VOICES: Ohio Democrats need a farm team

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

Credit: LARRY HAMEL-LAMBERT

caption arrowCaption
Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

Credit: LARRY HAMEL-LAMBERT

Credit: LARRY HAMEL-LAMBERT

If Ohio’s Democrats are to recover even a smidgen of the influence they once had at the Statehouse, they have two tough challenges.

Challenge One is to unseat Republican Gov. Mike DeWine or, more realistically, come as close as an Ohio Democrat can to doing that.

Challenge Two is to elect a statewide executive officer or two as the core of farm team for 2026 and beyond..

The long, slow decline of Ohio Democrats was unimaginable 39 years ago this month, in January 1983. That’s when the only Republican holding a statewide elected office was the late Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Holmes, of suburban Columbus.

On that 1983 day, a Democrat, Richard F. Celeste, was being sworn in as governor. Also sworn in that day: Ohio’s attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer – all Democrats. Democrats also ran the state Senate and Ohio’s House. And six of the Supreme Court’s seven justices were Democrats.

Today, among Ohio’s statewide elected officers are just three Democrats: Supreme Court Justices Jennifer Brunner, Michael P. Donnelly and Melody J. Stewart. The state Senate has been GOP-run since January 1985, the Ohio House for all but two years since January 1995.

What happened? First off, Democrats failed to develop a farm team. Second, in 1994 Democrats fielded union-backed Rob Burch, a Democratic state senator from Tuscarawas County, to challenge the re-election of Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich.

Trouble was, Burch’s disastrous campaign barely drew 25% of the statewide vote. So beleaguered was the Burch campaign that in 1994, Athens County, Appalachian Ohio’s Democratic enclave, voted for a Republican for governor – the last time Athens County has done so. You almost have to wonder if certain Democrats were privately rooting for Voinovich.

One of Democrats’ major 1994 problems was that 20-year House Speaker Vern Riffe, an Appalachian Democrat, was retiring and tired of doing the heavy lifting for Democrats’ tickets.

Moreover, Democrats made a long-term bet that in the end, organized labor would always save Democrats’ bacon, thanks to Senate Bill 133, Ohio’s 1983 collective bargaining law for public employees. which Democrats rammed to passage in a party-line vote. But union membership has steadily declined. In 1990, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 20.9% of employed Ohioans were then union members; by 2020, the percentage had fallen to 13.2%.

Republicans captured Ohio’s state Senate in November 1984; the Ohio Supreme Court in November 1986; Ohio’s governorship in 1990; Ohio’s House, and every statewide elected executive office, in November 1994. Meanwhile, rural and Appalachian Democrats have all but disappeared from the General Assembly – and GOP gerrymandering isn’t the only reason. Another was Democrats’ seeming self-transformation from a shot-and-a-beer crowd to a wine-and-cheese outfit. Upshot: Failure to cultivate new talent and fashion new policy approaches. Until that happens, Democratic wins in Ohio will remain tough – and rare.

VOUCHERS: A group of school districts, including the Columbus schools, filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court last week to overturn Ohio’s EdChoice school voucher law. Vouchers help parents pay for nonpublic schooling if they choose that for their child. (In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Cleveland-specific school voucher program.)

The lawsuit illustrates a seeming paradox: Choosing whether to give birth to a child is often asserted to be a fundamental right. But, absent vouchers, a parent’s right to choose how to educate a child depends on family income. Lawyers can peck and poke lawbooks and previous cases all they want, but isn’t fairness the real issue?

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

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