Person of the Year
Kasich announces his bid for governor in Westerville in June 2009. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
In 2008, Ohioans voted for change by helping give the White House to Democrat Barack Obama. Two years later, Ohioans again voted for change, and this time, though by a plurality, handed Bexley’s Governor’s Mansion to conservative Westerville Republican John Kasich, retiring one-term Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
Even for fickle Ohio (the polite phrase: “politically divided”), that’s change on steroids. Yet, whether Strickland or Kasich had won Nov. 2, change was in the offing; the state, though in no mood to raise taxes, faces a yawning, $8 billion budget hole. Measured in terms of Ohio’s two-year, $50.5 billion general revenue budget, $8 billion equals 16 cents of every $1 in spending. And most of what Ohio spends goes for just three things: Medicaid, public schools and state colleges, and local property-tax subsidies. Translation: Real Statehouse fights over genuinely big stakes.
The question bystanders ask is whether Kasich—the ex-congressman, former Lehman Brothers banker and one-time Fox News Channel personality—will be a bomb thrower or a git-r-done manager, albeit one unafraid to rock the boat. Fans and foes alike have likened Kasich to New Jersey Republican Chris Christie, “Governor Wrecking Ball” as he’s been dubbed by Tom Moran, editorial page editor of the Newark Star-Ledger. Depending on political perspectives, Christie is assailed for taking “callous austerity measures” (the liberal Nation) or praised as “the scourge of Trenton,” supposedly hounding spenders out of his capital (the conservative National Review).
Kasich and Christie do talk with each other, and Christie boosted Kasich at an October campaign event in Warren County. But lost in any supposed equation is that Kasich ran the U.S. House Budget Committee in the mid 1990s. That experience likely adds nuance to Kasich’s take on Ohio’s budget. Still, Kasich and Christie do share one characteristic: “In terms of ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,’ I think they do have that in common,” says a Republican close to Kasich.
Kasich will be the first governor from Central Ohio since Jim Rhodes. That’s a perceived plus for a region built on state government. As governors from Columbus, Republicans John Bricker (1939 through 1944) and Rhodes (1963 through 1970, then 1975 through 1982) allied themselves with Central Ohio’s pro-growth businesspeople referred to as the Titans. It shows. Columbus had 306,000 residents in 1940, a year into Bricker’s governorship. Today, it has an estimated 779,000, thanks in large part to state jobs, state purchasing and state investment in Ohio State University. Cleveland’s corresponding tally: 878,000 residents in 1940, but an estimated 431,000 now. One key issue to watch during Kasich’s tenure will be his relationship with the Titans (particularly the city’s most powerful person, Limited Brands CEO Les Wexner, who, despite being a huge contributor to Republicans, made no donations to Kasich’s campaign).
Kasich may be the most conservative governor Ohioans have elected since 1942, when Upper Arlington’s Bricker won a third term. But Democratic state chair Chris Redfern says Kasich didn’t win because of his philosophy, but despite it, and Democrats will expose Kasich’s ideas, making his win “a short-term prize.”
Philosophy aside, Kasich must propose a 2011-13 state budget by mid March and grapple with that $8 billion budget hole. Meanwhile, he has vowed to block any new state taxes—a pledge, given Ohio’s finances, that former Ohio House budget czar Patrick Sweeney, a Cleveland Democrat, says is “insane.” The 2009-11 budget, crafted by Strickland and the legislature’s Democrats, “used one-time money for recurring expenditures, so this is a real deficit,” says GOP mega-lobbyist Neil Clark, once state Senate Republicans’ top budget adviser.
Kasich’s budget targets aren’t hard to guess: Medicaid, which pays doctor and hospital bills for 19 of every 100 Ohioans; state aid to primary and secondary schools, higher education and local governments; and the cost of housing 51,178 prison inmates (the November count). Some Kasich policy hypotheticals—and that’s all they are:
Medicaid: Make a single (and visible) state official the head of all facets of Ohio’s program, tighten client eligibility and prune services not federally required.
Public employees: Revise Ohio’s 1983 collective bargaining law for public employees to give public managers, especially cities and school boards, greater leverage.
State retirement systems: Bolster their finances, possibly by requiring bigger employee contributions and setting a minimum retirement age.
State universities: One possibility might be to release specific campuses from some state regulation if they meet academic and financial targets. In theory, “dereg” might help campuses better manage their costs, which could in turn dampen demand for bigger state subsidies. A 2005 Virginia restructuring law could be a model. The schools that have opted in so far are Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth. (Full disclosure: I am a year-to-year instructor at Ohio University.)
Whatever approaches Kasich selects, he most likely will be a pragmatist—go with what works—and let subordinates sweat the details. (Well before Election Day, Kasich turned down the volume on a pledge he’d made at his 2009 campaign announcement: “We march over time to destroy that [Ohio] income tax that has sucked the vitality out of this state.”) It will help Kasich that Ohio’s governorship is constitutionally powerful. For instance, a president can’t veto individual appropriations in congressional spending bills; Ohio’s governor can veto specific spending items in state bills. In 2007 rankings by University of North Carolina political scientist Thad Beyle, the “institutional power” of Ohio’s governorship was greater than those in Texas and California and in such purported low-tax paradises as Indiana and Nevada.
So what happened in Ohio in 2010 to make John Kasich its next governor? Flash answers include the economy and Democratic voters who stayed home. Republican state chairman Kevin DeWine also attributed the GOP sweep to national factors. “[Republicans] had two advantages in this thing: an unpopular president and a lightning rod in [House speaker] Nancy Pelosi.” Says former Ohio House speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican, “Ohio played right into the national trend.”
Kasich followed a tested formula. “You win elections based on turnout and independents,” says one GOP operative. “[Kasich] did win independents, and Democrats had a turnout problem.” That turnout problem inspired some Monday-morning quarterbacks to badmouth Strickland’s campaign plan, exemplifying Democrat John F. Kennedy’s quip that “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.”
In addition, Strickland’s reelection passport was supposed to be the fulfillment of his 2006 vow to “fix school funding.” A Strickland-backed funding formula has won qualified praise, but there’s no assurance Ohio will ever fully finance it—and school boards keep asking for tax levies and voters keep rejecting many of them.
But, in fact, out-of-state observers gave Strickland’s campaign high marks. The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber, for instance, in a blog post the day after Kasich won, wrote that Strickland’s populist campaign message was shrewd and that Democrats outside Ohio should emulate it. “Kasich narrowly edged Strickland . . . but [Strickland’s] near miss—about 2 points—suggests the populist line of attack can be potent.”
Likewise, Strickland’s campaign won a slot on a list of “The top campaigns of 2010” in a Politico post by David Catanese. “Sure, [Strickland] lost. The first-term Ohio governor faced a politically toxic climate—one which claimed five [Ohio congressional] incumbents—and still [Strickland] nearly pulled off a victory. He ran 8 points ahead of the Democratic Senate nominee [Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher] and gained some traction by championing a purely populist message.”
Strickland communications director Keith Dailey says the closeness of the Kasich-Strickland vote count amid a nationally awful atmosphere for Democrats proved the power of Strickland’s strategy. “The tightness of the race demonstrates how strongly successful the governor’s message was,” Dailey says.
Ohio Democrats did have a 2010 turnout problem. Consider two examples: In 2008, Obama carried Montgomery County (Dayton) by 17,000 votes and Portage County (home of Kent State University) by 7,000. This November, Portage opted for Kasich by 1,180 votes and Strickland carried Montgomery by just 161 votes.
Former Democratic state chair Paul Tipps once was Democratic chair of Montgomery County. He attributes Strickland’s weak showing there to the economic slump, symbolized regionally in 2009 by NCR Corp.’s decision to move its Dayton headquarters to suburban Atlanta. NCR had been founded in Dayton in 1884.
“I really think it was the NCR thing and all the other employers that closed,” says Tipps, now a top Statehouse lobbyist. “People are really hurting over there—they’re scared.” The October unemployment rate was 12.2 percent in Dayton and 10.9 percent in Montgomery County. In contrast, the statewide unemployment rate was 9.5 percent.
Strickland evidently aimed to hold down potential losses in rural Republican counties by wooing the National Rifle Association and ballyhooing claims Kasich would merge small school districts. “The gun thing did help a little in some conservative areas, where Strickland did better than a Democrat normally would,” says veteran Republican operative Terry Casey, “but, of course, it didn’t do much [for Strickland] among liberal Democrats.”
From day one, Kasich’s campaign, which he opened with a June 1, 2009, announcement in Westerville, promised “jobs, jobs, jobs” for Ohioans and “change, change, change” at the Statehouse. “ ‘Four-hundred thousand jobs [lost]’ is a real effective message,” says one Democratic campaigner.
“In tough economic times, incumbents often find themselves in a defensive position,” says Franklin County Republican chair Doug Preisse, one of two political operatives likely closest to Kasich. The other is Kasich’s longtime congressional chief of staff, Don Thibaut, whose Credo Co., according to its website, offers “comprehensive government relations planning, consulting and lobbying services.” Also close to Kasich: former Ohio House speaker Jo Ann Davidson, a Reynoldsburg Republican.
Kasich, beyond the no-tax pledge, didn’t tip his hand on many specifics, a knowledge gap for which Redfern blames Ohio reporters. “I think he got a pass from the Statehouse press corps, by and large,” Redfern says. Kasich instead framed the debate not so much in terms of what he’d do, but in terms of what he claimed Strickland failed to do. What’s more, joblessness and a national anti-incumbent mood spelled big trouble for all Democrats. “I don’t think [Ohio Democrats] could have overcome the wave no matter what they did. National issues seemed to drive the election,” Tipps says.
The biggest problem for Democrats likely was in Cuyahoga County, the party’s Ohio heartland. Federal indictments of county officials, employees and vendors, including former Cuyahoga County Democratic chair Jimmy Dimora, a county commissioner, have rocked Cuyahoga’s County Administration Building.
In recent decades, a Democrat running for governor has had to rack up a Cuyahoga vote margin of more than 100,000 to win statewide, but nowadays, because of out-migration, likely substantially more. Strickland’s Cuyahoga vote margin, however, was just under 103,000. “Ted Strickland is a very nice man, [but] there was not anyone in Cleveland singing his praises,” says Summit County GOP chair Alex Arshinkoff, an early and ardent Kasich backer.
Strickland carried every county that borders Lake Erie, minus Lake County. He also won Franklin, Montgomery, Summit, Mahoning, Trumbull and Wood counties and much of his old congressional district along the Ohio River, from Steubenville to Portsmouth, minus staunchly Republican Gallia County. Kasich won Ohio’s remaining 61 counties, including all those adjacent to Franklin.
Starting in January, Ohio Republicans will hold all statewide elected offices except one Supreme Court seat, run both houses of the General Assembly and occupy half of Ohio’s U.S. Senate seats and 13 of the state’s 18 U.S. House seats. The rout of Democrats in 2010 resembles the Republicans’ sorry circumstances after Democrat Dick Celeste’s 1982 gubernatorial landslide: The one GOP statewide elected officeholder left was a Supreme Court justice, the late Robert Holmes.
Anyone proposing to pronounce last rites over Democrats will have to counter the never-say-die perspective of Redfern. When he entered the Ohio House in 1999, the Democrats’ only statewide elected officials were two Supreme Court justices. One (then-Justice Alice Robie Resnick) was left in December 2005, when Redfern succeeded Franklin County’s Denny White as state chair. In the first year of Redfern’s chairmanship, Ohioans voted to make Strickland governor, sent Democrat Sherrod Brown to the U.S. Senate and elected Democrats Marc Dann as attorney general, Jennifer Brunner secretary of state and Richard Cordray state treasurer. Then in 2008, Ohio’s Democrats helped make Obama president—and gave Ohio’s House its first Democratic majority since 1994.
Now, Ohio’s tide runs Republican. And with Kasich as governor, Delaware County Prosecuting Attorney David Yost as state auditor and suburban Dayton state Sen. Jon Husted as secretary of state, the GOP rules Ohio’s Apportionment Board, which will let Republicans draw GOP-friendly General Assembly districts.
That “apportionment” and “districting” angle is a GOP focus. “Republicans [nationally] understood a long time ago that the way to reinforce power was to win [state] legislators to draw maps for Congress and the General Assembly,” says Democrat Sweeney, now of Cleveland State’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.
Kasich’s election won’t make Ohio easier for Barack Obama in 2012. True, Democratic presidential hopefuls have carried the state when Republican governors ran Ohio (examples: Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter under Rhodes, Bill Clinton under George Voinovich), but those governors didn’t pay national politics much mind. Kasich, a presidential candidate in 2000 and maybe someone’s running mate in 2012, always has—and likely always will.
A few things about Kasich's political career
We’ve searched the Columbus Monthly archives for stories about John Kasich’s first foray into politics before heading to
Lehman Brothers, Fox News and now the governor’s office. Here’s some of what we found.
• Kasich got into politics through an Ohio State internship program at the Statehouse that landed him with Buz Lukens, then a state senator who later made him his legislative aide. (Lukens, who died last May, went on to become a U.S. House rep who was convicted in 1989 of having sex with a 16-year-old girl.)
• Despite what appeared to be overwhelming odds, Kasich launched a campaign against popular Democrat Bob O’Shaughnessy for an Ohio Senate seat in 1978. He was only 26 years old. Kasich won.
• A fellow freshman senator at the time said of Kasich’s early days in the Senate: “We don’t have a brashmeter here, but he was very brash. The thing that seemed worse was that he was so young. One of the overriding impressions I have of John early on was of his getting up on the floor and making speeches and pointing his finger at people and telling them what they ought to do.”
• An aide at that time described Kasich as: “There was a little bit of Buck Rinehart in him. And pieces of former Mayor Sensenbrenner and George Wallace and Tom Van Meter. The populist approach.”
• One of the bills he introduced was to make the turtle the state reptile.
• At age 30, he defeated Democrat Bob Shamansky in 1982 and headed to Washington, D.C., as the U.S House rep from the 12th district. He made his early mark in Congress by taking on his own party by focusing on military waste, particularly his fight against funding the B-2 bomber.
• In the 1980s, political action committees were a new big-money fundraising tool. Kasich, in his first reelection campaign in 1984, was an early advocate, using sophisticated techniques, such as sending a 43-page booklet to 700 special interest PACs. Of the $503,000 he raised, 40 percent came from PACs; the largest was $10,000 from the American Medical Association. Kasich, who won the race with 70 percent of the vote, was so successful he had $163,000 in unspent funds—a large amount for a freshman congressman, according to a Federal Election Commission official at the time.
• In 1993, Kasich, during his sixth term in Congress, officially became a Big Deal on the national political stage. He fought for and landed a coveted spot on the House Budget Committee and, as the ranking Republican, issued “an alternative budget” to counter President Bill Clinton’s plan. The move gained widespread attention, from the New York Times to Newsweek, and earned invitations to “Meet the Press” and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.
Perhaps the biggest news was the evening Hillary Clinton visited Kasich at his townhouse to share a meal of grilled salmon with him and 10 other Republican House members to discuss healthcare reform.
• In 1994, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House, speaker Newt Gingrich named him chairman of the House Budget Committee.
• In 1996, Kasich drew attention as a potential running mate for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.
• In 1997, Kasich, 44, married Karen Waldbillig, 33, his significant other for seven years, a senior communications consultant for Grant/Riverside Hospital and the daughter of Medex Inc. founder Craig Waldbillig and his wife, Leslie. Despite strong interest by the public and media, their March 22 wedding at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington was a low-key affair. (The reception was at the Westin Hotel downtown.) The only big-name celebrity on the guest list was Gingrich. It was Kasich’s second time as a groom. He divorced his first wife, the former Mary Griffith, in 1980, after five years of marriage.
• During an appearance in 1999 on CNN’s political TV show “Crossfire,” Kasich said, “Look, my father is a mailman” while delivering an anti-elite message. The host, Robert Novak, who died in 2009, responded: “John Kasich, you know, a number of my colleagues in the news media and other people in Washington . . . say the next time you mention your late father the mailman, they’re going to scream.”
Tom Suddes is an editorial board member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a columnist on Ohio politics and an adjunct assistant journalism professor at Ohio University.