In the fall of 1970, John Kasich was a skinny 18-year-old from McKees Rocks near Pittsburgh, who stood out at Ohio State University as a conservative voice and a big fan of President Richard Nixon.
His early record in college, which will likely get picked over if he runs for president, shows Kasich was anxious to make his mark in politics even as a teenager.
At Ohio State, he quickly landed a seat in the student senate and made headlines in The Lantern, the student newspaper, when he scored an invitation from President Nixon to visit him in the Oval Office in December 1970.
“He was very conservative. He was very pro-Nixon and that just wasn’t the norm on campus,” said state Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, who ran against Kasich for Ohio State University Undergraduate Student Government and later became chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “This was during the war in Vietnam and people were getting arrested in mass protests.”
Kasich ran for vice president of Undergraduate Student Government in 1972 but lost to Mike White and his running mate. White later became mayor of Cleveland. Kasich complained that the election was unfair, according to The Lantern accounts.
The following year, though, the battle for control of USG was more pitched and contentious.
Kasich, then a junior, had his sights set on being elected USG president. He skipped candidate debates — much like he opted not to debate his gubernatorial opponent last year — and he scooped up the endorsement from The Lantern, which said: “He may just be the best candidate USG voters have faced in four years.”
But Kasich came in third and Leland finished second behind winners Dennis Sargent and Sharon Farmer.
Again, Kasich protested the election results. He filed a complaint with the university court, threatened a lawsuit, started a recall petition against Sargent and Farmer and promised to set up a watchdog group to keep an eye on USG, according to the student newspaper.
Columbus area attorney Fred Gittes was the law student appointed to represent Kasich in the administrative proceedings.
“When I met him, he felt wronged. He truly did. He was very competitive. He was very aggressive. And I had the impression at the time that he was interested and eventually would be involved in politics,” Gittes said. “And he clearly was willing to fight for what he believed in.”
Gittes said 42 years later, he still sees Kasich as aggressive, competitive and purposeful.
In May 1973, Kasich wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Lantern: “It is now obvious that Dennis Sargent is more concerned with maintaining his position than protecting the honesty and integrity of student government.”
The Lantern quoted Sargent calling Kasich a poor loser and saying “I can’t believe the man could be that sour.”
Sargent, a Republican and retired ag-businessman now living in Indiana, told the Dayton Daily News that Kasich exhibited the same brashness and political acumen back then as he does now.
“Absolutely, the guy is confident in his abilities and he’s aggressive and if he believes he’s the right guy for the job, he goes for it. You can’t fault him for that,” Sargent said.
Before the USG presidential campaign got underway, Kasich asked Sargent to meet with him.
“He proceeded to tell me that I couldn’t win and that he wanted me to drop out of the race. I said, ‘If I’m not going to win, John, then you shouldn’t have to worry about me anyway.’ And he said, ‘Look, if you decide not to run, I’ll give you a prominent spot in my cabinet,’ which I laughed about and said, ‘That’s nice of you but again, if I’m not going to win, don’t worry about me,’ ” Sargent said. “So, anyway, he was a very political person from the get-go is what I’m trying to say with that story.”
Undergraduate Student Government at Ohio’s flagship public university has long been a training ground for future politicos and political operators.
“It’s good training. It teaches you how to talk to people and organize a campaign and use your resources appropriately. Like anything at the university, it’s a training ground,” said Leland, who led the state Democratic party in the late 1990s.
In the early ’70s, USG activists included Kasich and Leland, as well as White, who later was the longest serving mayor of Cleveland. Sargent’s running mate in the 1973 USG election was Sharon Farmer, who became an official White House photographer in 1993 during the Clinton administration. In more recent years, former state lawmaker and auditor candidate John Patrick Carney and state Treasurer Josh Mandel each served as USG president and state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp., ran for the post in 2012 but lost.
Kasich moved on from USG politics to Statehouse politics after graduating OSU in 1974.He worked as a legislative researcher, then as an aide to state Sen. Buz Luken, whose own political career ended in scandal. In 1978, Kasich beat out incumbent Democrat Robert O’Shaughnessy for a seat in the Ohio Senate and four years later he knocked off incumbent Democrat Bob Shamansky for a seat in Congress, where he served for 18 years. He took a 10-year break from the political world while he worked as an investment banker for Lehman Brothers, a FoxNews host, a paid speaker, and a fellow at Ohio State University.
Kasich returned to politics in 2010, beating incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland in the tightest race in more than 30 years. Four years later, Kasich won re-election by the biggest landslide in 20 years.
Sargent has watched Kasich’s political career flourish over the decades and thinks back to their campus days.
“I didn’t see him being as successful as he has been, honestly. Why would you? My golly, when you think about it, I’m watching this guy’s career and the only election he has ever lost was to me and I don’t know that I’m that special,” said Sargent.
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