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John Kasich Pushes Contentious Change In Ohio

JULIE CARR SMYTH   07/ 4/11 02:23 PM ET


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s new Republican Gov. John Kasich is a study in contradictions.

He 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. 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.

Indeed, Kasich, appearing Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, said doing “what’s right” trumps any consideration of his political popularity.

“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.

And the former congressman and chairman of the House Budget Committee in the Clinton administration admonished Washington lawmakers to re-evaluate their own motivations.

“I mean, there’s too much posturing. There’s too much thinking about your party, yourself.”

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 said. “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 schoolkids 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 Scott 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, known in Congress for fighting for a balanced budget, 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.

He 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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