‘Activist’ Kasich getting mixed reviews

Shortly after he was elected governor in November 2010, John Kasich told lobbyists they needed to get on “the bus” now that he was driving it, lest they be run over.

More than two years later, Kasich’s time as Ohio’s bus driver has proven to be a wild ride.

Kasich will look to the past and future in Lima Tuesday when he delivers his third State-of-the-State address, according to his spokesman Rob Nichols.

“The speech is going to be about looking forward,” Nichols said. “Look at the progress we’ve made, but mostly to challenge people that we can’t take the foot off the gas. We have to keep moving forward.”

Supporters and critics alike say the Republican governor has, for better or worse, aggressively pursued his vision for Ohio, taking on more ambitious, bold reforms through his first two years in office than any governor in recent memory.

During his first two years in office, Kasich:

  • Created JobsOhio, a private non-profit economic development arm of the state with plans to fund it with state liquor proceeds;
  • Balanced an estimated $8 billion state budget gap without raising state taxes;
  • Sold one state prison and privatized three others;
  • Expanded taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools;
  • Spun off the state agency that runs Medicaid into a free-standing department;
  • Signed a bipartisan law that reformed criminal sentencing laws, meant to ease crowding in Ohio's prisons.

“From the beginning of his campaign to his first months in office, he’s made it clear that he was going to be an activist governor and pursue a very positive agenda,” said Jim Nathanson, a Dayton-based Republican political consultant. “He’s probably been the most productive governor for the better part of 15 or 20 years.”

Kasich’s penchant for pursuing broad, reforms has continued through his recently-released budget proposal. The hulking 4,200-page, $63 billion plan contains three major reforms — the swap of an income tax cut for higher taxes on services and energy companies; an overhaul of Ohio’s school funding system, which the Ohio Supreme Court found was unconstitutional in 1997; and the expansion of Medicaid eligibility to cover an estimated 450,000 low-income Ohioans. Each proposal on its own would be a major political undertaking.

Supporters like Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett say Kasich is smart and unafraid to take risks. But critics say he is impatient, prone to vilifying his opponents or disregarding differing viewpoints.

His various attributes have been on display in recent weeks, as he kicked off the second half of his four-year term.

Speaking to reporters last month, Kasich called those opposing JobsOhio “nihilists” who want to “wreck Ohio’s economy” and said they will eventually have to “answer to a higher power than me.”

Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said that was a typical Kasich remark.

“John Kasich is an abrasive, mean-spirited, hyper-partisan and divisive leader,” Redfern said. “If you disagree with him, not only will he roll over you with his bus, but he’ll damn you to hell.”

Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Rob Scott, a Kasich supporter, admits the governor doesn’t have the lightest touch.

“I think what Gov. Kasich has brought to Ohio is that he’s up front and honest: this is what we need to do and this is how we get there,” he said. “And he may run over a couple people, but sometimes to get things done, and to do what’s right, you’ve got to do that.”

Not everyone who opposes JobsOhio, or opposes its funding mechanism, is from the opposite party. Both the conservative 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and the liberal ProgressOhio are suing Kasich over his JobsOhio plan. The groups claim Kasich is breaking the law by funding JobsOhio, a private organization exempt from Ohio’s government transparency laws, with taxes on liquor sales.

Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, said Kasich’s methods hurt efforts to find consensus. “You either agree with him, or you’re an enemy,” he said. “And it’s a difficult way of governing.”

Aggressive agenda

Kasich’s first year in office was mired in controversy after he emerged as the unofficial spokesman for Senate Bill 5, a bill to limit public employee unions that was eventually overwhelmingly repealed by voters.

Matt Mayer, a conservative researcher and vocal Kasich critic, said SB5’s failure showed the governor is a bad spokesman for conservative causes. He pointed to the instance in which Kasich was recorded referring to a policeman who pulled him over as an “idiot cop” shortly after he took office.

“He was my congressman growing up. I had huge expectations that he would be more like Scott Walker or Bobby Jindal,” Mayer said, referencing the Republican governors of Wisconsin and Louisiana. “Instead, we’ve gotten policies that don’t make sense for Ohio. We have higher government spending. And we have a combative tone that turns people off.”

Political observers agree SB5 caused lasting damage to Kasich’s popularity. But opposition to Kasich appears to be thawing as signs continue to point to an improving economy.

Kasich regularly cites a 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics fact that showed Ohio’s national ranking for job creation improved from 48th in the country to fourth.

A poll released last December by Quinnipiac University showed Kasich for the first time had a positive job approval rating, with 42 percent of Ohioans approving of the jobs he’s done, compared to 36 percent disapproval. But the same poll showed that 43 percent of Ohioans didn’t think he deserved a second four-year term.

Redfern said that Kasich remains politically vulnerable. His policies have slashed funding for local governments and schools, causing them to turn to local tax hikes to make up the difference, Redfern said.

Kasich also opposed U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to bail out the auto industry, which Redfern said saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in Ohio.

“Most Ohioans know that (former Democratic governor) Ted Strickland wasn’t to blame for a worldwide global recession,” Redfern said. “And most Ohioans understand Kasich doesn’t deserve the credit that he’s trying to take.”

Dan Birdsong, a political scientist at the University of Dayton, said Kasich’s latest budget shows he is trying to put his rancorous first two years behind him, instead governing as a common-sense pragmatist to help him get re-elected in 2014.

“I think they’re trying to frame him as transformative, as innovative, as a person who is a director of change within the state,” Birdsong said.

But Kasich will have to thread the needle of appealing to independent voters while not alienating his conservative base. His plan to expand Medicaid has rankled conservative elements of his party. The Ohio Liberty Coalition, an umbrella organization of Tea Party groups, last week announced it would recruit primary opponents to run against any state legislators who supported expanding Medicaid. Republican Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who ran and lost to Democrat Sherrod in the U.S. Senate race last year, urged Ohio Republican legislators last week to reject Kasich’s plan.

“We’ve been really disappointed (with Kasich’s tenure). Really, really disappointed in what’s come to fruition,” said Chris Littleton, a former director of the Ohio Liberty Coalition who remains involved with the conservative grassroots movement.

Mark Caleb Smith, a political science professor at Cedarville University, said he thinks Kasich has calculated that he can remain in the governor’s office by appealing more to the middle of the political spectrum.

“I think he’s going to use the budget proposal to make the argument to middle-class, middle of the road Ohio,” Smith said. “He’s going to try to move away from the right-wing elements of his party a little bit. He’s going to disappoint his Tea Party folks a little bit…but I think that message has worked well in the past, and I think he knows that’s going to be his path to get re-elected.”