

Fortunately for Ellsworth, the parade provided a great opportunity for him to shake pretty much every hand along the route. But then the sidewalks weren't exactly packed – an unfortunate testament, perhaps, to the waning power of organized labor since the Reagan era.

At Labor Day weekend events across the state, union workers held to their Democratic roots, applauding Ellsworth's every speech. But union members weren't the ones who needed convincing. Nor are they enough to win an election.

Ask Democrats – Ellsworth and his campaign staff included – and they'll tell you Ellsworth's biggest problem in this election is name recognition. Gerald Wright, a political science professor at Indiana University Bloomington who is currently teaching a class on the mid-term elections, put it simply. "2010 is a Republican year and Ellsworth is running in a Republican state against a well-known name," he said. "And, outside of the southwest corner of the state, most Hoosiers have never heard of Ellsworth."

The campaign cites a recent poll that puts Ellsworth 11 points behind his opponent, Republican Dan Coats. But Ellsworth insists those numbers swing his way once people understand the issues – not least of all Coats' 18 years on Capitol Hill (eight as a U.S. congressman, ten as a U.S. senator) and several years as a lobbyist for a who's who of 21st Century bogeymen, including Wall Street bankers, health insurers and oil companies.

"We tell Dan Coats' story, the positive and the negatives, and the Brad Ellsworth story, the positives and negatives, and I actually go up, 46 to 35," Ellsworth said. "If people see, here's a guy with 18 years in Congress, and a bunch of years as a lobbyist, that's, I guess, more offensive than my four years in Congress and 25 years as a sheriff's deputy and sheriff. If you think about it, I'm sure not the insider."

Despite the anti-insider sentiment supposedly driving ad hoc conservative movements around the country, it's possible the numbers are actually worse than Democrats want to admit. A poll conducted last month by Rasmussen, the go-to polling source for the GOP and Fox News, put Ellsworth behind by 21 points. Rasmussen has been widely criticized over the years for churning out numbers that skew to the right. But even if you split the difference between the two polls, it's clear the Brad Ellsworth story still wants currency.

Meanwhile, a flurry of television ads by the Coats campaign over the last month or so has played to the popular themes that have refigured the political landscape nationwide. "Hoosiers can't afford [Ellsworth's] big government agenda," says one, amid images of a menacing, conspiring Ellsworth. "As senator I'll stand up for Hoosier values, not the Obama agenda," Coats says in another.

Wright noted that these larger factors presented a tough challenge for Ellsworth, same as for any Democrat today. "Nothing short of a major scandal or some game changer like that would give him enough room to swim against the strong tide of what we call the fundamental variables," he said. "A bad economy, for which the Dems will take the hit, a president with weak popularity ratings and a distinct visibility disadvantage – it's all just too much to overcome."

Coats, apparently, agrees. Pete Seat, communications director for the Coats campaign aligned Ellsworth with tax-and-spend Democrats.

"There is an overwhelming consensus among Hoosiers that the Obama-Pelosi-Ellsworth agenda is failing," Seat said. "They have increased taxes, added unprecedented amounts to our debt, passed a stimulus bill that has not stimulated anything but government and a health spending bill opposed by a consistent and overwhelming majority of Hoosiers."

By and large, Ellsworth is reluctant to attack his opponents, preferring to stick to a positive message. Where Coats immediately waded into the muck with his first TV ads, Ellsworth's ads this summer focused on his hard-working father, on paying his own way through college, and on his record of "putting other people's needs first" as Vanderburgh County Sheriff.

But, like Walker, Texas Ranger, even the coolest-headed sheriff can only take so much. Coats' first attack ad, which went after Ellsworth for what Coats said was a vote to close Guantanamo Bay, clearly provoked Ellsworth's ire. The accusation, he said, was "absolutely dishonest and false."

House Democrats never voted to close Guantanamo, he said. They voted only to require a clear plan from the president before Congress would authorize any funding to do it. Ellsworth's statement was recently supported by the Brookings Institute, as reported in TheIndianapolis Star.

"These elections are important," Ellsworth said. "These jobs are important. They're not worth lying about to get it. They're not worth cheating to win."

But they are worth defending. Ellsworth's team, national Democrats and watchdog groups were quick to note the hypocrisy of Coats' ad because of past business ties: The lobbyist firm where Coats worked employed two lawyers who represented Guantanamo detainees – a point Seat called "another desperate attempt to change the subject from Ellsworth's far-left liberal record."

However, national Democratic Party involvement on Ellsworth's behalf has seemed otherwise muted so far. Coats, with his corporate support, is significantly outspending the ex-sheriff. Privately, people close to Ellsworth's campaign believe the party isn't anteing up because there are closer races around the country. It also remains unclear how valuable high-level Democratic endorsements are these days.

Still, Ellsworth said his team is ready. "We prepared our resources for the final 60 days," he said. "We'll go back up on TV. It depends on the money coming in."

Setting the record straight

Ellsworth clearly recognizes how personal – and how knee-jerk – the politics can be around Indiana. He won't say it, but there's a lot of irrationality driving constituents to vote against their own apparent best interests.

During the struggle to pass health care reform, Ellsworth talked to one constituent who said her doctor told her "Obamacare" would deny insurance coverage for new prescriptions – just one among a number of lies floated during the debate, like death panels and taxpayer-funded abortions.

"I told the woman, 'look, no disrespect to your doctor but...' well, I didn't want to call him an idiot, but clearly he was making things up to scare the woman," Ellsworth said. "I've been to dinner at enough doctors' houses that I'm not too worried about them. They're going to do just fine. It's the people who need health care and can't get it that I'm worried about."

Nowhere is this basic disconnect from logic more evident than within the Tea Party – a movement ostensibly based on the rejection of everything that smacks of inside-the-beltway, pork-barrel politics.

"I think with the Tea Party, if it truly stands for 'taxed enough already,' then we're in agreement, and I'll work to lower their taxes and simplify their taxes all day long," said Ellsworth. What he disagreed with, he said, were Tea Partiers who used race as a protest tool, and shouted-down opposition, thereby "disrespecting and tearing down our country."

Early this month, Ellsworth paid a visit to the appropriately-named White County (the most recent Census estimates put the percentage of whites in the county at 96.5 percent) to speak with the local Tea Party chapter."It went ok," he said.

Anna Kroyman, administrator for the White County Tea Party Patriots called Ellsworth "a good man overall that does not compromise his values," commending his conservative positions on the Second Amendment and abortion. The main sticking point, she said, was Ellsworth's vote for the health care bill.

"Many in our group have read the bill and, to our understanding, we find it to be the greatest threat to freedom and liberty this country has ever seen," she said.

No mention was made of Islamic terrorism, Soviet Russia, the American Civil War or the War of 1812.

Baby-kissing and glad-handing

Outwardly, Ellsworth is charismatic enough that the baby-kissing and glad-handing a campaign requires seem natural. But once the pressure of pressing the flesh is off, he is noticeably more relaxed. It reads as much in his shoulders as in his looser way of speaking. But when his campaign managers tricked him into coming by a photography studio for a quick photo session, he was visibly uncomfortable.

"I really hate this stuff," he said. "I thought I was just coming by so you could snap a photo on your iPhone or something."

I tried my best to ease the tension by asking him what music he liked. Some country, some rock: Aerosmith, yes; The Ramones, not so much (though he did ride a skateboard in the 70s).

"I'm really more of an introvert," he said. "I'm a homebody. I'm just as happy being alone on the lawnmower, or working in my yard for three days and never seeing a single person as I am being out, shaking hands and saying 'howdy' everywhere."

It's an endearing quality in a politician. But it's also easier to get away with when you're running for Congress where you grew up. Making that work on a statewide level, where people don't yet know your name, is tougher.

But it isn't for lack of trying on Ellsworth's part. "He's always stopping to talk to dissenters – he genuinely wants to convince them," said Elizabeth Farrar, the campaign's communications director. "He's the guy that will hold up the parade."

"I'm looking forward to working with you," he shouted to the rowdy crowd of union workers and their families at the Fort Wayne picnic. "I'm looking forward to meeting with each and every one of you." After the speech, he came damned close. Ellsworth stuck around until every last drop of free beer at the picnic had run out, and the last person in line to shake his hand was satisfied.

As the constituents stood in line, Farrar stood in Ellsworth's line of sight and held a "Brad Ellsworth for Senate" sticker aloft.

You need to wear this so people remember who you are, her look said.

Ellsworth was in the middle of a conversation with a voter. He shook his head. Another look from Farrar, this one from under the eyebrows, reprimanding.

The congressman subtly extended his hand and waved her off. Farrar rolled her eyes and moved on. Ellsworth continued listening to what was probably his fiftieth conversation with a voter that day.

Something in him

My motorcycle crapped out near the end of a five-and-a-half hour trek from Indianapolis to the Warrick County Fairgrounds outside Boonville, one of Ellsworth's many campaign stops that weekend. I managed to get it restarted and putter along for the remaining couple of miles. But I was worried about the trip home.

Ellsworth seemed genuinely concerned. He brought it up several times before and after our interview. If I got stuck, he said, I should call his campaign organizer. They'd find me a ride.

With the help of a mechanic from a nearby, small-circuit racetrack, I got the bike going again. I made it as far as Bloomington on the ride back before I couldn't go any further. Too much night driving. My neck and shoulders ached and it was cold.

Somewhere between Bedford and Bloomington I'd passed by an auto accident that must've drawn at least ten police cruisers and several emergency vehicles. An SUV had skidded across an intersection on Highway 37. Its front left corner was crumpled. Its driver's side door hung open like an axe wound.

As the traffic crawled by I saw a man slumped over in the driver's seat, one leg dangling out the door. He wasn't moving.

The next day, I thought about that accident scene, and wondered how many scenes just like it Ellsworth had surveyed among those rolling hills and winding roads in his twenty-plus years in law enforcement.

I figured that, in order to keep doing it every day, a guy either had to get pretty hardened to all the death and violence, or had to have something in him that kept him caring about what he did – caring about the people he protected one day, but maybe scraped off the pavement the next.Maybe it's easier in southern Indiana towns like Evansville, Jasper or Huntingburg, where everyone is a friend, or somebody's brother, sister, mother, cousin. But for whatever reason, I decided Ellsworth had that something in him – that it wasn't just a line when he told me he'd gotten into public service because he genuinely wanted to protect people.

Maybe that something means Ellsworth is doomed in this political climate, which seems so often to reward bad behavior.

But I bet he can look his wife in the eye when he flies home from Washington almost every weekend. I bet those moments of respite back home are truly restful for him, whether mowing his lawn, or sitting with Beth on the porch – the kind of restfulness that comes with the confidence you've done all week what you thought was right. I bet he sleeps well at night.

Catherine Green contributed reporting for this story.

Editor's Note: In an earlier version, the story incorrectly stated that Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Coats had lobbied for the government of Yemen. This was not accurate. The lobbying firm at which Coats was registered as a foreign lobbyist was lobbying for Yemen at the time of Coats' employment. Coats, himself, did not lobby on Yemen's behalf. The reference has been removed from the story to correct the error.

INFO BOX:

Congressman Brad Ellsworth

-Born Sept 11, 1958 in Jasper, IN

-Graduated in 1981 from Indiana State University-Evansville with a bachelor's in sociology; member of Sigma Tau Gamma Fraternity

-Worked his way through college in the paint and hardware department at Sears

-Met wife Beth, dental hygienist, while attending college; married 1982

-Master's degree in criminology, Indiana State University, 1993

-Began work in Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Department in 1982; elected Sheriff in 1998, ran unopposed for a second term

-As Sheriff, instituted state's most comprehensive website to track and monitor sexual offenders; expanded jail facilities

-Has represented the 8th Congressional District since 2007; serves on several House committees, including Agriculture, Armed Services and Small Business

-Key issues/goals: expand Indiana businesses and promote increased hiring, restore fiscal accountability, cut taxes for Hoosier families and businesses, invest in health care and educational opportunities for veterans

-Lives with wife in Evansville; attends St. Agnes Catholic Church

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