Politics & Policy

John Kasich vs. Public Unions

A first-term Ohio governor follows in the footsteps of Scott Walker.

With its Greek-style protests, Wisconsin figures prominently in the war between Republicans and public-sector unions. But another Rust Belt battle is brewing in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich’s collective-bargaining reforms are being challenged at the polls.

Senate Bill 5, the sweeping legislation Kasich spearheaded, faces an uncertain future. A year-long referendum effort by Democrats and labor forces has put the issue on the ballot. On November 8, voters will have final say. “It’s just important for us to win, period,” says Kasich, a first-term Republican.

#ad#Kasich’s reforms, like Gov. Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, have rattled government workers, who for decades have enjoyed cushy retirement and health-care benefits. Senate Bill 5 “is all about fairness,” asking state employees to contribute 10 percent of their salaries toward their guaranteed pensions and pay 15 percent of their health-care costs, Kasich says.

The bill also outlaws public-sector strikes, bans binding arbitration, and gives cities and school boards bargaining flexibility. Schoolteachers will be given merit pay, not guaranteed automatic pay increases. Ohio’s 360,000 government workers, like their peers in Wisconsin, have revolted. Thousands of them stormed the capitol when the legislation was passed by the GOP-controlled legislature in March — a sea of bright union T-shirts.

Those winter rallies were only the beginning. Once Kasich signed the bill, progressives pounced. Activists canvassed the state, petitioning for repeal. We Are Ohio, a potpourri of lefty-types, led the months-long campaign. According to state law, if 230,000 signatures were collected and certified by the secretary of state, a referendum would be triggered. By mid-July, over 1.3 million Ohioans had signed. Senate Bill 5 was suspended. And “Issue 2,” a question of whether to keep the legislation, was added to the ballot.

Senate Bill 5’s midsummer stall was a blow to Kasich. His approval rating at the time, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, sunk to 35 percent. Still, Kasich was buoyed that same month by the passage of his budget, which closed the state’s $8 billion budget gap without raising taxes. But Kasich knew that beyond the budget, his entire economic agenda remained jeopardized by “Issue 2.”And with Quinnipiac’s July survey showing 56 percent of Ohioans favoring repeal, disaster loomed.

A month later, Kasich threw a curveball to the unions, which have long portrayed him as the bogeyman of Ohio politics. In a press conference at the capitol, he softened his approach and invited union leaders to “come to the table” and “talk” about potential “ways to reach an agreement.” Sensing Kasich’s political vulnerability, union brass ignored the offer, telling Republicans almost immediately that full repeal of Senate Bill 5 would be a prerequisite to any negotiations. Kasich, undeterred, decided to make his case across the state.

If voters toss Kasich’s legislation, the consequences will be more than political. Kasich’s budget includes major cuts, from education to funds for local municipalities. As he explains it, Senate Bill 5 was not a union-busting bill, but an attempt to give school boards and community officials the ability to adapt their budgets, not only to the recession, but to diminished state dollars. If the bill is repealed, he worries that local officials won’t be well-equipped to deal with the new budget directives from Columbus.

“We want to give local communities the ability to manage their costs,” Kasich says. “We’re a high-tax state. We brought the income tax down. But local communities still have high taxes.” Addressing the fiscal reality early, he says, was his aim. “You can’t wait for somebody else to fix it.” Ohio’s labor policy, his allies point out, was last revamped by Democrats in 1983 and demands an update.

As he makes his case for Senate Bill 5 at town-hall meetings, Kasich reiterates this point, telling Ohioans that the legislation is one facet of his growth agenda. Rejecting it, after GOP lawmakers passed it as the keystone of a broader platform, would force businesses to reconsider whether Ohio is a “21st-century state” that’s eager to attract jobs, he says. He emphasizes, over and over, that if local governments are unable to craft conservative budgets, jobs will be lost as officials cut personnel, often recent hires, in order to pay for bank-breaking public pensions.

#page#“I’m not interested in scoring political points,” Kasich says. “I’m interested in creating an environment where Ohio can be strong again, where we can have a great economy. I’m not interested in the political. That’s of no interest to me. We don’t even think about it in this office. It’s all about jobs — who knows how to create them and how are you going to do it?”

In recent weeks, however, the debate has become increasingly heated. Firefighters and police officers, who were exempted from Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin reforms, are at the center of the Ohio debate. The unions are highlighting this in their campaign, casting Kasich as an enemy of public safety. In one commercial, an elderly woman whose daughter was saved from a burning house warns — after a montage of flames — that “fewer firefighters could mean the difference between life and death.”

#ad#As Election Day nears, union bosses are ratcheting up the rhetoric. Even the White House has weighed in, sending Vice President Joe Biden to rally AFL-CIO members at a Labor Day event in Cincinnati. In a visit to Toledo last week, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., the national president of the Teamsters, also told public employees to fight on. “Do you know there’s a war? You know there’s a war because they declared war on us,” he said, as firemen, decked in heavy equipment, chanted “No on 2! No on 2!”

Hoffa’s stop in northwest Ohio came days after Kasich spoke in the Glass City, where he gave a low-key address, confident but lacking his usual fiery tone. Kasich, the son of a mail-carrier who grew up in blue-collar western Pennsylvania, defended Senate Bill 5 alongside Toledo mayor Michael Bell, a former firefighter. “I believe in unions,” he said, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “I am not out in any way shape or form, to go after and target anybody.”

Of course, Kasich, who for nine congressional terms was known as a sharp-elbowed legislator, doesn’t mind responding to the Democrats’ charges. And for the most demonized man in Ohio politics, fighting back against finger-wagging grandmothers and union heavies appears to be working. A September Quinnipiac poll hints that Kasich’s eleventh-hour barnstorming has lifted his popularity and the survival chances for Senate Bill 5.

Kasich’s personal approval rating has climbed five points since August, and support for repeal has dropped by five points. “The governor still has more than three years left until he faces the voters again and his numbers are moving in the right direction,” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. “But SB 5 is another story. Support for repealing the bill in the November referendum has dropped from a 24-point to a 13-point margin.” As the clock ticks, “public opinion appears to be moving in their direction.”

Conservative groups are helping Kasich fight back. The Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity; the Ohio Chamber of Commerce; Building a Better Ohio, a business-friendly outfit; and the Republican Governors Association have contributed staff, dollars, and television ads. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate, has stumped for Kasich and Issue 2 in small Ohio towns. FreedomWorks, a group with tea-party ties, is active on the ground.

Issue 3, the question below Issue 2, may also help Kasich combat high labor turnout in what is expected to be an otherwise low-turnout election — not one elected official will be on the ballot. Whereas Democrats may be enthused about voting down Issue 2 and knocking Kasich, Issue 3 gives Republicans an incentive to come to the polls beyond defending Kasich’s reforms. It asks voters whether Ohio should ban health-insurance mandates, a key component of President Obama’s health-care plan.

Indeed, Ohio conservatives see an opportunity to beat the unions and the president, if they can match the unions’ turnout — a tall order. Keeping Senate Bill 5 on the books would shake up state politics, spooking the unions and serving as an introductory chapter in the run-up to the 2012 election. With Ohio, as always, a key swing state, both parties are eyeing the Buckeye State brawl with interest. President Obama won here in 2008, but after Kasich and Republicans swept state races last year, Republicans are hopeful. “I think [Ohio] is going to be front and center,” Kasich says. “At the end of the day, it always comes back to Ohio, doesn’t it?”

Kasich, for his part, is cautiously optimistic. If he can spend the next three weeks talking up the fiscal benefits of Senate Bill 5, he believes Issue 2 will gain support. Yet the unions, to no one’s surprise, are not letting up. They’re blanketing local television with anti-Kasich messages and urging every state worker to enter the fray. Near the end of our chat, when I wonder aloud whether Kasich feels “under siege,” he chuckles at the thought. “Am I under siege? I don’t feel under siege,” he says. “I’m not in a bunker or anything.”

“But you know, I don’t think I ever have [felt under siege] in my life,” he says. “Do I think we can win? Well, here’s the thing: The more people understand the simple message, the better we do. What the other side tries to do is confuse the issue. We have a positive thing on our side, the facts, but you have to get the facts out there, overcome the emotion out there which is not accurate.” If he can do that, even as Big Labor rallies, he likes his chances.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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