- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
John Kasich, the mailman’s son who rose to be Ohio governor, is jumping into a crowded Republican field and making a bold, long-shot bid to be President of the United States.
Kasich, who is expected to make the formal announcement on Tuesday at Ohio State University, will pitch himself as the candidate with lengthy federal and state experience, a tell-it-like-it-is leadership style and a long track record of cutting taxes and balancing budgets.
It’s not the first time Kasich has run for the highest office in the land. As a largely-unknown congressman from the Midwest, Kasich ran briefly in 1999 but bowed out once George W. Bush’s momentum and fundraising gained steam in the 2000 election.
Kaisch deferred his presidential dreams for 16 years while he beefed up his political and business resume.
In 2010, Kasich defeated Gov. Ted Strickland by two points in one of the state’s closest elections for governor. Four years later, he had an overwhelming landslide victory over Democrat Ed FitzGerald — winning 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties and more than 63 percent of the vote.
As the governor of Ohio — a swing state no Republican president has ever lost — Kasich is better positioned now than he was in 1999 to raise the necessary hundreds of millions of dollars, garner headlines and interviews from national media outlets and earn invitations to key political venues.
And at 63-years-old, it is a now-or-never moment for Kasich. Waiting four or eight more years would put him in the crosshairs of disadvantages — older and out-of-public office. His two biggest hurdles are name recognition and fundraising. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars to make a run for the White House. President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised and spent a combined $2.6 billion in the 2012 race for the White House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan campaign funding watchdog group.
“I think he is more qualified to run for president than anyone else in the Republican field,” said state Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a Hillary Clinton supporter. And Leland discounted concerns that Kasich will have trouble raising hundreds of millions of dollars. “Money can happen overnight these days. If you’re connected to the right billionaire, you don’t have to do all that (fundraising) work.”
But Leland added: “I always tell people: The three most important things in politics is money and I can’t remember the other two.”
Kasich has lived nearly his entire adult life in the public eye – four years in the Ohio Senate, 18 years in Congress, six years on Fox News, eight years as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers and five years as governor. But his name barely registers among GOP voters in key early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. The Real Clear Politics polling average in June put Kasich at 1.6 percent across the nation and he is lagging at the back of the pack — 13th out of 15 candidates tested.
According to the most recent national polls, the candidates at the top of the field include Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul.
Kasich is averaging nearly the same numbers as Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and others.
A new day for America
Kasich began dipping his toe into the campaign waters late last year when he started traveling to advance the idea of a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
In April, he formed a political action committee, New Day for America, which allows him to accept unlimited but disclosed contributions to fund his quasi-campaign trips across the country. On these trips, Kasich frequently tells the “Ohio Comeback” story in which he stars as the executive who balanced the state budget, cut taxes, served the poor and put the state back on track for prosperity.
On Kasich’s watch, Ohio’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.2 percent in May 2015, down from 9 percent in January 2011 when he first took office. And the state has regained the 352,000 private sector jobs that had been lost during the Great Recession.
Kasich’s job approval rating has swung from a low of 30 percent in March 2011 to 60 percent in June 2015, according to polls by Quinnipiac University.
As governor, Kasich has done the following:
* reduced state employee ranks by 11 percent, in part by privatizing prisons and outsourcing prison cafeteria workers;
* cut taxes by nearly $5 billion, including upcoming reductions;
* increased the state’s rainy day fund from 89 cents to nearly $2 billion;
* revamped the school grading system to issue A through F report cards;
* instituted a third grade reading guarantee to stop social promotion without literacy;
* replaced the state economic development department with a private non-profit agency;
* rebated $2 billion to employers through the state workers’ compensation system;
* expanded Medicaid under Obamacare to cover an additional 500,000 working poor Ohioans.
On the social issues, Kasich has worked – with varying levels of success — to address human trafficking, police-community relations, opiate and heroin addiction, infant mortality, ex-convict re-entry and college affordability.
“Look, I’m going to tell you this: we’re on the move. We’re rising. We’re creating jobs. People are more hopeful. And you know what’s really great? No one is being left out,” Kasich said at his 2015 State of the State speech. “No one. If you’re poor, if you’re sick, if you’re addicted, we want to help you.”
Battles as governor
Kasich’s gubernatorial tenure hasn’t been without its bruising battles. He cut taxes and closed a projected budget deficit in his first term by imposing steep cuts to state aid to local governments and school districts – leaving it to school boards, mayors and other local leaders to figure out how to deliver services and raise money.
And Kasich pushed for Senate Bill 5, legislation that would have gutted collective bargaining rights for more than 715,000 public employees in Ohio. Kasich signed the bill into law in March 2011 but Ohioans blocked it from taking effect in a referendum vote later that year. After 62 percent of Ohioans voted to block Senate Bill 5, Kasich stepped away from battling organized labor.
This year, Kasich has butted heads with Ohio General Assembly leaders who largely tossed aside his tax and school funding plan and re-shaped the state budget bill without major elements of the governor’s proposals. Gone from the budget plan were Kasich’s proposal for a 23 percent across the board income tax cut and hikes in the sales, business and oil and gas taxes.
Still, Kaisch said, Ohio’s fiscal house is in order and unlike previous governors, he didn’t raise taxes.
“I think anywhere you look — mental health, treatment of addictions, helping the working poor, remaining structurally sound, cutting taxes, running surpluses — it’s really, really good,” Kasich said while talking about the 2016-17 state budget bill. “We are in an environment where Ohio is emerging again, represents (a) legacy which is strong, common sense, pro-growth, pro-opportunity, more money into K through 12 education, an effort to direct money to some of the areas that have been hit hard. This is good stuff.
“Now, I guess you can spend your time trying to figure out what did Kasich not get. You know, we push very, very big ideas here and sometimes the victory is to push those ideas and get as much of it done as you can.”
To understand where Kasich is going, it helps to look at where he started.
A kid from McKees Rocks
Kasich grew up in McKees Rocks, a hard-scrabble blue-collar town just outside of Pittsburgh. His parents, John and Anne, both worked for the U.S. Postal Service, raised their three children in the Catholic faith, and instilled a sense in Johnny that he could do anything and be anyone.
His earliest aspirations were to be a Catholic priest or president of the United States, he wrote in his book, Stand for Something.
He moved to Ohio to attend Ohio State University in 1970. Even back then, he was direct, ambitious and brash.
As a freshman, he didn’t like a rule that prohibited students from opening their dormitory windows so he complained up the chain of command until he landed in the office of Novice Fawcett, OSU president. While there, Fawcett mentioned that he would be visiting President Richard Nixon the following day. Kasich asked if he could tag along; Fawcett said no. Kasich asked if Fawcett would hand-carry a letter to Nixon; Fawcett said yes.
In neat cursive on personalized stationary, the 18-year-old Kasich gushed admiration for Nixon and asked for an audience. Nixon agreed. Three weeks later, Kasich stretched a five-minute meeting in to 20 minutes in the Oval office.
But even before this remarkable meeting, Kasich was intent on getting started in politics. On campus, he ran for undergraduate student government and won a Senate seat but lost two campaigns for the top slots.
Kasich graduated in 1974, married Mary Lee Griffith in 1975, and worked in the Statehouse as a researcher and later an aide to state Sen. Buz Luken
Start in politics and family tragedy
Shortly after college, he married Mary Lee Griffith and started his government career, fist as a researcher for the Ohio Legislative Service Commission and later to state Sen. Buz Lukens. Not content to serve on staff, Kasich, then age 26, ran for the Ohio Senate from a Columbus-area district and upset incumbent Democrat Robert O’Shaughnessy.
Griffith and Kasich divorced after five years. Kasich remarried 17 years later to Karen Waldbillig, a public relations executive. The couple have twin teenage daughters, Emma and Reese, who attend high school at a private Christian school.
A horrifying and defining moment in Kasich’s life came in August 1987 when his parents were killed after a drunken driver slammed into their car as they pulled out of a Burger King parking lot. The accident set Kasich on a life of prayer.
Kasich often mentions his deep faith in public and laces it with the public policy agenda he pursues.
He doesn’t hesitate to bring faith and religion to the forefront of governing.
As governor in June 2013 while lobbying state lawmakers to expand Medicaid to serve more poor people, Kasich told reporters about a conversation he had with a legislator: “I said, ‘I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do too. I also know that you’re a person of faith. Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.’”
Kasich headed to Washington, D.C. as a member of Congress at age 31.
By 1989 he landed on the House Budget Committee and – with the backing of Newt Gingrich – got the ranking minority member position and began pushing the mantra of “cut spending first.”
In 1993 and 1994, Kasich teamed up with another Democrat – Tim Penny of Minnesota – to propose a package of spending cuts. The measure went down but it set the stage for Kasich’s budget proposals in 1995-96, which he argues were instrumental to eventually balancing the federal budget. President Bill Clinton signed the Balanced Budget Act in 1997.
“I was one of the chief architects of balancing the budget. First time we did it since man walked on the moon; we haven’t done it since. It can happen again,” Kasich says in his 60-second biographical TV spot running in New Hampshire.
He ended his congressional career after his failed presidential run in 1999.
A straight shooter
His bluntness has earned him a reputation as both a straight shooter and abrasive. Just days after defeating incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland for the governor’s office, Kasich unleashed this comment: “I just want Ohio to be great. Please leave the cynicism and the political maneuvering at the door. Because we need you on the bus and if you’re not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus. And I’m not kidding.”
Two months later, when lecturing 1,200 Ohio EPA employees about the importance of treating the public with respect, Kasich called a police officer an idiot three times. “Have you ever been stopped by a policeman who was an idiot?” he said. “I had this idiot pull me over on 315…He’s an idiot. We just can’t act that way and what people resent are people who are in government who don’t treat the client with respect.”
Dash cam video retained by the Columbus Division of Police shows that the officer acted professionally and courteously when he stopped Kasich.
More recently, Kasich managed to criticize previous Ohio governors in one fell swoop while taking credit for Ohio’s financial health.
“John Gilligan raised taxes, Jim Rhodes raised taxes, Dick Celeste raised taxes, George Voinovich raised taxes, Bob Taft raised taxes, Ted Strickland raised taxes. Why? (They were) not conservative with their (revenue) estimates, not controlling spending, not creating a business friendly environment,” Kasich said at a Statehouse press conference on the state budget.
Early in his first term as governor, Kasich delivered free-form public speeches that rambled, lacked focus and included multiple shout-outs and famous name drops. In the years since, though, Kasich has been more disciplined and now uses extensive notes when delivering major speeches but he still eschews the prompter. Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC said Kasich delivered one of the best speeches during the Republican National Convention in 2012.
On a trip to speak to the Detroit Economic Club, Kasich came across as relaxed, self-deprecating and pragmatic.
“A great leader figures out how to bring people together. My mom used to say to me, ‘Johnny, it’s okay to compromise but don’t compromise your principles.’ I’ve been involved in more negotiations, more compromises, more conclusions to the betterment of what happens in our country when we work together,” Kasich told about 300 Motor City movers and shakers. “We all have to stop the fighting and stop the division and get ourselves into a position where we begin to solve problems with legitimate compromise that makes America stronger.”