Major Backlash at Right-Wing Ohio Governor Has Him Scrambling for “Compromise” With Progressives

Kasich, elected in 2010 with just 49 percent of the vote, pushed through an attack on public workers similar to the one Wisconsin's Scott Walker championed. Senate Bill 5 (SB5) was passed and signed into law in March, and eliminated most collective bargaining for state workers, as well as increased the amount of money they had to pay for their pensions and made it harder for unions to collect dues.

It turns out that wholesale attacks on workers' rights aren't nearly as popular in a rough economy as conservative governors thought.

The latest one to realize he's overstepped his bounds and offer “compromise”? Ohio governor John Kasich.

It spawned mass protests that might have been overshadowed in the public imagination by the sheer size of the Madison resistance. But progressives sat up and took notice when Ohio activists, led by the coalition group We Are Ohio, collected 1.3 million signatures on a petition to allow Ohioans to vote on the bill themselves, putting it on the ballot in November's election. Ohio's “Citizen Veto”is an unusual law; it gave activists 90 days to collect a minimum of 231,149 signatures to stop the bill going into effect until the voters have a chance to decide. The results were so outstanding—more than five times the required number of signatures—that the group and 6,000 supporters held a parade through the city of Columbus to deliver the signatures to the secretary of state's office.

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With all the momentum on the side of the workers, and with his poll numbers swiftly dropping, Kasich has decided it's time to compromise. “It's really hypocritical of the guy,” Ohio State Representative Mike Foley, D-Cleveland, told me, “He's the one who said 'If you’re not on the bus, we’ll run over you with the bus,' and now he says 'I believe in talking.' Well, he doesn't believe in talking at all, he believes in my way or the highway.”

Now that it looks like labor and progressive groups might be in charge of the bus, Kasich sent a letter to We Are Ohio Wednesday and held a press conference, calling for union leaders and others opposed to the bill to meet him Friday to discuss compromise. The group formally rejected any deal with the governor, refusing to meet with him until the bill has been repealed. August 30 would be the last day that such a move, which would require calling the legislature back into session, would be possible before the deadline to pull the issue from the ballot.

Blogger Joseph at Plunderbund described the scene Friday:

“Kasich’s people set up big tables with name cards as though they were seriously ready for a meeting with union leaders that had been planned for months. Kasich knew the unions weren’t going to show up. The whole event was nothing but a big theater production and everyone, including the press, knew this going in.

Still, the press did show up and, to be fair, they asked some good questions. Marc Kovac has videos of the whole thing up at Ohio Capital Blog. But I wanted to focus on one thing Kasich said in particular.

As soon as he gets the mic, Kasich says of the unions 'I think frankly that they are pretty divided.'

Which is pretty damn funny considering he was talking a table full of empty chairs.”

The recent vote in Wisconsin may have had something to do with Kasich's change of heart—voters recalled two Republican state senators who supported Walker's union-busting, while all the Democrats easily kept their seats—but Foley stresses the internal issues in Ohio that are putting pressure on Kasich.

“I don't think there's a base of support” for SB5, he said. “When we were doing hearings, there were rumors that the Tea Party was going to come out en masse to support this bill, but you'd get seven people in funny hats.”

Outside money is expected to pour into Ohio ahead of the vote, as it did in Wisconsin, but its impact isn't being felt quite yet. There are several reasons why a referendum might work out very differently than the recall elections. The referendum will overturn SB5, but Kasich and his cronies will still be in power—Ohio doesn't allow for similar recalls, and Foley noted that there are few important positions up for a vote in November 2011.

But the referendum is statewide, and support for repeal is too—the petition contained verified signatures from all 88 counties. Rather than trying to beat Republicans in red districts (all of the state senators in Wisconsin who were eligible for recall in 2011 had been elected before the Republican sweep of 2010, meaning that most of them were able to hold their seats in 2008 when Obama and Democrats had a wave of success), the ballot measure may be a better test of where public opinion in Ohio is in 2011. Also, the out-of-state cash in Wisconsin came from disparate groups that have little involvement in the organized labor fight, but wanted to keep their conservative buddies in power for other reasons. Right-wing “school choice” organizations and anti-abortion groups are unlikely to dump cash into the SB5 fight, and Foley noted that business support for the measure, though stated, is unenthusiastic at best.

A group calling itself Building a Better Ohio has created a 501(c)4 organization that doesn't have to disclose where it gets its money as it buys ads and influence in favor of SB5. Its spokesman claims he'll voluntarily disclose the information before the deadline for pre-election filings, but there's no law requiring him to do so.

One Kasich supporter who is well-known is Rupert Murdoch; before he took office, Kasich had a weekend show on Fox News, “From the Heartland,” and he's been a frequent guest on the network as a candidate and as governor. Additionally, Murdoch personally donated $10,000 to Kasich's campaign, and Murdoch's News Corp donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association for ads supporting his election. Since Murdoch's recent descent into scandal, Ohio Democrats have called on Kasich to donate Murdoch's money to charity.

We Are Ohio raised $7 million for the fight, lots from national labor unions—AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, Communication Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees all chipped in plenty. But the group says 80 percent of its money comes from small donors—like $10 from the Fremont Sisters of Mercy.

Rumors are flying that Kasich is being asked for money back by some of his big donors. We weren't able to confirm this, but he is being out-fundraised by the attorney general from his own party, who's already got $1.1 million in the bank for a reelection that is a few years away. (Kasich has $230,000.)

Kasich's poll numbers are abysmal—Public Policy Polling has him with only 36 percent approval, worse than any other governor in the country besides Rick Scott in Florida. Foley noted that part of the dive in popularity for these Republican governors is their style. “I think Kasich is a guy who blusters and tries to bully his way through stuff,” he pointed out. “He got punched in the nose by labor and I think he's retracting.”

The ramifications of Kasich's overreach go beyond Ohio state politics. Sherrod Brown, one of the Senate's most progressive members, is up for reelection in 2012 and has survived a drop in support that most Democrats felt in 2010—a recent poll rated him the most popular politician in the state. The loss of Brown in the Senate would be felt across the country by progressives looking for a champion on labor and jobs.

And of course there's the presidential election in 2012, which could very well hinge on Ohio. Foley pointed out that the infrastructure built by We Are Ohio and organized labor has created a solid progressive base in the state that will be there going forward. But the presidential election will also require Democrats to do more than wait for Kasich and his cronies to screw up—if there's no serious action on jobs by 2012, Ohio, which has counties dealing with up to 15 percent unemployment, may be ambivalent at best toward President Obama.

That might be the real benefit of these campaigns—creating a grassroots infrastructure in swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio, bringing together broad coalitions that recognize their common interests, and training new organizers who then have skills and experience for future fights.

That's enough reason, for now, not to give in to Kasich's conciliatory attempts.

“We have 1.3 million people who signed this petition,” Foley said. “How do you compromise when you've got that many people out there who want to overturn this thing?”