By MARC KOVAC
1st of five-part series
Joe Rugola stood before an audience of hundreds of union members, holding up an article about then-candidate John Kasich.
The headline, as read by Rugola, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO at the time: “Kasich to Public Employees: We Don’t Want You.”
That was in mid-September 2010, a month and a half before Kasich and his fellow Republicans swept Ohio’s statewide offices and the state Legislature.
A heated campaign preceded those results. Many Democratic-leaning union voters weren’t enthusiastic about their choices in Ohio, following months of economic doldrums and what then-Gov. Ted Strickland frequently called the worst economic conditions since the days of the Great Depression.
Unemployment rates, though on the decline, remained in or near double digits. Republicans hammered on the 400,000 Ohio jobs that were lost under the Democratic administration.
“The electorate was angry,” said Tim Burga, current Ohio AFL-CIO president. “We were just trying to get them focused on who to be angry at.”
During the September rally in Columbus, Rugola and Strickland — and later the same day, former President Bill Clinton — tried to stir the Democratic masses into action, warning of the consequences of allowing Kasich and the GOP to take control of state government.
There was ample talk about greed, Lehman Bros. and “country club cronies.”
And union busting.
“Sisters and brothers,” Rugola said at the time, “the forces that are arrayed against us today, their voices of intolerance that we hear on the airwaves and their moneyed allies on Wall Street, have one motivation and one plan in mind only. And that is to destroy and wreck the American middle class.
“Let’s don’t make any mistake about it. But there is one movement that they’ve got to get out of the way before they can do that, [and] that is the great American trade union movement.”
Kasich wasn’t completely silent on the issue. “We need to break the back of organized labor in the schools,” he reportedly told a Republican audience in early 2009, in a widely circulated account of an Ashtabula GOP meeting by The Star Beacon.
But the warnings of the Democrats and sound bites of Kasich and Republicans weren’t enough to sway disgruntled union voters.
Burga said his members still voted 2-1 for union-endorsed candidates, including Strickland.
But some stayed away from the ballot box altogether.
And some sided with Republicans.
“I’ve heard a number of people who were in police and fire unions voted for Kasich,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University who has written extensively on political parties and elections.
Nancy VanDyne has taught high school chemistry in Cambridge for more than 20 years, including six stints as president of the local teachers union.
She and her husband, also a union member, and two sons are Republicans. Three of them voted for Kasich — the youngest son probably would have, too, if he had been old enough at the time.
“I truly believed that maybe Kasich would ... try to find a constitutional and equitable funding method [for Ohio’s public schools] because of his background in business and his ideas with respect to money,” VanDyne said.
“I’d never vote for Kasich again,” she said.
Beck said the election results were similar to what happened in 2008, when an electorate tired of economic turmoil blamed George W. Bush and Republicans and elected Barack Obama as president. Democrats nationwide enjoyed comparable success that year, even taking control of the Ohio House.
Two years later, with the economy still in the dumps, voters shifted their blame to Democrats.
“You have this 2010 outcome that put Republicans into state Legislatures in numbers that we hadn’t seen since 1928,” Beck said.
In Ohio, that led to a GOP sweep of the governor’s office, the four other statewide offices and both chambers of the state legislature.
“Ohio voters were saying, ‘We’re not really happy with the way things are going right now, we are going to blame the Democrats more than we blamed the Republicans this year,” Beck said.
In 2006, Democrats nearly swept statewide offices, with Strickland receiving more than 60 percent of the votes cast in the governor’s race. About 2.4 million Ohioans were in his camp that year.
By 2010, a year when voter turnout was several percentage points below the previous gubernatorial election, Strickland managed only 47 percent of the votes cast, about 1.8 million.
Kasich received 49 percent, about 1.9 million.
“This wasn’t a mandate for [Kasich],” Beck said. “Nor do I think it was a mandate for the Republicans.”
That’s not to say that the GOP took control of Ohio government solely because of disgruntled Democratic voters.
The 2010 campaign included much focus of an $8 billion budget deficit, a growing national sentiment that government borrows and spends too much money and a belief by a majority of voters that Kasich and Republicans were their best bets business growth and job creation.
In polls of registered voters from both parties, respondents said they thought Kasich would do a better job of handling the state budget and rebuilding the state’s economy.
On the campaign trail, Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from the Cincinnati area, heard a clear and repeated message from voters: live within your means and don’t raise our taxes.
“Taxpayers don’t want to provide government with more resources,” said Jones, the lone sponsor of Senate Bill 5. “... These communities, these political subdivisions, are just out of money. So the question before us is, if we have no more money, how can we continue to provide the quality services that taxpayers [expect]?”
Kasich and other Republicans campaigned on economic development, unveiling a plan to privatize the job-creating programs of the Ohio Department of Development.
They pledged to reduce business regulations through something they called the Common Sense Initiative.
And they said they would retain planned income tax cuts and push for others, including the elimination of Ohio’s estate tax.
Within months of taking office, Kasich and the Republican-controlled Legislature had accomplished all of those goals, along with prison sentencing changes and the passage of a $56 billion two-year state budget that they said filled a multi-billion-dollar budget gap and contained more reforms than any piece of legislation in recent history.
Following a contentious debate, thousands of angry protesters and national news coverage, Republicans also pushed through Senate Bill 5, changing the way some 350,000 public employees in the state have negotiated labor contracts for nearly three decades.
Kasich and other proponents said the legislation was needed to help state and local government offices better control their costs and bring more parity between the wages and benefits of public and private sector workers.
But Democrats and other opponents said Senate Bill 5 went too far and amounted to an attack on organized labor — a fulfillment of the governor’s earlier comments on breaking the backs of teachers unions.
They also said sweeping change to the state collective bargaining law wasn’t among the issues emphasized by Kasich and other Republicans during the 2010 campaign. If it had been, more union voters may have sided with Democrats.
“Did you ever hear [candidate] Kasich say that he would support a repeal of collective bargaining rights for Ohio’s public firefighters and police officers?” asked Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “Did you ever hear him mention that once? Ever?”
But Jones and Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, dispute that notion.
They said collective bargaining reform was among the topics covered by a budget commission, whose task was to pinpoint ways to reduce the state’s budget shortfall.
“Anyone who makes that suggestion clearly wasn’t paying attention to the debate,” Mauk said. “... No one can say that this issue is somehow new in the public discourse. Just because it might not have been a central tenet of the gubernatorial debate doesn’t mean that this hasn’t been in the works.”
He added, “If the union leaders did not see this coming, then they weren’t doing their jobs because this is not something exclusive to Ohio. This is a debate that has been unfolding [nationally].”