In these days of rancorous political division U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, stands out for his willingness to work across the aisle on legislation, and that has helped make some bills he champions become law whether or not his party holds the majority.
“Being a legislator who focused on results, that’s what I hope the legacy can be. And I tried to do my best to help Ohio,” Portman said. “It’s an honor to get to represent your neighbors and I think there is a duty to serve and that’s what we tried to do.”
Portman, 67, of Cincinnati is retiring from the senate at the end of his term this year, capping a career in government service that began with a job at the White House in 1989. He is also an attorney and co-owner of the Golden Lamb restaurant in Lebanon.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Portman’s personality is what got him “in the room” where deals were made on legislative issues.
“(He’s) not a confrontational person but someone who everyone respected as very knowledgeable and very smart. And those things put together plus a willingness to work hard gets you in the room, will get you in about any room in the U.S. Senate about any issue,” said DeWine, a fellow Republican and former U.S. senator.
“And Rob has all those qualities. That’s the price of entry. That’s what gets you in the room and makes you relevant with whatever the issue is.”
Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack
Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack
Over the years Portman worked with Democrats and Republicans to pass laws such as the newly approved federal recognition for gay and biracial marriages and the CHIPS Act that will boost domestic semiconductor production; the 2021 infrastructure bill; the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 2015 Leveling the Playing Field Act, written by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, which gave U.S. companies tools to fight unfair trade practices.
“It’s been a privilege to work alongside Senator Portman for 12 years. We’ve worked together to find common ground and serve the people of Ohio and the nation,” Brown said. “Together, we secured the strongest Buy America requirements ever and continued Ohio’s bipartisan tradition of identifying the best candidates to serve Ohio as judges, U.S. marshals, and U.S. attorneys.”
“I’m grateful we were able to choose partnership over partisanship, working together closely on issue after issue to deliver for Ohioans — and we’ve been able to get a lot done,” Brown said.
Portman said Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is an example of how that partnership helped the Dayton region and state.
“We’ve always had success figuring out a way through, whether it’s a Republican or Democrat president, whether it’s a Republican- or Democrat-controlled Senate or House,” Portman said. “We have more employees than ever there. We have exciting upgrades to NASIC. We’ve got some of the F-35 program now. So it’s been great.”
“But also on a whole series of issues that are important to the Miami Valley,” Portman added. “Like the opioid crisis and the opportunity to help people with a second chance when they come out of prison or the infrastructure bill. There’s a lot of infrastructure in the Dayton area, including highways and bridges, and the Dayton airport. And the Brent Spence Bridge work will happen, which benefits all of southwest Ohio.”
Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO of the Dayton Development Coalition, called Portman “a steadfast advocate” for the Dayton region.
Credit: Knack Video + Photo
Credit: Knack Video + Photo
“His reputation for collaboration and compromise helped advance measures that addressed drug addiction, tax reform, trade policy and human trafficking,” Hoagland said. “He was a strong supporter of Wright-Patterson, particularly the Air Force Institute of Technology, and he advanced the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.”
Portman was elected to the House of Representatives in 1993, leaving in 2005 to become U.S. Trade Representative and then director of the Office of Budget and Management for President George W. Bush.
Portman was elected to the Senate in 2010, replacing Republican George Voinovich. In January Republican businessman J.D. Vance of Cincinnati will take Portman’s seat after winning election in November, beating U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland Twp.
Portman said he regularly talks to Vance and will be there to see him sworn in in January.
“I’ve talked to him about Wright-Patt. I’ve talked to him about all our military installations. I’ve talked to him about the special ways a federal official can help,” Portman said, citing as an example the successful bipartisan effort to get funding for upgrades at WPAFB’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
Vance said he is grateful for Portman’s counsel and friendship.
“There’s bipartisan agreement that Ohio’s defense sector, especially Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, plays a vital role in supporting our state’s economy and in strengthening America’s national security,” Vance said. “Senator Portman fought tirelessly to defend those priorities and the tens of thousands of jobs these facilities bring to Ohio. l’m eager to continue those efforts as the next U.S. senator for our state.”
Portman worked closely with DeWine and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, on multiple issues including WPAFB, the state’s largest single-site employer.
“The amazing thing about Rob is that no matter what issue was going on in the U.S. Senate he usually had some role in it,” DeWine said.
Turner said Portman was dedicated to serving Ohioans and improving Americans’ livelihoods.
“Senator Portman always worked across the aisle to pass legislation that bolstered our country’s national security, protected Ohio communities and improved job opportunities,” Turner said. “I am grateful to have worked alongside Rob and wish him well as he begins his next chapter.”
Worrying political polarization
As he leaves public service Portman said he is concerned about the country’s political polarization.
“I do worry about the direction of the political rhetoric in our country. It’s important we restore faith in our democratic institutions, both for our own country’s sake and so we can continue to be that beacon of hope and opportunity for the rest of the world. We can rise above the cynicism and the dysfunction,” Portman said in a Dec. 8 farewell speech on the senate floor.
He said in an interview with this newspaper that his proudest accomplishment is that he listened to people, found common ground and “moved the ball forward.” As of early December there were 195 bills that he authored or coauthored during his time in the senate that became law, Portman said.
“Part of it is just trying. Sometimes for people it is easier not to because sometimes you get rewarded in this business, particularly today, for taking a strident position,” Portman said. “Whether it is cable news or online fundraising sometimes it is easier to take a hard position on the right or the left.”
“But it’s not really what you’re hired to do, in my opinion. When people hire you for this job people expect you to deliver for them and their families.”
Portman said it is not as if there is no place for “expressing yourself in a partisan way” and there are constituents who want that. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of getting things done, he said.
Portman shocked his own party in 2013 when he announced his support for gay marriage, saying his change of heart was prompted by his own son coming out as gay. Portman had voted in 1996 for the now overturned Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Portman typically votes with his party, describes himself as “center-right” as far as his political views, and noted that he and Brown essentially “canceled out” each others votes quite a bit.
Portman voted in favor of a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill in 2017. Democrats were united in their opposition, saying it disproportionately benefited wealthy people and corporations, cut federal revenues and helped balloon the federal budget deficit.
Portman also supported then-Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s March 2016 nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court seat after Justice Antonin Scalia died.
Portman agreed with McConnell that the winner of the November 2016 election should get to pick a new justice. Democrats say Portman did not apply the same standard to U.S. Appeals Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation was rushed through the senate and approved just days before then-President Donald Trump faced Democrat Joe Biden on the ballot in 2020.
Portman voted in line with Trump’s positions more than 88% of the time, according to an analysis by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.
“I’m comfortable with the (Trump) tax policy, regulatory policy, trade policy. Where we differ is not on policy so much as style and personality in terms of how you approach public service,” Portman said. “I believe you can be civil, and you can be respectful of the other point of view and work with the other side and get things done.”
Portman twice voted against impeaching Trump, votes Portman said he would not do differently today.
Portman said he thought Trump’s behavior with Ukraine in 2019 was wrong, but not an impeachable offense. He said it was a mistake for the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach Trump after he left office in 2021 and that convicting him in the senate would have further polarized the country.
“I have friends who feel very strongly that it was important to impeach Donald Trump and convict him because they never wanted him to run again,” Portman said. “But that should be the decision of the voters.”
As he looks to the future, Portman said he is looking forward to being home full-time, seeing family and friends and getting back to the Golden Lamb. He’s waiting until he leaves office to decide what work he will do.
“I want to work in the private sector again. I love that. But also want to help on these public policy issues and I need to find the right platform to do that,” Portman said. “The University of Cincinnati and I have been talking about a program there to encourage public service, civility and bipartisanship. I’m excited about that.”
U.S. Senator - 2011-2022
Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget - 2006-2007
U.S. Trade Representative - 2005-2006
Member of U.S. House of Representatives -1993-2005
White House associate counsel and director of legislative affairs -1989-1991
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