Those running for governor in Ohio each have the same message for voters: I can relate to you.
Just check out the polished videos on their YouTube channels. Jim Renacci cruises around on a Harley. Connie Pillich talks patriotism on the streets of Cincinnati. Jon Husted handles guns in his hometown. And Nan Whaley sits on the front porch, talking about seeing everyday struggles.
Voters will ultimately decide which candidate they most relate to — or trust as the state’s CEO — but this newspaper’s examination of the candidates’ financial holdings and investments shows most of them have little in common with the income levels of the vast majority of Ohioans.
Renacci, now in his fourth term in Congress, is a self-made multi-millionaire who owns several companies.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has said he will run for governor but has not officially declared his candidacy, is part owner of three companies that in turn own nearly 1,000 acres of farm land, stocks and a minor league baseball team, The Asheville Tourists. His countryside home and guest house are worth a little over half a million dollars.
Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor’s disclosure form lists 43 businesses owned by her husband, Donzell Taylor, a successful builder. Their house is valued at $483,820.
Husted, the Secretary of State, joked recently that he was the poorest of the four Republicans in the race. He lives in a upscale Columbus suburb in a 2,800-square-foot house worth $449,200.
Each of the likely candidates vying to be Ohio’s 70th governor — four Democrats and four Republicans — has held public office in Ohio, which means they are required to file financial disclosure statements.
The data available now makes it impossible to see an apples to apples comparison on each of the eight because they file different forms with different agencies and at different times.
For example, Renacci, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, one of the Democrats running, have disclosures on file with the U.S. House, but Sutton hasn’t had to file since 2013. Likewise with Democratic candidates Pillich, a former Ohio House member; and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni. The Ohio Joint Legislative Ethics Committee has filings from both, but Schiavoni’s is more current. State officeholders like Husted and DeWine and Dayton Mayor Whaley file their disclosure statements with the Ohio Ethics Commission.
Though imperfect, the data — required to reveal possible conflicts of interest — give a sense of how wealthy the candidates are and the types of investments they have.
Schiavoni reported that in addition to his $91,000 state pay, he earned between $50,000 and $100,000 at his law firm. His investments include a 401k, his public pension fund, college savings for his two children and a stock fund. His house is worth $143,700.
Pillich, who last reported her 2014 finances, received the bulk of her income from her state representative job but also pulled in at least $30,000 from capital gains and rental income. Her portfolio included her public pension fund, college savings for her two children and mutual funds. She and her husband own a house worth $316,860.
Sutton made $155,500 last year as administrator for a federal agency overseeing the St. Lawrence Seaway. Her 2013 financial disclosure filed with the U.S. House showed 22 investments and assets worth up to $645,000 and liabilities of up to $250,000. The county auditor’s website lists her house value at $314,110.
Among the eight candidates, Whaley’s financial profile is the most modest. The Dayton house in the Five Oaks neighborhood that she owns with her husband is worth a little under $64,000, her public salary last year was a little over $45,000 and her investments are limited to her public pension.
Experts are divided on how important it is that voters see themselves in the candidates. Not too many voters saw themselves in President Donald Trump last year and he won the state by nearly nine percentage points. Trump also bucked a 40-year precedent of presidents and presidential nominees by not releasing his tax returns.
“What Trump’s campaign ultimately teaches all future candidates is not to be married to any standard of the past,” said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven, who worked as a speech writer for Democrat Ted Strickland. “For a candidate who is uncomfortable releasing a tax return, I’m sure that’s going to be tremendously empowering.”
Republican campaign strategist Mark Weaver, who supports DeWine for governor, said: “The voters expect candidates to make financial disclosures.” But, he added, “the form of those disclosures is not all that important.”
All but Renacci in the current crop of governor candidates say they will release their tax returns.
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Renacci campaign spokesman James Slepian said the congressman from Wadsworth in northeast Ohio will “release all publicly required financial disclosures as a candidate for governor.” Disclosure of tax returns is not required.
Pillich said if you are going to seek the state’s highest office, the voters deserve to know what’s in your tax filings.
“I do think it’s important,” she said. “People want to know that their public officeholder, their leaders, are straight with them.”
DeWine said he has made a practice of releasing his returns, saying “It’s the right thing to do.”
Trump isn’t the only candidate who didn’t make his tax filings public. In 2010, Ohio Gov. John Kasich allowed reporters to look at but not copy his financial data and he did not release his tax returns in his 2014 re-election bid. Kasich did release returns when running for president last year.
Mark Caleb Smith, a political science professor at Cedarville University, said serious wealth can be off-putting and a liability — both Mitt Romney and George W. Bush were savaged for their elite, wealthy backgrounds.
But, said Smith, it doesn’t always hurt a candidate.
“I think Donald Trump did blow some of these things up. We moved from millionaires to billionaires. He also displayed his wealth overtly and made it part of his sales pitch,” Smith said. “Essentially, (Trump said) ‘if I can make myself successful, I can make the country successful.’ He owned planes, helicopters, office towers, resorts, and seemingly everything else. It did not seem to hurt him with swing voters.”
Niven said rich or poor, there is something to be said for being true to your own story.
“Whatever your situation is, a good campaign will make it an asset,” said Niven. “For the Whaley campaign, run as a genuine person with the absolute, everyday concerns of an Ohioan. Use that in everything you’re doing. For Renacci, run as the embodiment of the American Dream. Don’t hide it. Just say ‘This is everything we believe in. I’ve lived it. I want you to live it too.’”
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