Republican John Kasich roared into the governor’s office eight years ago, telling lobbyists to get on his bus or get run over with it.
As he prepares to leave office Jan. 14 after eight years, he is positioning himself for another potential run for president next year.
Kasich’s recent criticism of President Donald Trump, support for gun control legislation, Medicaid expansion, and veto of the “heartbeat” abortion bill has cost him some support among conservatives who backed him in 2010 and 2014. He has become a regular national media guest often criticizing the president.
There’s a big difference in the Kasich of 2010 and the Kasich of today.
University of Dayton political scientist Christopher Devine said Kasich evolved over the past eight years from pugnacious and hard-charging to an upbeat pragmatist to America’s moderate and anti-Trump conscience.
“I’ve changed over the years,” Kasich told the press in December. “Over time, I became more and more of a governor, of a leader.”
When asked what he thought his legacy as governor would be, Kasich said: “You think I’m worried about that?…Here is how I’d like to be remembered: didn’t leave anybody behind.”
Initially, Kasich called for a repeal of Obamacare but in 2014, he made a successful push to expand Ohio Medicaid — a key component of the Affordable Care Act — to cover low-income, childless adults.
Nearly 700,000 additional Ohioans signed up, though over the course of four years it has covered 1.2 million additional people at one time or another. Expanded Medicaid drove down the uninsured rate, helped pay for drug treatment, and reduced the use of high-cost emergency room care. The federal government picked up most of the multi-billion dollar tab.
In his first term in office, Kasich also addressed the opioid addiction crisis by shutting down pill mills and taking action against doctors who overprescribed powerful pain killers. He beefed up the state database that tracks prescriptions, re-wrote rules on how much opiate medication can be prescribed and made it easier to get naloxone, an emergency drug administered to reverse an opiate overdose.
Fatal overdoses attributed to prescription opiates fell but the deaths attributed to illicit drug overdoses continued to ramp up.
In total, 4,854 Ohioans died of accidental drug overdoses in 2017, a 20 percent increase over 2016. In 2011, the year Kasich became governor, there were 1,772 fatal drug overdoses.
An early setback started a change in style
Kasich’s style as governor was often brash and combative.
Early in his tenure in 2011, he embraced Senate Bill 5, legislation that sought to gut collective bargaining rights for 715,000 police, teachers, firefighters, prison guards and other government workers. Kasich signed it into law in March 2011 but labor leaders put it up for a referendum on the ballot that November.
More than six in 10 Ohio voters sided with workers, delivering a huge defeat to Kasich and his fellow Republicans.
That same year, Kasich privatized operations in some state prisons: selling one facility, turning over management of another prison to a private contractor. In 2013, the Kasich administration outsourced prison food operations.
He also privatized Ohio’s economic development efforts by creating non-profit JobsOhio in 2011 and naming his long-time friend Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist, as its first leader. The organization does not abide by the same open government laws that would be applied to a state agency.
Kasich also picked fights with local governments when he slashed state money that flowed to cities, counties and other local jurisdictions — cuts he employed to help balance the state budget and allow state leaders to cut taxes.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat who ran for governor earlier this year, said the funding cuts led to more inequities across Ohio: communities that could afford to raise local taxes did, those that couldn’t, didn’t.
Whaley gives Kasich credit for expanding Medicaid coverage, but that’s it.
“What I like to say about John Kasich is he did one thing right and 99 things wrong. The one thing right was Medicaid expansion,” she said.
On social issues, Kasich signed more than a dozen abortion restriction bills into law, which led to the closure of half of the abortion clinics across the state; he commuted the death sentences for five men but gave the green light to execute 14 inmates; and signed bills that expanded gun rights, including one that gave CCW permit holders the right to carry weapons in bars and restaurants.
After the death of 17 high school students and educators in Parkland, Florida in February, Kasich pivoted on gun control, calling for “reasonable” restrictions such as a red flag bill. Red flag laws allow police and or family members to seek a court order to seize firearms from a loved one who appears to be a danger to themselves or others.
It put him out of step with GOP legislative leaders in the Ohio General Assembly, who sent him another gun rights bill and put the red flag bill on ice. As much as Kasich told reporters he wanted to sign gun control bills, the governor didn’t hold substantive talks with legislative leaders on the matter.
In December, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said “I haven’t spoken to the governor about firearms in months.”
Kasich and his fellow Republican lawmakers did find common ground on tax cuts. Together, they eliminated the state estate tax, cut income taxes by 16 percent and got rid of state income taxes for some businesses.
The governor said the tax cuts helped spur Ohio’s economic recovery and the creation of 550,000 new private sector jobs since 2011.
Policy Matters Ohio, a left leaning think tank in Cleveland, said the tax cuts largely benefited the affluent and drained resources from the state to pay for schools, drug treatment, public transit and other services.
Quest to be president
Related: Who is John Kasich?
Kasich made a brief run for president in 1999, following 18 years in Congress and time in the Ohio Senate. But it was short lived. He took a hiatus from political office to work for Lehman Brothers, write books, deliver speeches, host a FoxNews talk show and serve as a presidential fellow at Ohio State University.
In 2010, he jumped back into politics, beating incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland to win the governor’s race. And in 2014, he was re-elected in a landslide against Democrat Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive and former FBI agent. Then, just 11 months after beginning his second term as governor, Kasich began traveling the country, testing the presidential waters and advocating for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
In July 2015, he launched his run for president, jumping into a crowded GOP primary field. Kasich, the son of a mailman, lost the primary to Trump, a reality TV star-real estate developer who appealed to the common man. Since then, Kasich has emerged as a Republican consistently willing to criticize Trump when he sees fit.
There is widespread speculation that Kasich will take on Trump in 2020 — either in a Republican primary or as an independent candidate. When Trump invited rivals to take him on, Kasich’s political advisor John Weaver said in a tweet: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’
Political scientist Devine said in the end, Kasich’s presidential campaigns may be more memorable than the policies he enacted as Ohio governor. While Ohio was the only state Kasich won in the Republican primary in 2016, he cemented a national reputation as a “relatively moderate, bipartisan leader” typecast against Trump’s brand of politics, he said.
“In fact, because of this, Kasich will go down in Ohio history as one of the state’s most memorable and high-profile governors,” Devine said.