The wooden schoolbus model on a cabinet in Governor John Kasich’s Columbus office is a reminder of the Ohio Republican’s warning to lobbyists he invited for lunch two days after his election.
“If you’re not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus,” he told them after the buffet. “And I’m not kidding.”
Since taking office Jan. 10, Kasich has confronted Statehouse protests by police, firefighters and other public employees angered by a bill limiting collective bargaining. He created a private, nonprofit entity to handle state economic development over the objection of Democrats concerned about transparency and accountability.
He used his experience as a former Fox Television host to present his budget in a talk-show format on live TV and delivered his State of the State address without a text. He also called a Columbus police officer who pulled over his car “an idiot” during a Jan. 21 speech in which he urged state workers to provide better service to taxpayers.
“What you see is an aggressive agenda,” Kasich said in an interview in a state vehicle after speaking to a Rotary Club in Cincinnati. “We knew what we wanted to do, and we’re carrying it out.”
Kasich, 58, who served nine terms in Congress and worked as an investment banker and at Fox before running for governor, has a more aggressive agenda and style than previous governors, said Paul Beck, chairman of the political-science department at Ohio State University in Columbus.
His approach and agenda helped Kasich get legislation approved during his first 100 days, including the union-bargaining law that he signed March 31, William C. Binning, chairman emeritus of the Youngstown State University political-science department who worked for three Ohio Republican governors, said in a telephone interview.
They also constitute a strategy that may sour Ohioans on Kasich and doom his agenda, he said.
“Either he’s going to be viewed in a couple years as successful and he’s going to become a dominant political figure in the country, or it’s going to look like it’s not working out,” Binning said.
Need for Speed
Kasich said that while he has made “unforced errors,” his approach is crucial after Ohio lost 610,000 jobs during the past decade. That’s more than every state except Michigan and California, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I don’t think I’m in anybody’s face, but we are very aggressive because we have to move quickly,” Kasich said.
Kasich grew up in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, and came to the Buckeye State in 1970 to attend Ohio State University. When the governor was a boy, his uncle would take him across the state line into Ohio and say they had reached the promised land, he said.
Ohio was home to eight presidents, according to its secretary of state's office. It also produced inventor Thomas Edison, entertainer Dean Martin and Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes.
From its factories came steel, tires and automobiles and by 1930, it was the fourth-most-populous state behind New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As manufacturing declined in the 1960s and 1970s, population and income growth slowed.
Fixing a State
The state is now seventh most populous, and per-capita personal income hasn’t bettered the national average since 1979, federal data show. Ohio’s foreclosure rate of 2.13 percent last year was 13th in the nation, or one in every 47 homes, according to RealtyTrac Inc., the California-based data seller.
Kasich was elected last year with a vow to “fix Ohio,” and he said that he had been “fortunate enough to be unwittingly acquiring the skills to do this job.”
He began his political career in 1979 as a 26-year-old state senator and was elected to Congress in 1982, gaining national attention as the House Budget Committee chairman who helped craft a balanced federal spending plan in 1997.
After a run for president in 2000, Kasich became a managing director of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. until the firm collapsed in 2008. He also hosted “Heartland with John Kasich” on Fox from 2001 to 2007, was a guest host for “The O’Reilly Factor,” gave speeches and wrote three books.
Kasich entered the 2010 race against first-term Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland promising to phase out the income tax, “skinny down” government and attract jobs. He won with 49 percent of the vote to Strickland’s 47 percent.
Besides the law curbing collective bargaining, the creation of the JobsOhio economic-development arm and an initiative to reduce regulations on business, Kasich cites as successes tax-incentive deals to keep Bob Evans Farms Inc., American Greetings Corp. and Diebold Inc. from moving to other states. He has said that an $8 billion shortfall forecast for the two-year budget that begins July 1 has prevented him from starting the phase-out of the income tax.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce broke a 117-year tradition of not endorsing statewide candidates when it backed Kasich last year, and he validated that support by making Ohio more attractive for business, said Andrew E. Doehrel, the chamber president.
“You don’t want to be sitting here in any state -- whether it’s Ohio or any other state -- and say, ‘We’re going to continue to do things the way we’ve done them for last 30 years,’ ” Doehrel said in a telephone interview.
Investors see debt from Ohio, which is rated second-highest by the three major credit-rating companies, as a safer bet since Kasich took office. On Jan. 10, a general-obligation bond with an August 2020 maturity was yielding 3.52 percent or 49 basis points above top-rated debt, according to Bloomberg Valuation data. The same security offered a 3.46 percent yield yesterday, or 43 basis points above the benchmark, BVAL data show. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.
Voters have been less enthusiastic. A recent Quinnipiac poll put Kasich’s approval rating among Ohio voters at 30 percent, and his backing of the collective-bargaining bill has drawn thousands of protesters to the Statehouse in Columbus chanting, “Hey, Hey, ho, ho, Kasich’s got to go.”
Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman who served in the legislature under former Republican governors George Voinovich and Bob Taft, said Kasich is divisive while Voinovich, Taft and Strickland tried to bring people together.
“He’s a disaster,” Redfern said of Kasich in a telephone interview. “You can’t govern a state as significant as Ohio with your elbows.”
Kasich said he is buoyed by his Christian faith, which he rediscovered after his parents, Anne and John, were killed in a 1987 car crash by a drunk driver. It led him to form a Bible study group that has continued to meet and was the subject of a book Kasich published last year about the meetings called “Every Other Monday.”
The group has helped Kasich cope, said the Rev. Ted Smith of Galloway, a Methodist minister who helps lead it.
“It’s been a serious test to his practical living out the faith that we’re talking about, particularly because of some of the extreme reactions he’s encountered, the intensity of some of the ill will,” Smith said in a telephone interview.
Kasich said he no longer has presidential ambitions. Even if he doesn’t run, he can emerge as a national figure such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by showing how to deal with tough problems, Ohio State’s Beck said.
“He’s creating his own mold,” Binning said. “We’ll see how it works out.”
John Kasich at a glance:
Born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 13, 1952 (Age 58), raised in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.
Spouse: Karen Waldbillig Kasich, former public-relations executive
Children: Emma and Reese, both 11.
Education: Sto-Rox High School, 1970; Ohio State University, Columbus, Bachelor’s of Arts, political science, 1974
Career: Ohio Senate, 1979-83; U.S. House, 1983-2001; managing director, Lehman Brothers, 2001-2008; on-air personality, Fox News, 2001-2009; governor, 2011-present.
Famous friend: Kasich counts rock star Bono, the lead singer U2 and a human-rights advocate, as a friend and traveled to Rwanda with his wife in 2008 at his request. Kasich met Bono in Washington when he was in Congress: “Bono says, you’re not getting me in to see enough congressmen and senators. I said, ‘Bono, look, you’re wearing a black leather suit, Prada shoes, and those crazy sunglasses. They don’t want to be seen with you.’ He said, ‘John, the guys in my band, they don’t want me to be seen with you.’ ”
Editors: Stephen Merelman, William Glasgall.