Gov. Mike DeWine’s 2021 to-do list is long and heavy: overhaul Ohio’s foster care system, beef up police training and accountability, protect lakes and rivers, help struggling children and guide the state’s 11.7 million citizens through the backside of a deadly pandemic.
“We got a lot of things we want to get done. Part of it is getting Ohio through this virus and trying to minimize the damage — economic damage, damage to people’s health and to people’s lives. That’s really what the goal is,” DeWine said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.
While most people are ready to say goodbye to 2020, the new year doesn’t magically erase the virus or economic struggles.
“The first few months, we anticipate are going to be tough because of the spread of the virus but the difference is there is hope. People are going to see people starting to get vaccinated,” the Greene County Republican said.
DeWine, who turns 74 on Jan. 5, said he will get vaccinated as soon as it’s his turn. Like most Ohioans, DeWine looks forward to an end to the pandemic and a return to going to baseball games, taking trips and gathering with family.
“It’s family. That’s what we miss,” said DeWine, who welcomed the birth of two new grandchildren — numbers 25 and 26 — in recent weeks.
“It’s raining. There is a storm out there.”
In early February, the DeWine administration will propose a two-year state budget plan to the Ohio General Assembly, which must pass it by June 30 when the current fiscal year ends.
DeWine said he wants to honor commitments he made to fund H2Ohio, a program to protect Lake Erie and other lakes and waterways in Ohio, avoid funding cuts for K-12 schools and continue state money for mental health and wellness programs for K-12 schools.
DeWine said he’ll use the state’s $2.69 billion rainy day fund.
“It’s raining. There is a storm out there,” he said, declining to say if he’ll drain it completely as the Strickland administration did during the last economic downturn. “We also have to understand that the downturn in the economy certainly could be longer than just this year. We just don’t know. We have to be prudent about it.”
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said helping children catch up in school, bringing jobs back and helping rebuild the economy will dominate DeWine’s agenda in 2021.
“There is going to be plenty of work to keep him busy,” she said. “This recovery is going to take a number of years, frankly, and there will be some trial and error in that, too.”
DeWine said he also wants to start implementing recommended reforms for Ohio’s foster care system and see improved police training and accountability measures.
“We’ve got to continue to govern the state and move forward and big picture things that are going to be important when this virus is long-gone,” he said.
After sustained protests over racial justice and police brutality this spring, DeWine, Attorney General Dave Yost and Ohio mayors backed a plan to ban chokeholds, create a law enforcement oversight board, mandate independent investigations of officer-involved shootings and require more training.
DeWine said he’ll work with lawmakers in 2021 to adopt a package that will enable Ohio to “lead the nation” on police reforms.
Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, said the fringe right wing of the GOP has hurt DeWine’s ability to respond to the pandemic and racial justice issues.
“DeWine could be strong enough to stand up to those folks,” Sykes said. “I hope that he finds the ability to get his voice back and stand up to the folks and do the things that are right ... Hopefully, he pushes back and he stands firm in his convictions and his values.”
Leading in a once-in-century pandemic
DeWine has been in office for more than four decades: county prosecutor, state lawmaker, U.S. senator, attorney general, governor. He said he believes his deep experience helped him lead Ohio during the once-in-a-century pandemic.
“He’s done a really good job, frankly. I wouldn’t trade positions with him for anything,” said Lehner, who added that she doesn’t understand those who blame DeWine for the pandemic and economic fallout. “It seems so unfair but I think he has held up with perseverance and real grace.”
Early in the crisis, DeWine acted swiftly to close schools, shut down businesses, preserve precious medical supplies and equipment and prepare Ohioans for the worst.
Credit: Contributed/DeWine office
Credit: Contributed/DeWine office
His daily televised press conferences reached hundreds of thousands of Ohioans and featured a mix of folksy chit-chat about ties and recipes with straight talk about going to war with a deadly virus.
The decisions to shut down large swaths of Ohio put the virus temporarily in check but led to a historic spike in unemployment and put businesses — especially bars and restaurants — at risk of failure.
Rob Scott, former chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, said the governor landed in uncharted territory in 2020.
“Gov. DeWine, his heart is in the right place. He wants to save as many lives of Ohioans as possible,” said Scott, adding that DeWine tried to balance that against economic pain.
DeWine gradually re-opened Ohio and begged Ohioans to wear masks, social distance and avoid crowds. Begging and pleading only got Ohio so far. Caseloads and hospitalizations began rapidly climbing in November, putting pressure on the health care system.
In the first three weeks of December, Ohio averaged 9,919 new cases and 81 deaths each day. Hospitalizations averaged about 5,000 a day.
Despite this, the governor’s sometimes forceful use of public health authority has led to clashes with some state lawmakers in his own party. He vetoed two bills that would have undermined public health officials ability to close businesses and order people to stay home. DeWine was booed at a Trump rally in Dayton in September.
A poll released in September by Baldwin Wallace University found 72% of Ohioans approve of the job DeWine is doing handling the coronavirus crisis, 78% trust him to provide accurate information and 78% agree with the decision to require masks in public.
Some Ohio House members have sought to impeach him and dozens of them refuse to wear a mask. In December, at least five state lawmakers developed COVID-19.
DeWine sidesteps questions that might lead to him publicly criticize President Donald Trump or Ohio lawmakers who don’t share his view of how to manage the pandemic. When asked about an Ohio House member who attended Statehouse meetings after testing positive, DeWine said, “Everybody has got a personal responsibility to protect everyone else around them.”
DeWine pledged to work with the incoming Biden administration on Ohio issues.
“The bills that Congress passed early on in this pandemic made a huge difference. They enabled our economy to stay decent — we have a lot of people hurting, but it would have been a lot, lot worse without those dollars circulating in our economy and without families being able to be helped with that money,” DeWine said.
Feds investigate controversial energy law
This past year was also marked by the biggest public corruption case in Ohio history, but DeWine said he has no reason to believe he is or will become a target of the investigation.
In July, FBI agents arrested then Ohio House speaker Larry Householder, former Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges, political strategist Jeff Longstreth, and lobbyists Juan Cespedes and Neil Clark. Federal prosecutors detailed an alleged corruption scheme that involved funneling more than $60 million in bribes through nonprofit groups controlled by Householder and his team. They’re accused of using the money to position Householder to return as House speaker so he could help pass and defend House Bill 6, a $1.3 billion bailout bill to keep Ohio’s nuclear power plants open, prosecutors said.
Shortly after Cespedes and Longstreth pleaded guilty and Akron-based FirstEnergy fired three top executives, FBI agents executed a search warrant at a home owned by Sam Randazzo, who DeWine appointed to lead the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. FirstEnergy also disclosed that in early 2019 it paid $4 million to end a consulting contract with someone who was subsequently appointed as a state regulator of utilities. Randazzo resigned.
DeWine, who has called for a repeal of HB6, is expected to appoint a new PUCO chairman in the coming weeks.
Struggles to lead his own party on gun reforms, other issues
In the days after the mass shooting in Dayton’s Oregon District in August 2019, angry Ohioans yelled, “Do Something!” at DeWine during a vigil.
Lawmakers largely ignored his proposed gun policy reforms contained in Senate Bill 221. Instead, they took votes on bills to expand access to guns and gun rights.
University of Dayton political scientist Christopher Devine said fellow Republicans pushed back on DeWine’s efforts on gun control, public health and other issues.
“And rather than falling in line with the governor, at least on those issues that the Republican base cares about most, they simply tell DeWine no, or not yet, or we’ll only go this far,” Devine said.
He added: “While the pandemic hopefully will end in 2021, the resistance that DeWine has faced from Republican legislators on this and other issues almost certainly will not. And that must be a particular concern for DeWine, as he tries not only to get reelected but also renominated in 2022 by a party whose Trumpian base often seems more critical of him than the Democratic base, even going so far as to boo and heckle him and his lieutenant governor, Jon Husted, at presidential rallies. In that sense, DeWine’s greatest challenge in 2021 almost certainly will be within his own party, as he tries to keep fellow Republicans in line and even lead them on policy to places that, at least so far, they don’t seem willing to go.”
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