Mike DeWine: Making Ohio Nice Again

Bob Vitale
Mike DeWine, photographed in February 2020 in the governor's Statehouse office

At the end of a Statehouse ceremony for a new law exempting veterans’ disability payments from state taxes, Gov. Mike DeWine scoops up some of the 30 pens he used to sign the bill and hands them out to the children of its supporters. He works his way over to a group of reporters and answers their questions until they have no more. Is time running out on his gun-safety proposals? What’s on the agenda for meetings tomorrow with House and Senate leaders? How is Ohio preparing for the coronavirus? Does he worry about proposed cuts in federal health spending?

Not one of the governor’s answers includes an insult or an accusation. He reaches into his pocket for the last pen and offers it to veteran Columbus Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow as a prize for what he pronounces the question of the day: whether an Ohio history award coming DeWine’s way this late February week is in recognition of the amount of Ohio history the 73-year-old Yellow Springs native has witnessed. “That’s a good one,” DeWine says with a laugh.

Fifteen months into what many around Capitol Square say is the job that the former county prosecutor, state senator, U.S. House member, lieutenant governor, U.S. senator and Ohio attorney general always wanted, Mike DeWine is clearly enjoying himself. He’ll surpass James Rhodes next month as the oldest governor in Ohio history, but he keeps a schedule of pancake breakfasts, policy pronouncements, professional conferences and ribbon-cuttings that led The Dispatch to describe him as “the always-on-the-go governor.”

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At the same time, though, DeWine rarely seems in a hurry to get to the next stop, perhaps because it has taken him so long to reach his dream job. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the governor joked in his Statehouse office days earlier as he waved off a reminder from communications director Dan Tierney that an interview for this article needed to wrap up.

But if DeWine is relishing his time at the top of Ohio’s political world, those around him also seem to be enjoying it. Lawmakers, political allies, even those who oppose a number of his policy positions say the governor has ushered in a style of leadership that’s markedly different from the bombast of President Donald Trump or even the pre-Trump brusqueness of DeWine’s predecessor, John Kasich.

DeWine, they say, is gracious, friendly, pragmatic—even nice.

“He and I both bristle anytime we have to try to compare ourselves to the president because we’re just our own people,” says Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, a onetime rival who dropped his own bid for governor to join forces with DeWine in 2018. “We don’t do things intentionally or unintentionally to be in contrast with the president. Mike DeWine is just being true to who he is as a person.”

Husted says that means seeking compromise rather than inviting conflict. It means tapping into others’ expertise and listening to others’ opinions. And that’s exactly what DeWine did in early March, as COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, arrived in Ohio. Based on input from his public health advisers, the governor led an aggressive response, ordering the multinational Arnold Sports Festival to prohibit spectators at most events and then called for other drastic measures after the first cases were diagnosed in Ohio, leading Ohio colleges and universities to move classes online, K–12 school to close for three weeks and the two Democratic presidential frontrunners, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, to cancel Ohio campaign rallies. DeWine’s approach contrasted sharply with Trump’s rosy initial response, which conflicted with statements from his own public health officials about the danger posed by the disease.

Speaking two weeks before the first Ohio COVID-19 cases, DeWine says Ohioans expect compromise and collaboration from their public leaders. “Even though there’s a great division on many things, there’s also a real yearning, a real desire to see elected officials work together. … So that’s kind of what we’ve been trying to do, pull people together.”

Mike DeWine, his wife, Fran, their children and grandchildren (nine at the time; there are 24 now) filed onto the stage at the Hyatt Regency Columbus on a dismal night for Ohio Republicans in November 2006. In the midst of the Coingate scandal over sketchy state investments, missing money and questionable political donations that brought about the whole mess, voters cleaned house. Democrats won every statewide office, including the U.S. Senate seat DeWine had held for 12 years.

Thirty years to the day after he was elected as prosecutor in Greene County, east of Dayton, DeWine thanked the people of Ohio for a long political career that led from the courthouse in Xenia to the Statehouse in Columbus to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. “For 30 years, the people of this state have given me the precious opportunity to represent them, and for that, for the rest of my life, I will be eternally grateful,” he said. 

As much as DeWine was brought down by Coingate—he received $7,500 in campaign contributions from disgraced Toledo coin dealer Tom Noe but had no hand in giving the Republican insider state money to invest in rare coins—the two-term senator also was done in by the congeniality and compromise he had long espoused. He was part of the Senate’s Gang of 14, a group of moderates that paved the way for some of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees by cutting others loose. He voted for gun-control measures such as an assault-weapons ban and waiting periods. He backed bipartisan measures on immigration. 

In his farewell speech on the Senate floor, DeWine thanked 60 Senate colleagues by name as he recounted issues they tackled together. The 22 Democrats on his list included Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid and Joe Biden. 

During the interview at his Statehouse office, DeWine acknowledges that as strongly as people urge elected officials to work together, they don’t always reward politicians who seek compromise. “That’s the challenge,” he says.

“I remember one time having a conversation with someone back when I was in the U.S. Senate, and they questioned some of the things I did. I explained it. … The guy listened very patiently for 10 minutes, and at the end he said, ‘I understand. There’s only one problem.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘I don’t believe in compromise.’ My wife, who was standing there listening to it, said, ‘You must not be married.’”

Fran DeWine was standing beside her husband during his 2006 concession, too, sporting the same “I Like Mike” button she’d wear 12 Novembers later when he declared victory in the race for governor. 

Inside that 2006 farewell was a hint that Mike DeWine wasn’t giving up quite yet.

“There is unfinished business for this state, and I believe, the good Lord willing, that I have unfinished business, too.”

Praise for DeWine these days comes not just with a description of who the governor is—experienced, confident and comfortable are among the words used by Husted—but with a comparison to those he is not. Husted says the DeWine administration’s style couldn’t be more different than the slash-and-burn politics seen in Washington these days. “You can problem-solve or you can incite by your actions or your words,” Husted says. “He’s in this job to problem-solve.”

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, who helped DeWine check a number of items off his first-year to-do list, says they share a determination to keep state government on track and not get derailed by issues that divide. In 2019, at DeWine’s urging, state lawmakers doubled funding for county children’s services agencies, added $550 million to programs that help poor children and created a $900 million fund to protect Lake Erie. DeWine proposed an 18-cents-per-gallon increase in Ohio’s gas tax to pay for a backlog in road and bridge repairs. He settled for a 10.5-cent hike. 

Householder was term-limited in 2004 but reelected to his old Ohio House seat in 2016. “When I came back to Columbus, what I saw was like walking into a junior high dance,” Householder says. “You’ve got folks on one end of the gym and folks on the other end of the gym, but you can’t really accomplish anything unless you get people to work together in the middle of the gym.”

To that end, DeWine has invited groups of state legislators for breakfast at the Governor’s Residence in Bexley on days he doesn’t run into them at events in their own districts. “Rick and I were on the pancake trail this morning,” he says, introducing Rep. Rick Perales of Beavercreek at the February bill-signing. He fed more than 100 local officials lunch at the residence during meetings to discuss how to divvy up a state settlement with opioid manufacturers. 

It’s not just Trump who’s used as a measuring stick for DeWine’s temperament. Despite his current status as a go-to voice for civility in politics, John Kasich is still remembered more around the Statehouse for the inflexible, self-righteous rhetoric of his first term as governor.

Kasich’s first year in office back in 2011 was marked by voters’ overwhelming rejection of a bill he championed to restrict public employees’ bargaining rights. DeWine signed one of the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws and a ratepayer-funded bailout of two Ohio nuclear power plants in 2019, but his accessibility and pragmatic style overshadowed those measures in many first-year reviews of his administration. In a January column denouncing what it called “sweetheart coverage” by The Dispatch, even the ultraliberal Columbus Free Press conceded that DeWine “possesses a hundred times more empathy than his predecessor.”

“It’s like night and day,” says Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat who briefly sought her own party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018. Whaley took office in 2014 and says she spoke with Kasich once during their overlapping years of service. “John Kasich wanted to big-foot us and tell us what to do. I appreciate that Mike DeWine is willing to listen,” she says. She and DeWine even text each other.

To be sure, Whaley disagrees with DeWine on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ civil rights. “I’m not going to endorse Mike DeWine or anything,” she says. But since an Aug. 4 mass shooting in Dayton brought them together, she says she has come to appreciate DeWine’s approach. They’ve spoken often since that day, not just about gun safety but also about infrastructure, the state opioid settlement and other matters. The governor regularly attends meetings of Ohio mayors.

DeWine might fret about Washington politics, but he avoids criticizing Trump or anyone else for the state of national affairs. He dodged impeachment questions by saying early that he was waiting to see evidence and later that it wasn’t his decision to make. And though he called one 2019 Trump tweet “inappropriate” (the one in which the president said four congressional critics, all women of color, should “go back” to foreign countries), DeWine’s go-to response is that he’s focused on Ohio, not Washington. The governor also was on hand for a Trump rally last summer in Cincinnati and serves as a co-chair for the president’s reelection effort in the state.

Before the 2018 election, Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin considered that type of reticence a black mark against DeWine and compared him unfavorably to his gubernatorial predecessor. “Not once has Kasich backed down from criticizing Trump’s despicable condoning of, at times encouraging, violence against law-abiding citizens. Not once has DeWine done anything but back down. And the entire nation is now living with the results of the breathtaking cowardice of Republican officeholders.”

DeWine concedes “the situation in Washington has been getting worse and worse” but says, one more time, that his focus is on issues facing Ohio. “I don’t think the way I’m governing is in reaction to what’s going on in Washington,” he says. “This is sort of who I am. This is what I’ve learned over the years. I’m focused on getting results. I find that this is the best way to get results.”

DeWine faces a test of his commitment to getting results as he tries to persuade an Ohio General Assembly dominated by rural conservatives to adopt gun-safety measures he proposed in response to the mass shooting in Dayton.

On Aug. 4, the governor arrived in Dayton by 11 a.m., 10 hours after a 24-year-old with a semi-automatic pistol shot 26 people in 32 seconds. Nine people were killed in the Oregon District, a Short North-like urban neighborhood of bars and restaurants where the party spills into the streets.

DeWine walked around the scene with police, his wife and Whaley. He remembers seeing food that was still in the taco cart where the first victims were shot and killed, their blood still on the ground. It was the 26th anniversary of the day his daughter Becky, who’d just started a career in journalism at the Xenia Daily Gazette, was killed in a car crash in Greene County. She was 22, the same age as one of the Dayton victims.

Ten white doves—nine for the victims and one for all survivors—were released at a vigil that began at 8 p.m. that night on Fifth Street. The crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” and people bowed their heads in prayer. Whaley vowed that the Oregon District would again be a place of joy.

There was applause when Whaley thanked the governor for coming so quickly to Dayton and offering his help. He and Whaley hugged. DeWine began to speak, talking about his own ties to the city, offering condolences on behalf of all Ohioans, marveling at the number of people who came together to share their grief and the spirit of community.

“Do something!” came the first shout from the crowd. Others shouted it, too, as DeWine continued. It became a chant that went viral, capturing the anger of a nation that had witnessed two mass killings within 13 hours. A gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 at a Walmart in El Paso on Aug. 3.

Whaley apologized to DeWine, who told her he understood. “It was a prayer vigil, so I suppose when people started chanting, I guess there was a little surprise at first,” DeWine recalls in his office more than six months later. “But I thought, you know, they are angry and they have a right to be angry. This is their community. They’ve seen nine people die.”

Two days after the attack, DeWine responded to the demands. He proposed giving loved ones and law enforcement the ability to seek court orders that would take away firearms from people judged to be a threat to themselves or others. He proposed mandatory background checks on all people buying guns in the state.

“Some chanted, ‘Do something,’ and they were absolutely right,” DeWine said at a Statehouse news conference, recounting his Dayton visit. “We must do something.”

The Buckeye Firearms Association and other Second Amendment groups thought DeWine was proposing too much, and Householder told Statehouse reporters that background checks and so-called red-flag laws would be “very, very difficult” to get through the Ohio House. 

By the time DeWine formally introduced his Strong Ohio package in October, it was scaled back to ideas considered more palatable to fellow Republicans. Universal background checks were dropped in favor of a voluntary system in which sellers could demand that potential buyers come back with a certificate from the local sheriff confirming they’re legally permitted to own guns. Instead of red-flag provisions, DeWine’s plan would add drug and alcohol addiction to the reasons people can be hospitalized involuntarily and thus denied access to firearms.

Householder, who donned camouflage and shot up a TV set to tout his Second Amendment credentials in a 2018 campaign commercial, says he’s still concerned the bill goes too far. “Guns are protection in rural Ohio,” he says. “They’re part of our world in a different way than perhaps they are for people who live in urban areas. … People in rural parts of Ohio are very defensive about their ability to protect themselves and their family.”

Democrats, meanwhile, questioned during a Senate hearing last fall whether the plan goes far enough. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, who declined a request to comment for this article, wrote in a Dispatch op-ed piece that “courage was lost at the drafting table” between August and October. 

“I understand and believe that the democratic process relies on compromise and working together, but close to 90 percent of Ohioans favor universal background checks and red-flag laws,” Klein wrote. “It does not bode well for representative government when policies with near-unanimous support cannot be passed into law.”

Whaley stood with DeWine when he unveiled the measures and stands by them today. She says she thinks the governor probably would like to do more as well. “To me, it’s a small step in the right direction when you think that for an entire generation we’ve been heading in the wrong direction,” she says.

DeWine has run the gamut on gun issues during his career. He supported background checks in the U.S. Senate and sponsored a 2006 bill with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer that would have reinstated a federal ban on semi-automatic weapons and some assault rifles. The National Rifle Association gave him an F grade at the time, though he earned the group’s endorsement in 2018. 

DeWine talks about people and families, not guns, when he makes his pitch for Strong Ohio. Getting people with addictions into the hospital isn’t a way to take away their weapons but a way to get them the help they need. Voluntary background checks aren’t about restricting gun sales but about giving gun sellers peace of mind.

“If you can get an agreement on what you want to achieve, you can usually figure out how to do it,” he says. “Don’t we want to give legitimate gun owners the ability to know whether or not the person they’re selling their gun to is a convicted felon? OK, then let’s figure out how to do that. Do we want to give some relief to a family that’s got someone who’s a long-term alcoholic or a long-term drug addict, and something happens and their family looks at them and says, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to kill somebody?’ Yes. OK, let’s figure out how to do it.”

In Washington, or even in Kasich-era Columbus, the debate over gun control might be portrayed as a showdown between two political powerhouses. The governor and the House speaker aren’t afraid to play hardball: DeWine has never shied away from going negative in his campaigns—“Mike DeWine always runs on a muddy track,” an unnamed observer told Larkin in that preelection column—and Householder was known for exacting political revenge during his first stint at the Statehouse.

But the speaker also took office in 2019 on promises of a new collegiality, and even critics say he has stayed true to his word. One might read a hint of advice when Householder observes generally that DeWine “is very good at staying back and letting the legislative process work itself out,” but Householder doesn’t declare Strong Ohio dead on arrival in his chamber.

“I’ve known Mike for 25 years,” he says. “I’ve always known him to be somebody who tries to work with people of various political views and accomplish things for the greater good.”

“I keep calling him Mike,” Householder adds. “I should call him ‘Governor.’”

Since taking office in 2017, President Trump has said he knows more about the economy than the Federal Reserve and more about technology than anybody. He said he knows more about ISIS than U.S. generals, more about the courts than “any human being on Earth” and more about Turkey and the Kurds than “almost anybody.” As coronavirus fears spread in early March, Trump was repeatedly corrected by federal officials after assuring Americans that a vaccine would be available in months.

DeWine, whose résumé might lead some politicians to conclude they’re the smartest person in any room, says one of the advantages of his current job is the ability to “pull a lot of really smart people into the room with really diverse experiences.”

“They’ll usually show up if you’re the governor,” he says.

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, who now works as CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable, says the job is not as easy as DeWine makes it look. Ohio’s regions are fiercely independent, he points out, and that independence exists within regions as well. The state has more than 2,300 units of local government—the fourth most in the country—and 611 local school districts.

It’s not as fun as DeWine has made his job look, either, Tiberi says. “His attitude, the collaboration that be brings to the job, the passion, the joy. The approach he takes is refreshing.”

In a heated but chilly tent on the last day of February, the governor is called up on stage more than a half-hour into the dedication ceremony of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s new behavioral health center, a $159 million, 386,000-square-foot facility focused on children’s mental health. The event has drawn a number of government officials and CEOs. About a third of the tent is VIP seating.

As DeWine speaks—he thanks Ohio lawmakers for approving an extra $675 million in the most recent state budget for Ohio school districts to provide mental health counseling, after-school programs and other services—a few local elected officials slip out the door to other appointments. 

If the governor has somewhere else to be, it’s hard to tell. The program continues another 20 minutes, and he and Fran stick around until the confetti cannon is fired. 

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