On the eve of the New York primary, the perseverance of Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the seemingly two-way race between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump — and his national reputation as the most moderate of the candidates remaining on the Republican ticket — continue to shock those of us most acquainted with his policies and his unwavering commitment to the worst of conservative dogma.
While he has long been a marginal contender in the sea of Republican candidates to have come and gone this year, his decision to remain in the race seemed vindicated by his victory in his home state primary last month. This victory comes despite Kasich’s attacks on the most vulnerable in Ohio, such as his attempts to bust public unions and defund Planned Parenthood.
With Florida Sen. Marco Rubio out of the race, the narrative of Kasich as the lone remaining holdout for a more compassionate, more moderate Republican Party has taken national stage. In Ohio, Kasich’s policies have been anything but compassionate, and buying into his campaign’s effort to distance his own views and policies from the extremes of the Trump campaign only embolden and legitimize the destruction and inequality he has unleashed.
While his supporters credit him with boosting Ohio’s economy and bringing jobs to the state, he has actually overseen the continued redistribution of wealth from Ohio’s working class to its top earners. He established his commitment to neoliberal economic policy as a U.S. congressman from 1983 to 2001. During this time, he was a leading figure in the gutting of welfare benefits, and he slashed Medicare spending and enacted austerity through the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
After leaving Congress, he was repaid for his efforts with cushy jobs in investment banking, serving as the managing director of Lehman Brothers in Columbus, Ohio, until it filed for bankruptcy as a result of its role in the subprime mortgage crisis that touched off the Great Recession of 2008 and the financial crisis that continues to affect millions of working people.
In many ways, the inequality and hardship Kasich inflicted on Ohio have been part of a continuous commitment to austerity and neglect of the poor that has characterized his political career from his early days in Congress up to the present.
Kasich’s attacks on welfare are a good example of this program of cuts and neglect. The welfare reform bill — written by John Kasich and signed by former President Bill Clinton — has had a devastating impact on the social safety net for workers on hard times, especially in the wake of the 2008 recession.
The bill limited the amount of time that an able-bodied, childless adult could receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to three months within any three-year period, unless they were working 20 hours per week (which would then result in a reduction of benefits due to an increase in income).
The bill was touted as a way to encourage low-wage workers to seek employment, with some benefits offered to employers who would hire on a “welfare-to-work” basis. However, this bill did nothing to address the causes of poverty, including substandard working conditions, excessively low wages, the shift to part-time and on-call labor, and the slashing of benefits for workers. Exemptions are difficult to secure, even if a worker has well documented health issues that prevent her/him from gainful employment. SNAP recipients who are unable to meet the work requirements face sanctions, which can kick in later if they re-apply for benefits after losing a job they held for years.
Kasich was coaxed into adding a section in his welfare reform bill that allowed governors to waive work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries — for the entire state or for specific counties with stubbornly high unemployment. Following the recession, Kasich accepted a statewide waiver until 2013, when he selected a handful of white-majority counties in rural, southeastern Ohio to receive the waiver while denying it to counties with large minority populations.
This decision was not based on unemployment rates, but appears to be linked to the location of John Kasich’s base of support. The result is that low-income, minority workers are forced to seek low-wage jobs in retail, food service and warehouse work in order to meet welfare reform requirements while generating profit for their employers who have no incentive to pay a living wage or provide benefits to employees.
Kasich earned his stripes as a fighter for the 1 Percent and an opponent of working people’s interest from the very outset of his governorship. One of Kasich’s first acts as governor was to introduce public-sector union-busting legislation known locally as Senate Bill 5 (SB5), almost identical to the infamous law enacted by his close friend, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, which prompted the two-week Wisconsin statehouse occupation in 2011, the largest protest in Wisconsin history. And while the brilliant statehouse occupation in Wisconsin deserved the attention it got, the Ohio labor community also organized a mass mobilization to protest Kasich’s version of the bill.
Many outside the state also don’t know that, unlike Wisconsin, Ohio actually succeeded in defeating this right-wing attack on collective bargaining. Rather than attempting an electoral strategy, as Wisconsin tried and failed during its 2012 recall election, Ohioans fought back with a ballot initiative that allowed voters to say directly whether they wanted the law to stand or to be overturned. In November 2011, voters turned out in an off-year election in the highest numbers in decades to vote against Kasich’s bill.
Since the defeat of SB5, however, Kasich has continued to fight for policies through cynical political maneuvering that have devastated working people throughout the state, especially women, African Americans and the poorest Ohioans. That he has done so while gaining a reputation as a moderate and even as a so-called compassionate conservative has added insult to injury.
No other issue highlights the disconnect between Kasich’s reputation and his actual actions better than reproductive rights. Though Donald Trump attracted the ire of fellow conservatives, including the Kasich campaign, when he suggested women who seek abortions after he succeeds in banning it should face punishment, Kasich’s actual policies in Ohio regularly punish women seeking abortion.
On February 22, Kasich signed a bill to effectively strip funding from Planned Parenthood in the state of Ohio. The bill removes state and some federal funding for health clinics that provide “nontherapeutic” (i.e., elective) abortions, gutting $1.3 million in state funding for the largest women’s and sexual health provider in the state. These funds would have been used for HIV testing, cancer screening, and programs designed to prevent domestic violence and infant mortality.
For those who know Kasich’s anti-woman agenda, this came as no surprise. Within two months of becoming governor, Kasich signed a bill that banned late-term abortion after 20 weeks. The ban has limited room for exceptions regarding the health of the mother, but its narrow and ambiguous implications were called “dangerous” by opponents, including NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.
In 2012, Kasich appointed former Ohio Right to Life Executive Director Michael Gonidakisto the state medical board, a position that Gonidakis himself admits that he used specifically to further his anti-choice, anti-woman agenda, including denying transfer agreements from abortion clinics to public hospitals.
This means that abortion clinics must seek transfer agreements from other, privately funded hospitals, which tend to be affiliated with Catholic or other religious orders that do not sanction abortion and typically will not sign the transfer agreement. As of late 2015, more than half of Ohio’s abortion clinics have closed under John Kasich’s tenure as governor.
Cracks in Kasich’s reputation as the compassionate centrist alternative to Trump’s and Cruz’s racism also began to show in the most recent Republican debate, when Kasich was asked about poverty and infant mortality in Black communities in the state. Moderator Chuck Todd pointed out that Cleveland, Ohio, is one of the most segregated cities in the country, that Ohio is the sixth worst state in which to raise a Black child, and that there is a $20,000 income gap between Black and white families.
Kasich claimed to be unfamiliar with these statistics. If the information truly was new to him in that moment, his ignorance of the plight of Black families throughout the state alone should be unforgivable. But what he went on to say about an issue he is familiar with — infant mortality — explained fully why he thinks racial inequality is not an issue that should concern him.
Kasich replied to Todd:
The issue of infant mortality is a tough one. We have taken that on and one of the toughest areas to take that on is in the minority community. And the community itself is going to have to have a better partnership with all of us to begin to solve that problem with infant mortality in the minority community, because we’re making gains in the majority community.
Kasich speaks as though his own policies — as a congressman, as a banker, and then as a governor — have had nothing to do with the very existence of minority communities and white communities. Furthermore, he goes on to blame communities themselves for the skyrocketing rates of infant mortality. It is a cruel form of racism to imply that infant mortality remains high in Ohio cities’ Black neighborhoods because of a lack of cooperation and effort on the part of Black parents.
The obvious explanation that Kasich seeks to mystify must of course begin with the lack of investment in basic infrastructure, devastatingly high unemployment, and the effects of mass incarceration and unchecked police brutality: Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland, John Crawford III near Dayton, and Sam Dubose in Cincinnati.
Kasich’s disinterest in infant mortality is also connected to his agenda to defund health programs offered by Planned Parenthood, which could decrease unplanned pregnancies and domestic violence, two causes of infant mortality, and increase prenatal care, a service that Planned Parenthood is known for providing.
Kasich’s destruction of the public education system in Ohio further shows his disregard for the lives and opportunities of Ohio’s poor and minority communities. Under Gov. Kasich, charter schools have blossomed, even as reports of their corruption and incompetence continue to emerge. Kasich has increased charter school funding by 27 percent, while cutting more than $500 million from Ohio’s public schools. Before Kasich took office in 2011, Ohio ranked fifth in the nation in public education. Today it ranks 23rd.
The Washington Post called Kasich’s record on education “a mess.” Kasich also argued that despite his gutting of public education, it is teachers who are to blame for the problems in Ohio’s schools, threatening to abolish teachers’ lounges to stop them from talking with each other about the problems they face in their classrooms. The major value of the mythical compassionate conservative is a commitment to creating equal opportunities for all, but not equal outcomes.
John Kasich’s destructive history as governor in Ohio has made his primary victory here even more unsettling. Though it makes sense that a candidate would have a clear advantage in the state from which he hails, reports and local conversation indicated that Kasich also managed to attract the support of traditional Democrats. Many previous Democratic voters, enraged by the prospect of Donald Trump’s winning yet another state in the primary, actually switched their party affiliation to vote in the Republican primaryto cast a vote for Kasich.
In a bizarre twist of political fate and a stark turn in statewide political discourse, the man who just four years earlier mobilized the anger of the left throughout the state in unprecedented mobilizations was receiving at least some of their votes.
While it is difficult to say how many previously registered independents or Democrats took this path, it is in many ways a natural consequence of the same anyone-but-Trump logic that is driving many others on the left to fall in line with the Democrats, and to pledge in advance to campaign for them, no matter who gets the nomination or how far right their rhetoric goes during the general election.
This experience in Ohio shows the depths of “lesser-evil” ideology in the U.S., and the way in which it drives rightward public political discourse. The logic of lesser evilism leads people terrified of the specter of a Trump presidency not to build movements more militant than ever, but to approach the rest of the Right, including John Kasich, with more friendliness — as though their job is to champion the less extreme right-winger instead of to fight for a left.
This is and has long been a losing strategy. And for the victims of Kasich’s policies who have been forced to listen to him blame them for their plight even as he is hailed for his moderation, it is an unjust one.