While other GOP governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker are getting more ink, Ohio's new Republican Gov. John Kasich is mounting his own conservative revolution in a key political bellwether state.
Kasich hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of press attention that rising stars like Walker have, but his accomplishments in a union stronghold like the Buckeye State have been just as formidable. One reason may be that he isn’t a “rising” star, but a key conservative thinker and fiscal hawk who has been a key player in Republican politics for over two decades.
On June 30, Kasich signed a $56 billion two-year budget for Ohio into law. The fight over the budget’s spending cuts appear to have hurt Kasich politically, but he shows no sign that he’s worried about the next election.
Upon signing the controversial spending plan, Kasich called it the “most comprehensive piece of legislation in Ohio history” and said “we promised Ohio a new way and a new day, and we're delivering.” The plan repeals the estate tax, provides a tax credit for small-business investment, and includes merit-based teacher pay provisions and a number of privatization initiatives tucked in its 3,262 pages.
Kasich used his veto power seven times, notably to eliminate language allowing school districts to jump ahead in priority for school construction and renovation funding.
Kasich and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor have been pushing a reform agenda that seeks to make the state more business-friendly, to operate more efficiently and to reduce regulatory burdens.
Yet he could pay a political price despite the acclaim he’s received from many small business owners. A survey for Public Policy Polling released on May 25 showed only one in three Ohio voters approving of the governor’s performance.
Kasich suggests that Washington politicians act out of their own individual political interests rather than those of their constituents, and says they should “start thinking about how they're going to feel about themselves when they leave" office.
"At the end of the day you look yourself in the mirror and you say to yourself, 'Did I do what was right for families and for children? If I paid a political price, so what?'"Kasich said on Sunday’s CBS news show “Face the Nation.”
"I mean, there's too much posturing. There's too much thinking about your party, yourself."
Kasich is no stranger to controversy or Beltway politics. Known in Congress during his time there as an aggressive fiscal hawk who fought for a balanced budget, Kasich ran for president in 2000 but dropped out before the Republican primary. His work as a speaker, best-selling author of books on his conservative philosophies, former Fox News commentator and managing director at since-failed investment bank Lehman Brothers helped make him a millionaire — so he says he's not worried about being a one-term governor.
"I've got 11-year-old daughters," added Kasich. "I'm worried about them. The people in Washington have got to put aside ... all this political consideration and start thinking about how they're going to feel about themselves when they leave.
"When I left Washington, I felt good about my service," he continued. "I took some hits because of what I've done. I've taken hits out here in Ohio. You know what? When I wake up in the morning and I realize that... when I think that my motives are right in terms of lifting people, that's what you have to do."
"We've lost a lot of that ability to talk to one another as people," Kasich added, of Congressional members.
Kasich is candid yet secretive. He is acerbic yet personable. He quibbles over media access yet is omnipresent on Twitter and Fox. He's made a cause of taking on public workers after spending most of his life as one.
Critics call Kasich's inconsistencies arrogance, according to the Associated Press. Fans see him as bold and endearingly human. Polls have found mounting dissatisfaction among voters. One thing shines through regardless: John Kasich is a man in a hurry.
Six months into a four-year term, Kasich has dumped his Democratic predecessor's high-speed rail initiative and education overhaul. He's moved to privatize Ohio's job creation operation, state prisons and the Ohio Turnpike. He's signed a bill limiting bargaining rights for 350,000 unionized public workers that's even stricter than Wisconsin's polarizing first-in-the-nation restrictions.
The state budget he signed on Thursday closes a yawning budget gap that approached $8 billion while cutting estate, income and investment taxes.
The pros and cons of Kasich have both Democrats and fellow Republicans seeing the possibility that his impact could be important as President Barack Obama seeks to retake Ohio in 2012. Obama won with 51.5 percent of the vote in 2008, but it is essentially a race between the parties to see whose ideas — Obama's stimulus and health care policies, or Kasich's business incentives and cuts to government — do more, faster for average Ohioans.
Both know that to Ohio voters, the economy is king.
"Ultimately John Kasich's popularity will not be the most important number to determine whether Obama carries Ohio. It will be the unemployment rate," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute.
Looking almost shell-shocked on Election Night after squeaking out a victory over Ted Strickland, a once-popular Democrat, Kasich tossed two victorious fists in the air. He grabbed his running mate, Mary Taylor, for a twirl to the music, and grinned. "Guess what? I'm gonna be governor of Ohio!"
He punctuates his proclamations with a pointed finger, a verbal jab and a nod of his head of brown tousled hair. Long-time Statehouse lobbyist Gayle Channing Tenenbaum says it's a rare day when Kasich doesn't say something that surprises.
"It's interesting to watch him because you just don't know what particular thing he's going to be grabbing onto at that particular moment," she told the Associated Press. "When it's something that you are really interested in, such as mental health or autism, it always pleases you."
Now 59, Kasich moves through his days with the demeanor of the young man he was when he arrived at the Statehouse in 1978, making history as the youngest state senator Ohioans had ever elected at 26. His youthful self-image shows through when he declares he'll change the color of Ohio's pink drivers' licenses or restore snow days school kids were losing in a legislative battle. He likes Lady Gaga, Spiderman and wants Ohio to be cool.
Yet a Quinnipiac Poll found voters' disapproval of Kasich rose from 46 percent in March to 49 percent in May. Majorities disliked his handling of the state budget and said his policies are unfair to people like them.
Kasich is among a handful of new Republican governors around the country — including Florida's Rick Scott and Wisconsin's Walker — who are trying a new aggressive approach, often to the displeasure of the public.
Public Policy Polling declared Kasich and Scott the two most unpopular governors in America in May.
Protests dog Kasich wherever he goes. Last week, thousands of teachers, firefighters, police officers and other unionized workers paraded through the streets of Columbus against Ohio's new collective bargaining law — many chanting, "O-H-I-O, John Kasich's got to go!"
On a recent afternoon at Port Columbus International Airport, Bill Parizek, a Republican from suburban Dublin, tried to explain the phenomenon, comparing Kasich to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican and fiscal conservative.
"They have that cold, just-the-facts kind of approach. They do what they think they need to do to right the ship, and they're not as warm and fuzzy as probably a lot of people would like," said Parizek, 49, who works for a New York investment fund. "I think that's the profile of the kind of person you need to make really tough, fundamental structural change."
Kasich exudes confidence when he enters a room, even being so bold as to deliver his State of the State address without a script. His style can lend itself to verbal gaffes.
At Ohio Memory Day, a day of advocacy for people with Alzheimer's disease, he told the crowd he "drew a blank" trying to write his remarks. He called a police officer who once pulled him over "an idiot" in front of a gathering of Ohio EPA workers. Kasich later apologized.
George Tucker, an AFL-CIO union leader for the Toledo region, interprets such misstatements by Kasich as a disregard for other people. He said the governor is "just out of touch."
"I don't think he has any feelings or sympathy for working people," Tucker said. "He doesn't have to look people in the eye who are being put out of their jobs like we do and tell them, 'You're not going to get that assistance you were counting on.'"
Kasich says he's trying to fix Ohio's economy and can't be distracted by lousy poll numbers, Statehouse protests and critics who parse his every word. By clashing with well-funded unions and special interests such as nursing homes and casinos, he says he never expected to be liked. In fact, his is almost a holy mission.
"Do you have any idea the pounding I've taken in six months?" he asked a group of reporters and Cabinet directors at a Friday event. "I kind of like it, I think it accrues to my benefit — not in this world, but by doing the right thing, I get points, OK?"
He started taking on reporters even before he took office — denying them records and attempting to bar them from his ceremonial inauguration. After he was criticized, he went beyond changing his mind to hosting the largest midnight swearing-in anyone could remember — with more than 150 onlookers and his entire Cabinet.
Two months later, Kasich tried to bar recording equipment at the media's technical briefing on his budget, hoping to focus attention on a public budget unveiling that evening that starred Ohio's budget as Apple's latest iPad and Kasich as Steve Jobs.
Confronted again, Kasich relented — but not before the political blogosphere lit up with allegations that he was becoming a serial obstructionist.
Kasich has often answered his critics — bloggers, unions, Ohio Democrats and late-night comedians — with a well-timed appearance on Fox News, where he used to host "From the Heartland with John Kasich," or upbeat Twitter posts like this one from Wednesday: "Proud of my partners in the legislature. Together, we closed an $8 billion budget gap and cut taxes!"
With the Ohio vote so closely divided between the parties, the question will be whether Kasich can ultimately win over the state with his bold approach.
Right now, it seems for every Ohioan who appreciates what he's attempting, there is another who disagrees, like Democrat John Hisey, a 60-year-old retired manufacturing worker from Newark. Criticizing Kasich and his fellow Republicans, Hisey said the governor is "bad for Ohio."
"They want everybody to work for $7.35 an hour, unless you're a brain surgeon or something like that," Hisey said. "A simple man can't go out and raise his family like he used to. It's true."
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